TORONTO – There may not have been much love in the room, but it appears the Harper Conservatives are opening diplomatic ties with the provinces and territories over a contentious federal job training program.
Canada’s employment ministers didn’t reach an agreement on the Canada Job Grant when they met Friday in Toronto, but they agreed to keep talking.
While Quebec insists it wants no part of the program, other provinces said they’re seeing more willingness from federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney to listen to their concerns.
It’s the first time the ministers have met in four years — which is progress in itself, said Manitoba’s Theresa Oswald.
“Minister Kenney was here and he knew there wasn’t necessarily love around the room about the Canada Job Grant,” she said.
“But he came, he was open and he used the word ‘flexibility,’ I believe, with sincerity.”
The federal Conservatives want to divert about $300 million — or 60 per cent — of what they currently give the provinces and territories to the Canada Job Grant.
It would provide a grant of $15,000 per worker, with the federal government, provinces and territories and employers each kicking in $5,000.
But the provinces and territories oppose it, saying it won’t give them enough flexibility to direct the money where it’s needed most and could jeopardize existing provincially-run programs that help disadvantaged groups.
They say they’d have to come up with more than $600 million to maintain their current programs as well as match the cost of the Canada Job Grant.
Kenney said the federal government already spends billions of dollars on job and skills training programs for groups that are “under-represented” in the labour force, like aboriginals, youth, the disabled and older Canadians.
The Canada Job Grant could be used to provide training and jobs for some of those workers, he said.
“I hear the provinces in that respect,” Kenney said. “I don’t dismiss their concern, but my response is that there are other ways in which we address precisely those Canadians.”
Kenney said he’s willing to listen to their concerns about shaving $300 million from the existing Labour Market Agreement that expires at the end of March. But he wouldn’t say whether he would budge on the figure.
He said it was a “full and frank” talk that will continue in the coming months.
But Quebec minister Agnes Maltais said there was no progress made at the table.
“We want a renewal of the Labour Market Agreement, the way it is now,” she said in French.
“We’re prepared to revisit the objectives with Mr. Kenney … but the money has to flow to Quebec and Quebec will run the programs.”