One might imagine that Alberta premier Alison Redford and Quebec premier Pauline Marois stole the show at the Council of the Federation meetings in Halifax, NS with their announcement -- even before the meetings had officially commenced -- that they had agreed to put together a working group of officials to examine the possibilities of moving oil from Alberta to eastern and Atlantic Canada. In fact, the announcement underscored what was the dominant theme of this gathering of provincial and territorial leaders: energy.
Although the final communiqué released by the premiers does not even mention the words energy, oil, or bitumen, these were on lips of virtually all the premiers in individual comments to the media, and were the central backdrop to the event. Beyond the new Alberta-Quebec agreement, both Redford and New Brunswick premier David Alward spoke enthusiastically about discussions they and their officials have been engaged in for the last four months with regard to the potential of bringing oil and/or bitumen from Alberta east to the Irving oil refinery in Saint John, NB, one of the largest in the country, and one which is interested in expanding its capacity, increasing its market share, and ensuring its longevity.
Nova Scotia premier Darrell Dexter, the current chair of the Council of the Federation, said, "The strengthening of energy infrastructure in the region is a good thing. Whether it's transmission pipelines or transmission wires. The better integrated we are the better it is for the economy of Atlantic Canada." Manitoba premier Gary Sellinger was full of praise for the Alberta-Quebec initiative saying, "We think this has great potential and are very supportive of it. We are also supportive of all measures … that will provide more energy security in the country. In the case of Manitoba … there are some technologies, such as geothermal, that can make a big difference in shrinking our fuel consumption, our carbon footprint, and our ability to build a strong energy policy and program for the country."
Continuing to sit on the sidelines of the proposal for a national energy strategy (being spearheaded by a working group chaired by Redford, Sellinger, and Newfoundland and Labrador premier Kathy Dunderdale) is British Columbia. At continuing loggerheads with Alberta over environmental and economic issues related to the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal, BC premier Christy Clark reiterated that, "British Columbia is not part of the national energy strategy. If Quebec wants to have a discussion with Alberta, that's a decision for them to make. I don't know how (the National Energy Strategy) can be national if British Columbia is not part of it." She added that, "In British Columbia we've set five conditions for (a pipeline project), and they are firm. Three of them are about making sure that we respect our environmental values -- the world's best spill response on land and at the marine site -- nothing less than that. That's the expectation of British Columbians. We set those five conditions and that's not changing.
Beyond the emphasis on energy, two other issues emerged as strategically important for the premiers: immigration and education.
All the provinces want much greater control of immigration policies and programs in their respective jurisdictions. In the words of Dalton McGuintry, attending the Council of the Federation for the last time before stepping down as premier of Ontario, "We want greater flexibility. We want to become masters of our own destiny when it comes to the immigration file. No one better understands our needs, our capacity to accommodate, and our capacity to develop new Canadians so that they can contribute the fullest. We're saying to the feds, give us some more space; let us run with this."
Sellinger was equally adamant about the importance of controlling immigration from Manitoba's perspective: "We would like to have the same ability as Quebec to run settlement programs, and select our immigrants. Manitoba has a unique economy, which is powered by many small and medium-sized businesses. So the ability to pick our own immigrants and then work closely with this sector to place them is fundamental. It makes a real difference in our ability to achieve success. Over 80 per cent of our people work in the area in which they are trained within a period of six months, we retain over 83 per cent of our newcomers, and over 80 per cent of them are homeowners within five years. We've proven that a really well run immigration program can make a gigantic difference in our economy."
On strengthening learning opportunities, bringing more support to post-secondary education, and in labour market development, the provinces also presented a united front. Sellinger said, "Labour force development, for young people, for newcomers, first nations and aboriginal people across the country, is an important issue. The idea that we have the possibility to open up so many more opportunities for people to enter the labour force, with apprenticeships, and skills training -- that's a very high priority for us in Manitoba. We're looking forward to this meeting producing a skills training agenda that will allow us, not only to grow as an economy, but to provide avenues for young people to participate in that economy."
Dexter, quoting from the premiers' communiqué, added, "Provincial and territorial governments, which have the jurisdiction in training and workforce development, are best placed to design and deliver the active employment services and programs required to meet the needs of their citizens. Labour market agreements will expire in 2014. For this reason, it is urgent that the federal government confirm the renewal of funding allocated for these agreements."
Both of these issues captured what was the central subtext of the meetings, namely to engage the federal government in meaningful dialogue, not only on a one-by-one basis, but collectively. The premiers are clearly still irritated that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has continually rebuffed their invitation to engage in discussions. Rather than directing overt barbs at Harper, as they did during their meetings in July, 2012 in Halifax, they have now adopted a more nuanced approach. They are emphasizing that provincial economies are the engines of economic growth, the provinces have recognized national priorities, and that they want to be active partners in the development of policies that address these.
Speaking for the premiers, Council chair Dexter emphasized that they had, "Set out a framework under which we can collaborate with the federal government in order to sustain progress and economic development. In a recent interview the prime minister indicated that (enhancing skills of all Canadians) was the single most important challenge that was before Canada. We recognize what the prime minister has said are the priorities of the federal government. We want to be part of ensuring that we are able to deliver the kind of education and skills training that are required."
When asked how the premiers could make progress on the agenda laid out in the communiqué when many of the measures intersected with federal responsibilities, and the federal government was not at the table, Dexter responded that, "The fact that these issues intersect with the federal government is exactly the point. We are saying to the federal government that we are recognizing some of the priorities that you have already laid out."
The need for engagement was also underscored by Clark who said, "This meeting is a recognition of the fact that provincial governments drive the national economy; not the other way around. This is the first time that I am aware of that the premiers have gotten together to specifically talk about international economic events and how that's going to effect the people of our country. Coming out of this meeting, one of the things that I hope to see is a resolution from the premiers that we need more control of our provincial economies, particularly with respect to immigration, which is a huge lever that drives our economies."
Whether or not this approach will bring Harper to the Federation table in the future remains to be seen.
A politically significant sidebar was the clear emphasis on the part of all the premiers to welcome Pauline Marois to the Federation table, and to underscore how in this, the first meeting she had attended as the new premier of Quebec, she had played a constructive role. Indeed, Marois herself seemed to want to emphasize that she could be a team player on economic issues. Speaking for the premiers McGuinty said, "The example of the exchange that the premiers of Quebec and Alberta have already had shows you some of the good things that happen when we come together," adding that, "Along with my other colleagues we are now plotting, over time, to turn Madame Marois into a strong federalist. She does not know this yet," a joke that was shared by all -- including Marois.
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