OTTAWA – The federal government has agreed to two key demands from the provinces and territories on its contentious Canada Job Grant that could pave the way for a deal on the national job training program, The Canadian Press has learned.
Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney sent a final counter-proposal to his provincial and territorial counterparts on Friday that addresses the primary obstacles to an agreement.
The offer, obtained by The Canadian Press, states that the federal government “agrees with the main request by provinces and territories in their most recent offer and will allow maximum flexibility in the source of funding for the program.”
That means, essentially, that the provinces and territories can use whatever federal funds they choose to — or their own — in order to participate in the program. They had railed against being forced to use money from so-called labour market agreements, the federal cash they insist successfully provides job training to their most marginalized citizens.
The counter-proposal also reiterates that the provinces are not required to match Ottawa’s contribution to the program.
As well, the provinces now have until July 1 to start delivering the Canada Job Grant, instead of the original April 1 deadline.
“The enclosed revised federal proposal should be considered final,” Kenney writes in his offer.
“I will require a response to the government of Canada’s offer no later than the end of this month. Otherwise, as I have stated previously, the government of Canada will deliver the Canada Job Grant on its own as of April 1, 2014.”
The provinces and territories received the counter-proposal on Friday morning and were still poring over it at midday.
Jean-Thomas Grantham, spokesman for Quebec Employment Minister Agnes Maltais, said his province is still talking to Kenney. Quebec has been among the most vocal critics of the program, saying it wants to be able to opt out.
“There are discussions now,” Grantham said.
“We still have the same stand: either we withdraw from the program with full compensation or we renew the (labour market agreements) purely and simply, with the criteria we had before.”
If a deal is imminent, it would represent a significant feather in Kenney’s cap. The prospects of a deal on the program were bleak just a few months ago, when the provinces were united in their vehement opposition.
But provincial officials conceded that Kenney, known as a Mr. Fix-It in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, was conciliatory and respectful in subsequent negotiations, while he also managed to convince the Conservative government to agree to concessions on the program.
Kenney’s cabinet colleague, Jim Flaherty, took on a decidedly less diplomatic tone last week when he slammed the provinces for complaining about the job grant program.
“Job training in Canada is not provincial tax money, it’s federal tax money,” Flaherty said.
“And it’s not for a provincial government to tell the federal government how to spend federal tax money …. The provincial governments have taxation powers; they can raise their own taxes.”
The Conservatives have been consumed with addressing a skills shortage in the country’s labour force that the Conference Board of Canada has called the biggest barrier to Canadian competitiveness.
The original Canada Job Grant proposal aimed to provide $15,000 per eligible worker, divided equally among Ottawa, the provinces and employers. In the face of the hue and cry from the provinces, Kenney then offered to cover the provincial portion of grant, upping the feds’ share to $10,000.
Ottawa has been pushing employers to participate in training, as they did relatively robustly in the early 1990s. Since then, employer investment in training programs has decreased significantly.
“I encourage all provinces and territories … to make their training programs more employer-driven and more attuned to the realities of local labour markets,” Kenney wrote in his offer.
Connecting Canadians with available jobs — from aging citizens to new immigrants and those with disabilities — while addressing the skills shortage via beefed-up training programs was a key theme of last week’s federal budget.
Among the new tools in the Conservatives’ skills-training arsenal is the Canada Apprentice Loan, an expansion of the Canada Student Loans Program.
The fund will provide apprentices in so-called Red Seal trades with access to more than $100 million in interest-free loans every year to help them pay for their training.