Canada’s premiers gather in St. Andrews, N.B., next week at a particularly fractious and challenging moment in the country’s recent history. They could spend a month together and only scratch the surface of the myriad issues they are facing.
However, with U.S. President Donald Trump on the global trade-war path, U.S. tariffs, and the impact they will have on the Canadian economy, are likely to top the agenda. And when it comes to a response, everything should be on the table, host New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant told me.
That would include some type of Buy Canada program, which would exert pressure on American exporters who, in turn, might let Mr. Trump know that the trade conflict he’s instigated has consequences in his own country.
“I think we need to discuss and consider every option to show the Trump administration that we are going to stick up for the Canadian economy, for Canadian workers,” Mr. Gallant said in an interview. “I think all the provinces and territories will do what they can to encourage a buy local initiative.”
We’ll see how that goes. My guess is that when push comes to shove, the premiers will not endorse anything that might incite the mercurial U.S. leader. No one knows what he might do on the slightest whim. The federal government has taken a stay-calm-and-carry-on approach with the U.S. administration and would likely want the provinces do the same.
But that is merely one issue of many the premiers will likely talk about, either officially or over dinner and cocktails. The need for a national pharmacare program is on the agenda, as well as the need to accelerate our own internal free-trade agreement in light of the U.S. actions. Also, the challenges the provinces are facing in implementing the country’s new cannabis laws will also be a topic of discussion.
The presence of a couple of new premiers will change the dynamic around the table. Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s Doug Ford are both new to the group and unified in their opposition of Ottawa’s carbon tax. Whether that bit of bother gets any formal airtime at the meeting is unknown. But it should.
The fact is the pan-national climate plan endorsed by (most of) the premiers in December, 2016, lies in tatters. Mr. Ford has already gone rogue and killed his province’s cap-and-trade program, which was designed to meet its commitment under the program. Mr. Moe has vowed to fight the carbon tax in court. Mr. Gallant has said he won’t raise taxes on New Brunswick’s gasoline one cent.
In the past, leaders from Quebec, Ontario and Alberta might have had the clout and influence to bring the premiers together around certain issues. Premiers from other provinces would occasionally take a spot in that persuasive ensemble. But today, there does not appear to be a group of these individuals respected enough to lead a consensus around the most difficult issues facing the country.
Ontario, for one, is certainly not going to play that role with Mr. Ford at the controls. Not a chance.
At a time when the country faces so many critical decisions, provincial leaders couldn’t be more divided on the key issues. Mr. Gallant, I know, would not agree with that assumption. He told me that in his experience, premiers pull together when the country is confronted with seemingly intractable difficulties.
But I don’t know how anyone changes B.C. Premier John Horgan’s view of a pipeline through his province. I don’t know how you change Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Mr. Moe’s dim view of the country’s equalization program – which the Atlantic Canada premiers and Quebec think is just peachy, thank you very much.
Of course, provinces have always had deeply entrenched positions on various files that were at odds with one another. However, it seems that in these hyper-partisan times, any hopes for diplomacy, for deal making, is less likely. Bridge building among premiers is becoming a lost art.
That is why none of us should be expecting anything consequential to emerge from next week’s confab in St. Andrew’s beyond, that is, some soothing words about the need to diversify markets in an effort to beat back the impact of U.S. trade actions threatening the livelihood of thousands of Canadians.
But breakthroughs on the thorniest issues? Not a chance.