Dis­cord dis­si­pates, but lit­tle ac­com­plished

The London Free Press - - CANADA - MAURA FOR­REST mfor­[email protected]­media.com

MON­TREAL • 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 non-com­mit­tal, 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 green­house-gas 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.”

PAUL CHIASSON/. THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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.

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