As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers of the provinces and territories gathered today for talks in Montreal, bickering over the meeting's agenda escalated to the point where it threatened to overwhelm the agenda itself.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford's people suggested today he might walk out of the meeting early if his concerns aren't addressed.
"No one should assume the premier of Ontario is prepared to spend his Friday sitting through a series of lectures from federal cabinet ministers," a senior official in Ford's office told CBC News Thursday. "We are considering our options. We hope it doesn't come to that."
The agenda for the meeting — originally intended to be a stock-taking on a range of economic and trade issues, including the recently signed revised North American trade agreement and stalled efforts to reduce internal trade barriers — is now the focus of a dispute that threatens to overshadow policy discussions.
"As it stands right now, the agenda is one we are not happy with," said the official in Ford's office. "And certainly we are leaving our options open to how we respond if the prime minister digs his heels in."
Just before Trudeau and Ford met privately in Montreal this afternoon, both men spoke briefly to gathered journalists. Ford said he was looking forward to face time with the PM so he could voice some of his concerns.
"The tariffs right now, the aluminum and steel tariffs that are hurting our automotive sector, which plays a massive factor in our economy in Ontario, along with the internal trade, internal trade between all the provinces ..." he said. "As a lot of people know, it's easier to trade south of the border than it is between the provinces."
According to federal sources, Ford told Trudeau in their private meeting that Canada should unilaterally remove its tariffs on American goods — imposed as retaliation for the U.S. tariffs — so that the U.S. could follow suit.
The sources also say that Ford asked Trudeau to scrap Bill C-69, the federal government's legislation to revamp the environmental assessment process, but suggested no alternatives.
After the meeting, a spokesperson for Ford told reporters the premier has high hopes for the meeting between Trudeau and the premiers Friday morning.
Why do some provinces oppose a national carbon price? Watch the Power & Politics primer below
"The premier is hopeful that Prime Minister Trudeau is ready to sit down and have a meaningful discussion with his provincial counterparts about important national issues," the spokesperson said.
By Thursday evening, the premiers and Trudeau took in an informal dinner at a Montreal souvlaki restaurant that saw Canada's ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton drop by to say hello.
While he was there, the CBC asked him about the prospect of unilaterally dropping tariffs against the U.S. to which he replied "I wouldn't advise that."
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he did not come to the meeting with the intention of walking out but rather was hoping to have a "collaborative conversation" that he hoped would "come to some solutions."
"We'll be looking for the scrapping of Bill C-69, a bill that will ensure there will be no more pipelines built in Canada, there will be no more industrial development in Canada," he said. "To ensure and allow provinces to enact their own carbon plans rather than have the federal government impose a carbon tax."
Speaking to reporters between events and meetings in Montreal, Trudeau said that he's looking forward to a "productive discussion" with all the premiers, but isn't expecting them to agree on everything.
In the face of tough economic issues, "Canadians expect us to be able to roll up our sleeves and talk constructively," the prime minister said.
'Cut the fluff'
On Tuesday, Moe and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley wrote to Trudeau asking that the "crisis facing the energy industry" be added to the agenda. The Prime Minister's Office told CBC News on Tuesday that the energy crisis would fit in with the planned discussion.
Provincial officials told CBC News Wednesday that they want Trudeau and his ministers to listen to their priorities. The draft agenda that was circulated, said one provincial official, "had the prime minister fitting in a train of his cabinet ministers to lecture the premiers on the topics of his choosing."
"We don't need federal ministers to explain to us what they've already done," Notley told reporters before leaving for Montreal Thursday. "Nor do we need to be spending time talking about apple vodka labels," she added — a direct shot at a federal move to harmonize vodka labelling touted in Finance Minister Bill Morneau's fall economic statement.
"We actually need to talk about things that are actually going to keep people employed in this country, and grow economic prosperity," she said.
Notley called on other premiers to deal with these issues "in a mature, thoughtful and informed way. So that means that we cut the fluff and we change the agenda."
The Alberta premier declined to comment specifically on Ford's threat to walk out. "What we're going to do is take every opportunity to raise the profile of this issue in the most effective way possible," she said.
In an interview with CBC News, Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod said it's important for premiers to stay in the room and work together as a group.
In an interview Wednesday, Moe said he didn't intend to leave the Montreal meeting early, despite his concerns over whether the agenda addresses issues that matter to his government.
Separately Wednesday, Quebec Premier François Legault said he wants the discussion Friday to focus on American tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum products and compensation for dairy farmers hurt by the revised NAFTA deal. In a statement, Legault said he'd also be raising Quebec's demand for more compensation to cover the cost of irregular asylum seekers.
Before leaving for the talks Thursday, Legault told reporters that "there's no social acceptability for oil in Quebec," suggesting that he wants to talk about selling other provinces hydroelectricity instead.
Premiers requested meeting
The task of managing the federal relationship with the premiers falls to Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, who gave a speech in Montreal Thursday listing off reasons interprovincial trade barriers should come down.
Ford's behaviour is not "particularly productive," he told reporters after the speech, pointing out that the premiers would be talking about things of interest to Ontario, such as the looming layoffs at the General Motors plant in Oshawa.
"If I was worried about my job in a particular sector of the economy in Ontario, I'd want to see my premier participating constructively in those discussions with other premiers, and that's certainly the spirit that the prime minister intends to bring to the conversation," LeBlanc said.
When the Council of the Federation met last July, the premiers as a group — including Ford — asked Trudeau for a first ministers meeting focused on the economy by the end of the year.
Trudeau obliged quickly with a statement inviting the premiers to join him for talks focused on trade and the economy this fall, although the precise date and location for the talks now set for Friday in Montreal took several months to schedule.
The provincial committee tasked with working to reduce interprovincial trade barriers met last month but has yet to show significant progress.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister noted Wednesday that current interprovincial trade barriers impose great costs on Canada's economy, equivalent to a seven per cent tariff on goods that cross provincial borders.
Friday's agenda, as it stands, is supposed to begin with a meeting between all the premiers and Indigenous leaders, followed by talks between the premiers, Trudeau and three members of his cabinet: Morneau, LeBlanc and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who was meeting with her Ontario counterpart Rod Phillips earlier Thursday.
The premiers have said they don't want to hear the ministers make formal presentations. Regarding a session on trade scheduled with Canada's ambassador in Washington, David MacNaughton, the premiers have said they want to talk not only about NAFTA but about other trade irritants, such as the metals tariffs and softwood lumber.
A private working dinner was organized for the prime minister and the premiers for Thursday evening — an opportunity to settle their agenda dispute before things get underway on Friday.