MONTREAL – Premiers arrived Thursday for a first ministers’ meeting still grumbling about the agenda set by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with one — Ontario’s Doug Ford — threatening to walk out if the program isn’t expanded to reflect a host of provincial priorities.
The tone as they prepared to dine privately with Trudeau on Thursday evening underscored the tensions that seem likely to turn Friday’s meeting into the most acrimonious first ministers’ gathering in years.
Sources close to Ford said he’s prepared to walk away from the meeting if it does not include discussion of the federal carbon tax, which Ontario is challenging in court.
And when he met Trudeau in person at a downtown hotel for a preliminary meeting Thursday, Ford went right at him.
“I’m glad to sit down with you, Justin, and talk about things that matter to the people of Ontario,” he said, as the two sat stiffly in arm chairs several feet apart.
“I’ll tell you what matters to the people of Ontario is the job-killing carbon tax.”
Ontario also wants to talk about finding new jobs for workers affected by General Motors’ plans to close a plant in Oshawa next year and “the illegal border-crossers that are costing our province over $200 million,” Ford said.
Trudeau was generous with Ford, at least overtly, even though federal officials privately expect the premier to do his level best to derail the meeting.
“It’s a pleasure to welcome Doug here to Quebec, to Montreal, my hometown,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to talk about the issues that matter to Ontarians, to Canadians – economic growth, continuing to work hard to create good jobs for the middle class, creating opportunities for everyone.”
Trudeau has said he’ll discuss anything the premiers want to talk about. But that has not quelled the criticism that the written agenda is too narrowly focused on reduction of interprovincial trade barriers and gives too much time to presentations from several federal ministers.
Ford said he was looking forward to Friday’s meeting but, after his tete-a-tete with Trudeau, he refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether walking away from the table is still an option. A spokeswoman for the premier, Ivana Yelich, said, “We remain hopeful the prime minister will see fit to reflect the concerns of his provincial partners.”
Ford later sat down with two of his conservative, anti-carbon tax allies — Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs. All three continued to criticize Trudeau’s agenda.
“We don’t need to be lectured by his ministers, we need to talk about things that matter for people in each of our provinces,” said Ford.
Moe and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley are pushing hard for the oil price crisis to be given prime time during the meeting. On that score, Notley predicted she’ll have plenty of allies in the room.
“There is really no province in the country that doesn’t owe Alberta to some degree for their schools, their hospitals, their roads. The fact of the matter is Alberta has to do well for Canada to do well,” Notley said before leaving Edmonton.
She noted that forecasts for Canada’s economic growth are already more muted because of the low price Alberta is getting for its oil in the United States and its inability to move its product to ports for shipment overseas.
Notley also said she doesn’t want to spend time listening to what the federal government says it is already doing to try to address Alberta’s concerns.
“It just doesn’t make sense … talking about things that have already happened,” she said. “We don’t need federal ministers to explain to us what they’ve already done. We’re all capable of reading their press releases.”
Moe said he also wants to talk about his demand that the feds repeal Bill C-69, legislation to re-write the rules for environmental assessments of energy projects, which is currently stalled in the Senate. Critics, including Moe, maintain the bill would create regulatory hurdles that will scare off investment in energy projects, particularly pipelines.
“Tomorrow will be a test to see if our prime minister is listening to working people across the nation,” he said.
“We have had large job losses in certain industries across this nation and some of that is attributed to some of the federal government’s policies, policies such as carbon taxation, policies like C-69 that have essentially shut down conversation about Energy East (pipeline).”
Higgs said he was pleased to hear “a lot of common interests” among premiers during a conference call earlier this week. “Unfortunately, a lot of those common interests didn’t show up on the agenda.”
“Whether it be the carbon tax, whether it be the pipeline issue and our stranded (oil and gas) assets in Alberta being devalued at 70 per cent, not acceptable,” said Higgs, adding that premiers will insist that Friday’s gathering be “a results driven meeting” on those issues.
Federal officials have privately conceded that little headway is likely to be made on the official objective of the meeting: knocking down barriers to trade between provinces.
— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton and Shawn Jeffords in Toronto