Politics

Trudeau braces for first ministers meeting, shaping up to be the most acrimonious in years

OTTAWA — Wrangling over the agenda doesn’t bode well for
Friday’s first ministers’ meeting, which is shaping up as one
of the most fractious gatherings of Canada’s federal,
provincial and territorial leaders in decades.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is bracing for a barrage of
criticism from premiers upset about the federal approach to
pipelines, carbon taxation, environmental assessments, GM’s
Oshawa plant closure in Ontario and the oil price crisis — none
of which are specifically on the agenda.

Meanwhile, federal officials privately concede little headway
is likely to be made on the official objective of the Montreal
meeting: reducing interprovincial trade barriers.

Indeed, the feds are fully expecting the most openly hostile
premier — Ontario’s Doug Ford — will do his best to derail the
meeting altogether, including potentially storming out of the
gathering or possibly even boycotting it outright. Trudeau is
scheduled to hold a 30-minute bilateral meeting with Ford on
Thursday afternoon.

Doug
Ford, Ontario’s premier, shakes hands with Justin Trudeau,
Canada’s prime minister, right, before a meeting at the Ontario
Legislative Building in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday,
July 5, 2018.
Cole Burston/Bloomberg

Federal suspicions have been stoked by what insiders say are
the hardball games Ford and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe are
playing on the agenda, demanding that it be expanded in writing
to include the oil price crisis and the planned federal tax on
carbon pollution.

According to sources familiar with the dispute, who were not
authorized to speak publicly, the pair have not been satisfied
by the federal response that the agenda already includes a
discussion on economic competitiveness — a broad topic that
Ottawa says will allow premiers to raise all the issues they
please.

Moe confirmed in an interview Wednesday that there is “some
frustration, myself included, with the agenda provided by the
prime minister,” which includes having several federal
ministers address the premiers on their initiatives.

He said he intends to raise the oil price crisis, the carbon
tax, pipelines and repeal of Bill C-69, which re-writes the
rules for environmental assessments of energy projects.

“We’d like it in writing, confirm that we’re going to discuss
those items. But rest assured that the premier of the province
of Saskatchewan will bring those items to the floor
(regardless),” Moe said, adding that he doesn’t intend to leave
the meeting early.

Even the guest list for a pre-meeting dinner hosted by Trudeau
on Thursday evening has become a matter of dispute. The feds
proposed that it be a private affair for first ministers only,
with a single notetaker present. The premiers demanded that
each be allowed to bring one official.

This will be the fourth first ministers’ meeting Trudeau has
hosted since becoming prime minister in 2015. And it’s certain
to be the most acrimonious.

Premier
of Ontario Doug Ford, left, and Premier of Saskatchewan Scott Moe
during a media event in Saskatoon, Thursday, October 4,
2018.
Liam Richards/CP

Since first ministers’ last met, the prime minister has lost
several of his most reliable provincial Liberal allies —
Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, Quebec’s Philippe Couillard and New
Brunswick’s Brian Gallant.

He now faces a phalanx of conservative premiers, four of whom —
Ford, Moe, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister and New Brunswick’s
Blaine Higgs — have joined in court challenges to the federal
carbon pricing plan and one of whom — Ford — has routinely
engaged in conflicts with the federal Liberals in general.

Alberta’s NDP Premier Rachel Notley was initially an ally for
Trudeau, supporting him on carbon pricing. But she parted
company last summer over the failure to get the Trans Mountain
pipeline expansion project off the ground and is now crusading
for federal help to ease the discount price Alberta is obliged
to accept for its oil because it can’t get it to tidewater for
shipment overseas.

She and Moe sent Trudeau a letter this week, asking that the
agenda for the first ministers’ meeting be revised to include
the oil price crisis, which they argued is costing the country
$80 million per day.

And Notley disparaged the federal government’s preferred focus
on interprovincial trade barriers.

Alberta
Premier Rachel Notley at the Alberta Legislature.

Jason Franson /
Canadian Press

“We tend to have conversations about minor internal trade
issues and then when it’s my opportunity to talk, I say, ‘Well,
there’s one big internal trade issue that we have about getting
our product from one province to another and to other markets
and it’s actually worth 100 times the value of these other
issues,”‘ she said Tuesday.

Trudeau said Wednesday that he looks forward to “talking about
anything the premiers want to talk about.”

“I’m looking forward to a broad range of discussions on
whatever it is they have as priorities,” he said on his way
into the House of Commons. “Including oil, of course. Natural
resources are an essential part of our economy. We’re going to
be talking about that as well.”

Notley, Moe and a number of other premiers, including
Newfoundland and Labrador’s Dwight Ball and Nova Scotia’s
Stephen McNeil, also want to talk about Bill C-69, federal
legislation that is currently stalled in the Senate and which
would set more stringent rules for environmental assessments of
energy projects. Critics maintain it will create more red tape
and delays in project approvals that will scare off potential
investors.

“We are looking for clarity around Bill C-69,” Ball said in an
interview, adding that it’s creating uncertainty in his
province’s offshore oil and mining industries.

“We know that the regulatory regime can be an impediment in
attracting investment.”

In a similar vein, Biggs said he wants to talk about reviving
the defunct Energy East pipeline proposal, which TransCanada
abandoned last year, citing regulatory hurdles and changed
circumstances.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, meanwhile, said he wants to
talk about continuing U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and
aluminum and compensation for dairy farmers hurt by the new
NAFTA. In a statement Wednesday, he also said he intends to
raise Quebec’s demand for federal compensation to cover the
cost of the influx of irregular asylum seekers and press Ottawa
on the “excessive and ever longer” time taken to address
Quebec’s files.

Manitoba’s Pallister is among the few premiers who appear to
actually want to make progress on knocking down interprovincial
trade barriers — barriers he said amount to imposing a seven
per cent tariff on goods that cross provincial borders.

“I think it’s time to strike on that,” he said Wednesday.

That said, Pallister too said the meeting needs to be narrowly
focused on a few key economic issues, including the oil price
crisis.

First ministers are to meet for two hours with Indigenous
leaders Friday morning before holing up behind closed doors for
some six hours with Trudeau.

With files from Ryan McKenna in Regina, Holly McKenzie-Sutter
in St. John’s and Steve Lambert in Winnipeg.

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