EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from a meeting Wednesday with a formal commitment to fast-track $700 million in previously committed federal infrastructure money to the struggling province.
“The federal government is committed to fast-track infrastructure investments for Alberta, and indeed all provinces and territories,” Trudeau told reporters in the rotunda of the legislature after the meeting.
“This will help promote jobs and growth where they are needed most.”
Notley, standing beside Trudeau, said talks are continuing on where the money should go and how to get it flowing.
“Today we were able to confirm that the federal government will start pushing it out the door as soon as we are ready to go. We really are talking a matter of weeks to months,” said Notley.
Her government ramped up infrastructure spending in its last budget to catch up on a backlog of projects and help keep the economy moving in difficult times.
Alberta’s bedrock petroleum industry is losing billions of dollars a year as the benchmark price for oil has fallen by two thirds since the middle of 2014.
The plunge has led to almost 20,000 job losses in 2015, the highest such figure in three decades.
Notley’s team will spend $34 billion over the next five years on a range of infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges, 200 new and upgraded schools, a new cancer care centre in Calgary and upgrades to two hospitals in Edmonton.
The spending will come with a heavy price tag if oil stays low. Alberta is on track to run a $6.1-billion deficit this year and will rack up almost $48 billion in debt by the end of the decade.
The federal government has been saying it wants to expedite $13.1 billion in existing national infrastructure cash allocated in 2014-15 by the previous Conservative government, but never spent.
Of that sum, $704 million is earmarked for Alberta.
Before Wednesday, there had been no formal announcement on the fate of those dollars.
Federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi was with Trudeau in Edmonton.
Sohi couldn’t confirm all $700 million would flow.
“It depends on the list and what goes on there and the number of projects,” he said.
Notley said she also pushed Trudeau to make changes to Employment Insurance that will broaden access for laid-off energy workers.
“I asked the prime minister to consider ways to ensure employment rules make access to EI easier for Albertans and to consider the length the benefit is available,” Notley told reporters.
Trudeau didn’t make any commitments around EI, but noted that his party campaigned on easing access to the program in times of need.
It was a rare meeting between a prime minister and an Alberta premier under the legislature dome. The last such meeting was in 2005 with then-prime minister Paul Martin and Ralph Klein, according to Notley’s office.
After meeting with Notley in Edmonton, Trudeau heads to Calgary on Thursday to meet with leaders in the energy industry.
The province’s oil sector is looking for strong signals that Trudeau is serious about helping deliver its commodity to the coasts where it can be shipped to foreign markets.
A key plank in that plan is Energy East, a controversial pipeline that has drawn the ire of many along its route through Eastern Canada.
Trudeau has faced pressure from some, including Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, to advocate for the project rather than playing peacemaker between the different sides.
Trudeau said Wednesday he wants to let the approval process play out through the National Energy Board.
“We agreed that we must get Alberta’s resources to market in responsible, sustainable ways,” Trudeau said.
“This agreement is based on our shared goal of ensuring that there is proper market access for our energy projects.”