Fixing 'ad hoc' infrastructure strategy tops agenda at premiers' meeting
Canada's premiers are preparing to push for more power over a massive building plan in a bid to bring more subways to Toronto, flood relief for Alberta and new roads to help develop reserves of minerals and natural gas in the country's north.
The topic will be at the top of the agenda when the Council of the Federation hunkers down this week in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and could bring an overhaul of the way infrastructure is planned and financed.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, chair of the meeting, contends that the federal government's method of funding such projects is piecemeal and that a comprehensive strategy is needed.
Traditionally, Ottawa has helped pay for infrastructure projects on a case-by-case basis, allowing it to dictate what it will support. Ms. Wynne is proposing that provinces and municipalities have more control, with the federal government disbursing a fixed amount every year while all three levels of government determine priorities. This could include the transit projects that Toronto has needed for years, and roads to mineral deposits in remote regions.
Earlier this year, the federal government announced $53.5-billion will be set aside for infrastructure over the next decade, but it is not yet clear how it will be doled out.
"There's an ad-hoc nature to the way the federal government does it. We need a more predictable year-over-year plan. We need to better understand what each others' concerns are," Ms. Wynne said in an interview at her Queen's Park office. "We're trying to get ahead of economic growth and drive economic growth."
The jam-packed agenda for the three-day sit-down will also include discussions on how to limit the use of pricey diagnostic testing, Senate reform, and the shortage of skilled labour. Several premiers want modifications to the federal Canada Job Grant to allow each province to negotiate a separate deal on skills training.
The provinces will also look for consensus on improving the Canada Pension Plan.
But Ms. Wynne wants infrastructure to dominate. She has an ally in Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who is leading a rebuilding effort after a flood destroyed buildings and damaged roads in her province last month. She is calling for Ottawa's help protecting cities and towns from future disasters.
"We need to ensure the federal government is involved in the conversation and explore the idea of dedicated federal funding for disaster-mitigation," she said in a statement.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is also warm to the discussion.
"We certainly have a lot of work we're doing on that front in terms of tsunami and earthquake prevention," her spokesman, Ben Chin, told The Globe and Mail. "It may be something timely to talk about."
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was more circumspect, saying he would have to see details: "Is there clarity in the objective? Are there outcomes we can achieve, a very specific outcome that is good for the country and good for Canadians?"
The federal government said the process for handing out money in the $53.5-billion infrastructure fund has yet to be worked out. That could leave an opening for the premiers to shape the program.
"This is the largest ... federal infrastructure plan in Canadian history," said Marie-Josée Paquette, spokeswoman for federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel. "Details regarding outstanding program parameters will be announced later this year."
Ms. Wynne said the provinces can get what they want if they present a united front.
"There isn't a province in the country that doesn't have infrastructure issues and isn't dealing with some of the challenges of extreme weather, aging infrastructure and the need for infrastructure investment for economic growth," she said. "The common cause is pretty self-evident."
With reports from Bill Curry and Josh Wingrove in Ottawa