'I am here to look for common ground': Freeland, Kenney meet in Edmonton

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney acknowledged the political divide between their two governments Monday, as the pair met for the first time in their current roles and attempted to find common ground.

Freeland and Kenney were only scheduled to meet for about an hour at the Alberta legislature, but the meeting stretched more than two hours, pushing back a meeting between Freeland and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson.

A significant part of Freeland's portfolio as intergovernmental affairs minister will be to smooth tensions between the federal government and Alberta, which did not elect a single Liberal MP during last month's federal election.

"The premier is right that there are challenges in the relationship," Freeland told reporters before her meeting with Kenney.

"Certainly our government heard from Alberta a strong message in the election and that means we have to listen really hard. That's what I'm here today to do."

Freeland and her government face a vocal critic in Kenney, who has already issued a list of "urgent priorities" he wants the federal government to tackle.

Kenney prefaced the meeting with a nod to Freeland's Peace River, Alta., roots, before highlighting that there are "real tensions in the federation" and "deep challenges in our economy."

"Albertans are looking for a fair deal and I certainly hope that we could get down to some positive conversations about how we could do that," Kenney said.

'It was a good start'

Freeland and Kenney did not take questions from reporters before their statements at the premier's office. However, both emphasized the need to find a mutual understanding between the two governments.

"Very much like the premier, I am here to look for common ground," Freeland said.

After the meeting, Kenney and Freeland agreed the conversation was productive, but would not say whether either government had made any concessions.

"It was a good start," Kenney told reporters.

'Deep frustration'

In an emailed statement, Kenney said at the meeting he "explained the deep frustration Albertans are feeling over federal policies that are failing our province and the urgent need for action to support the Alberta economy."

Kenney said he also repeated his government's call for the federal government to recall Parliament and legislate an end to the CN rail strike, which he said "hurts Albertans and kills jobs and profits of businesses across Canada" every day it continues.

The premier included a list of urgent priorities for the Alberta government, including a "firm guarantee" on completion of the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline by a fixed date; a $1.72 billion equalization "rebate"; the repeal of controversial oil tanker ban Bill C-48; and either the repeal or mitigation of Bill C-69, which changes Canada's environmental assessment process.

"On election night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he has heard our frustration and wants to be there to support us," Kenney's statement continued.

"I appreciate Minister Freeland's willingness to listen and work with us, but the measure of the prime minister's sincerity will be swift action on these urgent issues."

Kenney is looking into pulling Alberta out of the Canada Pension Plan and setting up its own public pension plan. He's also considering establishing a provincial police force and collecting federal taxes on Ottawa's behalf — just as Quebec has done.

Meeting with Edmonton mayor

The mood was considerably lighter during a photo opportunity that preceded Freeland's meeting Monday evening with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson.

"I must say I am a huge booster and fan of Edmonton, and I am a big fan of this city's excellent mayor," Freeland told reporters, noting both she and Iveson went to high school in Edmonton and have many friends in common.

Iveson said this is the first meeting between the two. He congratulated Freeland for her job re-negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and said "it is going to take precisely that sort of skill and acumen, and willing[ness] to stand up for Canada's broader national interest, to get us through some of the complex challenges that lie ahead."

Freeland and Iveson did not take questions from reporters. In a statement to CBC News earlier Monday, Iveson's communications manager said the mayor wanted to "discuss the relationship of the federal government with cities and how we can work together to benefit all."

Federal support for municipal initiatives will likely be even more critical for Edmonton city council following last month's provincial budget. Kenney's United Conservative government called for Edmonton's Municipal Sustainability Initiative to be reduced by $94 million in 2020-21 and $142 million in 2021-22.

The relationship between Iveson and the provincial government also became further strained when Kenney's government introduced Bill 20, which replaces the city charters for Edmonton and Calgary.

Bridging the political divide

Freeland, the former foreign affairs minister, was tapped last week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to serve as his deputy and intergovernmental affairs minister.

Freeland's mission is to overcome regional tensions and find ways for the federal government to respond meaningfully to the demands of the regions.

Craig Ryan/CBC

In last month's federal election, the Liberals won a minority government but were shut out by the Conservatives in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Last week, federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan was in Calgary to meet with Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage. The two met privately to discuss the state of the province's energy sector and the numerous challenges facing the oilpatch.

Savage described the meeting as "a very good start."

While in Edmonton, Freeland is also slated to deliver greetings at an event hosted by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress at 7 p.m. at the Chateau Louis Hotel & Conference Centre.

The event is in honour of the former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko.

Freeland touted Canada's Ukrainian community as a great unifier in a post-election speech earlier this month.

Coming out of a federal election that has divided the country, Freeland suggested that Ukrainian-Canadians not bound by political affiliation can serve as a unifying example for a country that might feel divided.

During that same speech, Freeland also pointed out that she is Alberta-born, although she now represents a downtown Toronto riding.