Canada

A fresh start?

The First Ministers try for partnership

MARY JANIGAN December 15 1997
Canada

A fresh start?

The First Ministers try for partnership

MARY JANIGAN December 15 1997

A fresh start?

The First Ministers try for partnership

MARY JANIGAN

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had

sparred and bantered easily with his fellow First Ministers throughout dinner-and he could not resist the

temptation to tease a departing guest. “I guess you have been here a few times, eh Lucien?” Chrétien asked with a wicked glint in his eyes as Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard walked through the french doors in the Prime Minister’s official residence towards waiting journalists. On the surface, the line—spoken in English and within earshot of Bouchard’s fellow premiers on the eve of the previous First Ministers’ conference in June, 1996—sounded innocuous. But the jest underscored the separatist premier’s dilemma at every federal-provincial encounter: he must attend such meetings to advance his province’s interests—but he cannot highlight his presence or his occa-

sionally tacit co-operation because he does not want to give the impression that the federation is functioning to Quebec’s satisfaction. “The premier said yes—but he didn’t look too comfortable,” recalls a senior official in Chrétien’s office, “After all, he feels he has to walk a tight line.”

That already ambivalent position may become even harder to maintain at this week’s one-day First Ministers’ meeting to discuss social policy. No province has drawn the firm constitutional line in the sand that Bouchard has: Ottawa should withdraw from all social policy initiatives and unconditionally transfer those funds to Quebec. But now, Bouchard’s nine fellow premiers may have painted the Quebec leader into an even

more uncomfortable corner. Temporarily swallowing their huge differences in wealth and attitude towards Ottawa, they have espoused Quebec’s position that the federal power to spend on social programs must be constrained because social policy falls largely within provincial jurisdiction.

They have also prodded Ottawa into significant joint action on a health-care accord, youth unemployment, the disabled and spiralling tuition costs. Ottawa, in turn, although initially hesitant to adopt such an approach, is now trumpeting the fact that the new federal-provincial partnership is devising flexible solutions to grave social woes. “There has never been such a show of good will to make this country work,” Ontario Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dianne Cunningham told Maclean’s. “We have made huge strides in areas that Quebec is extremely interested in.”

This week’s meeting, in fact, represents a significant step in what Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow has called the “80-percent solution” to the national unity problem. According to that approach, constitutional change recognizing Quebec’s distinctiveness will ease only a small—albeit crucial— portion of Quebec’s concerns. Instead, in a series of meetings throughout the past two years, the nine premiers have concluded that the best way to keep Canada together is to prove that the two levels of government can work together as equal partners. And this week’s First Ministers’ conference severely tests that resolution—because it throws together participants with vastly different views of federalism.

Quebec fiercely opposes federal intrusions onto its provincial turf—and it chafed when Ottawa proposed new home care and pharmacare programs last spring. Last

week, at the Parti Québécois’s national council meeting, the rhetoric grew even more heated: Bouchard vowed to call a snap election if the Supreme Court of Canada, in a case initiated by the federal government, rules next year against Quebec’s self-declared

ally. And, he noted pointedly:

“I think that it is the first time in the history of these [First Ministers’] conferences that 100 per cent of the subjects bear on Ottawa’s intention to meddle in our affairs.”

At the other end of the spectrum are Ottawa and the poorer provinces of Atlantic Canada. The federal government is not anxious to set further curbs on its ability to spend— especially when, at a time of dwindling deficits, it expects to have much more cash to de-

vote to social ills. Atlantic premiers, including Newfoundland’s Brian Tobin, are more interested in traditional policy concerns such as expanded federal programs to ease crippling student debt—and increased spending on health care. But although they are understandably wary of calls to limit Ottawa’s power to spend in their cash-strapped

regions, they have tentatively formed a common front with their fellow premiers—if only because they believe that joint approaches to social ills will likely be more effective.

Between those two positions are the leaders of Ontario and the Western provinces— especially Alberta’s Ralph Klein. They remain angry over Ottawa’s unilateral

decision to cut its cash transfers for social programs throughout the 1990s—and its continued imposition of extra burdens on wealthier provinces. They are also highly suspicious of Ottawa’s plans to launch costly new initiatives such as pharmacare because they are afraid that public pressure will force them to cooperate, Ottawa will reap the credit—and then back away when the costs skyrocket, saddling them with huge bills. As a result, they want firm limits on Ottawa’s power to spend—

and firm definitions of federal responsibilities. ‘We are clearly entering a new era in federal-provincial relations,” says Simon Fraser University economist John Richards. “Now there is rhetoric in English similar to what French Quebecers have been saying for much longer.”

Despite these differing views, the premiers—with the exception of Bouchard— and Chrétien are likely to announce the following compromise positions at this week’s meeting:

• Ottawa and the provinces will agree to negotiate a so-called framework agreement on social policy, clarifying the roles and responsibilities of both levels of government. But the framework, which will be produced within the next six months, will likely fall short of many premiers’ demands. A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office told Maclean’s last week that Ottawa will not restrict its spending beyond last year’s promise that there will be no new shared-cost programs in areas of provincial responsibility without the consent of the majority of the provinces. “No more,” he said.

• Ottawa and the provinces will agree to draft a formal accord on health care, spelling out when and how Ottawa can withhold federal funds from the provinces for violations of the Canada Health Act, such as user fees. Although many provinces wanted a voice in that decision, Ottawa will not surrender its control—but it will agree to outline a formal process of notification and discussion.

• Both levels of government will agree to tackle the critical problem of youth unemployment, which is now hovering at more than 16 per cent—almost twice as high as for those who are 25 and over. The First Ministers will agree to define their so-called target risk groups—for example, highschool dropouts—and devise joint programs to help them, possibly through separate accords tailored to each area’s needs.

• At the prodding of many premiers, especially British Columbia’s Glen Clark, the First Ministers will review the progress of joint federal-provincial discussions to tackle student debt—including Chrétien’s promised multibillion-dollar millennium scholarship fund. Detailed programs, including further reforms to the federal student loans legislation, will be announced in the 1998 federal budget.

• The First Ministers will point to their creation of the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which will provide extra funds to low-income working families beginning July 1,1998, as proof that their approach is working. They will also agree to devise a broader national child strategy.

The premiers try to renew federalism

• They will announce that they are close to agreement on a major package of initiatives for the disabled, including the creation of a unified benefit to replace the current jumble of federal and provincial payouts, and more programs to help the disabled find work.

In the face of those wide-ranging initiatives, Quebec is quietly manoeuvring for further advantage. It has joined Ontario’s call for additional reductions in employment insurance premiums. (Employee premiums are already slated to decline from $2.90 to $2.70 on Jan. 1.) It is pushing for the transfer of additional funds for seasonal workers. But that has placed Bouchard in a familiar bind. Faced with real progress in such vital areas as child care, flanked by provincial allies who also want to curb Ottawa’s spending, and on the brink of being a team player during January’s Team Canada trade mission to Latin America, he must be critical of the Canadian federation— while trying to reap its benefits. “You cannot be a buddy on Team Canada and an enemy at the federal-provincial conference,” argues a Quebec government insider. “Reasonableness has to be the perception.” Bouchard will always be the First Minister who didn’t really want to come to dinner— but who samples all the courses.

BRENDA BRANS WELL