Premiers gathering in the GTA to discuss ‘shared priorities’

Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders are gathered at an airport hotel for their first meeting since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were reduced to a minority government in the recent federal election.

With the Trudeau government in a weakened position in the Commons and the Liberals lacking any MPs in Alberta or Saskatchewan and facing an emboldened Bloc Quebecois in Quebec, the premiers smell blood.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who will spearhead Monday’s conference at the Hilton Airport Hotel in Mississauga, emphasized the leaders will concentrate on matters of agreement.

As he arrived at the hotel, Ford told reporters that discussions would be limited to a few “key areas.”

“We’re going to have a real productive meeting today. It sends a clear message to all of Canada … that we may have our differences but we’re united as a country,” the Ontario premier said at the 9:30 a.m. start of the closed-door discussion.

Over the weekend, he took to the pages of the Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, to spell out some of the premiers’ demands for action.

“We must focus on the things we all agree on — job creation, infrastructure and health care. Those shared priorities also happen to be the lion’s share of what the people elected us to do,” the Ontarian wrote.

“There is more common ground to be had than not. Of course, we can’t move forward without first recognizing there are parts of this country that are hurting. Our friends in the West and our friends in the East have real grievances,” he said.

Ford said the premiers would be looking to Ottawa for a “renewed commitment” to health-care funding.

“My fellow premiers and I have asked the federal government to increase the Canada Health Transfer by 5.2 per cent a year, so that patients can receive the care they need and deserve,” he wrote in the Star.

“We need the flexibility to invest those dollars where they’re needed most and respond quickly to growing areas of need.”

But mindful of the political realities in Ontario, Ford is expected to leave any Trudeau bashing to Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe.

That’s because the federal Liberals won 79 of Ontario’s 121 seats in the Oct. 21 election. By comparison, Ford’s Progressive Conservatives took 76 of 124 provincial ridings in the June 2018 Ontario election.

Trudeau’s success in Canada’s most populous province was thanks in part to the Liberals’ effectively linking Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to Ford.

The prime minister actively campaigned against the Ontario premier, warning Scheer would bring to Canada the kind of unpopular budget cuts that the provincial Tories unveiled in last April’s budget.

(That spending plan was so poorly received that Ford demoted treasurer Vic Fedeli 10 weeks later in a massive cabinet shuffle and anointed Rod Phillips as finance minister.)

Scheer’s campaign advisers have privately confided to the Star that Ford’s policies were an albatross for Conservative candidates during the national campaign.

One matter of disagreement among the premiers is Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 21, which outlaws public servants in that province from sporting religious symbols in the workplace.

The grandfathered legislation means any newly hired doctors, nurses, teachers, police, or other civil service employees will be forbidden from wearing the hijab, turbans, yarmulkes or crosses.

Ontario MPPs twice condemned Bill 21 in motions in the legislature last month and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has urged religious Quebecers to consider moving to his province.

“We need people in Manitoba who have bilingual skills. We’re a bilingual province,” Pallister said Monday.

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“Quebec has them. It’s a free country and if people want to come they can come. If they want to stay, they can stay. Quebec is a beautiful province, we all know that, but in our case we have some differences and some advantages,” he said.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who met privately with Ford for dinner on Friday night in Montreal, indicated he was not particularly interested in hearing from other premiers about their views on Bill 21.

Legault said his priority for Monday is “the economy … and getting our money in Ottawa without conditions.”

Robert Benzie

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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