Discord dissipates, but little accomplished
• After days of speculation and predictions of the most acrimonious meeting in years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s fourth annual gathering with all provincial and territorial premiers came off without any major hitches — or major results.
During a press conference Friday evening, Trudeau said the meeting had been an opportunity to discuss “our common priorities, like the need to grow the Canadian economy and to create good, well-paid jobs for the middle class.”
Trudeau had promised during the 2015 election to hold annual first ministers’ meetings, a change from the former Harper government. But with a growing chorus of provincial premiers who oppose the federal government on issues ranging from carbon pricing to support for asylum seekers, it seemed this year’s meeting was likely to feature more discord than in years past.
In the days leading up to the meeting, reports circulated that the premiers were unhappy with the prime minister’s agenda, which focused on trade and didn’t explicitly mention issues of concern to them, including Alberta’s struggling energy sector, federal environmental assessment legislation or the federal carbon tax.
But by the end of the day on Friday, most premiers said the meetings had been “productive,” and seemed to feel their concerns had been heard. They all signed a joint communiqué that said they had “discussed ways to collaborate to help grow the economy.”
Still, there was little tangible progress on any of the provinces’ major concerns, including what Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called a “crisis in the oilpatch.” Last weekend, Notley announced a temporary 8.7 per cent cut in the province’s oil production, an attempt to address discounts in Alberta oil prices caused by a lack of transportation capacity.
“We definitely raised the profile of the issue,” Notley told reporters. “But we don’t have the answer yet. I’ve got to be frank on that.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe emerged from the meeting to say Trudeau had made a commitment to work with the provinces on the regulations for Bill C-69, the Liberal government’s new environmental assessment legislation currently before the Senate. Alberta and Saskatchewan are especially concerned about the bill, and claim it will throw up more barriers for major resource projects.
But Trudeau was noncommittal, saying only that he’s looking forward to the Senate’s work.
Ahead of the meeting, reports suggested that Ontario Premier Doug Ford might walk out in protest, possibly taking other premiers with him. But by Friday morning, provincial officials were making it clear no such plan was in the works, saying it was never his goal to leave.
However, Ford touched off another small skirmish later in the day, when he told reporters Trudeau had changed his expectations on climate action by saying that Ontario should do more than cut its own greenhousegas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, in line with the federal target.
“I’d just like to know where’s the new goalpost? Where is it now?” he said.
But the fight dwindled to nothing almost as soon as it had started, with other premiers saying Trudeau hadn’t changed anything. Federal officials said there was nothing new in Ottawa’s position that the Ford government isn’t doing enough to fight climate change.
“Premier Ford put forward a plan that is a step backwards,” Trudeau said. “Canada’s targets are national targets, even though the premier may wish to play games with numbers. If anyone is moving the goalposts, it’s Premier Ford.”
Quebec Premier François Legault, who is aligned with Trudeau on carbon pricing because of his province’s capand-trade system, seemed in good spirits and cracked jokes with reporters as the meeting came to a close. Asked if it was strange for Quebec to find itself in agreement with the prime minister and watching as other provinces pick fights, Legault laughed: “I sensed there were a lot of people who wanted me in their camp.”
Earlier in the day, Legault had said he would use the meeting to press Trudeau for $300 million to cover the costs of irregular asylum seekers crossing the border into Quebec. The province had previously asked for $146 million to cover last year’s costs, and Legault said the bill is about the same this year. After the meeting, Legault said Trudeau was willing to discuss Quebec’s request.
Even on trade, which Ottawa had highlighted as the main focus of this year’s meeting, there were few signs of progress. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who’d gone into the meeting calling for a “unified commitment” to eliminate interprovincial trade barriers, emerged to report that the provinces had not reached a consensus to end limits on the personal transport of alcohol between provinces, though nine provinces have agreed.
But if the meeting was thin on results, it was equally light on theatrics. Overall, a gathering that seemed on Thursday at risk of being derailed by disgruntled premiers ended with little fanfare on Friday evening. Earlier in the day, P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan had predicted that no premiers would walk out, injecting a little perspective into a day otherwise consumed by political posturing.
“We are not in an existential crisis in this country today,” he said. “We know what the challenges are for our country. … We know what our responsibilities are. And frankly, we know how we can work together and move forward.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the opening session of Friday’s first ministers meeting in Montreal, which did not see a walkout by Doug Ford, despite earlier threats.