Deal means workers trained in one province will be able to work in any other province without recertification
QUEBEC - As premiers and territorial leaders reached a deal on trade and labour mobility across Canada Thursday, they also expressed worries about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We feel it's very important as provinces and territories to do our share to nurture this relationship (NAFTA) and defend what is the most important trade relationship in the world," Quebec Premier Jean Charest said on behalf of his counterparts.
"There is a shared concern about the future of NAFTA and we feel the federal government needs to be very vigilant in defending NAFTA and making it very clear that if Americans choose to question this trade agreement everything will be on the table," he added.
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has said he might want to renegotiate NAFTA if he is elected to the White House.
Premiers spent the day talking about trade and labour at the Council of the Federation meeting in Quebec City on Thursday.
They inked a deal to remove labour mobility barriers across Canada beginning next year. The agreement means workers trained in one province will be able to do their job in any other province.
"We believe working people and their families want to have a situation where they do not have to go through 13 separate accreditation processes, but rather one accreditation process," Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said at a news conference.
"We believe that a nurse is a nurse, a teacher is a teacher, a welder is a welder," he added.
Charest said it is important for professional qualifications to be recognized across the country as provinces face worker shortages.
"There are serious mobility constraints in about 25 per cent of jobs in Canada, so our task is to smooth away those last difficulties to create the most stimulating market," said Charest, who hosted the meeting.
The provinces expect full labour mobility to be effective on April 1, 2009, but will still have to work out how to harmonize professional credentials between provinces at a future meeting.
And certain professions will be exempted. Provincial labour ministers are to meet at a later date to develop a list of the exempted professions. It could, for instance, include pharmacists, who are allowed to write prescriptions in Alberta -- but not in other provinces.
"We're very pleased with the significant progress we made this morning on labour mobility," said Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. "This is a bold step forward."
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the agreement makes the country more competitive.
"I'm not worried about Alberta and B.C., I'm worried about China, India, the U.S. and Europe," he said. "Also, I've got 100,000 jobs in Ontario that I can't fill."
But labour officials from Canada, who are also meeting in Quebec City this week, don't see any silver lining in this deal.
"This is not the most pressing issue facing Canadians," said Jim Sinclair of the B.C. Federation of Labour.
"They are worried about the fact they can't afford to put gas in their car and where is the premiers' response to that problem?" he added.
The provinces will amend the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) by Jan. 1, 2009. The premiers will harmonize the different provincial requirements for job credentials at their next meeting, in August, 2009.
Also on the trade front, Charest stressed that the premiers fully support the conclusion of a Canada-European transatlantic accord that will be discussed between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and French President Nicolas Sarkozy this fall.
The premiers also pressed the federal government to commit more financial resources to reduce the visa backlog at the Immigration Department in Ottawa. There are currently more than 900,000 pending requests and the provinces want to bring the figure down to 200,000 by 2011.
"It is unacceptable as it is right now," Charest said, adding many of those waiting for a visa to come to Canada are workers.
Also on Thursday, the premiers approved a new mechanism to resolve internal trade disputes that will include an enforcement tool.
The old dispute system is based on the consensus of the parties and contains no binding settlement mechanism or penalties.
"The former mechanism was weak, anemic and without effects," said Charest.
The new formula also provides for penalties of up to $5 million for failure to comply with the terms of the agreement.
The dispute mechanism will be implemented as of Jan. 1, 2009.
Labour federations voiced their own concerns about the new mechanism and said they fear it could open the door for corporations that might want to challenge a province's laws if they are deemed a barrier to trade.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the new policy could open the door to corporations suing all levels of government over actions that hinder trade and profits.
He also expressed doubts that Canada's labour-mobility rules required an overhaul, contending few workers experience obstacles when moving from province to province.
But the premiers stressed this new mechanism isn't a tribunal but a panel made up of a representative of the province complaining and of the default province, as well as a third-party member chosen by both parties.
Edmonton Journal, Page A3, Fri July 18 2008Byline: Marianne White
QUEBEC CITY -- A meeting code-named Quadrant took place 65 years ago in the Chateau Frontenac - the very same hotel the Council of the Federation gab fest is being held this week.
It's the spot where Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt basically cut the D-Day deal to invade Adolf Hitler's Fortress Europe.
The 2008 Preem Fest is not exactly in the same league as that eventful get-together that changed the course of history.
But the premiers managed to unleash a war of words by agreeing in principle to a deal on full labour mobility, including a mechanism for resolving disputes.
Any discussion on inter-provincial trade barriers at similar events was seen by reporters as a sure cure for insomnia.
Now, the thermonuclear rhetoric is coming from leaders of the country's provincial labour organizations, who are holding their own gab fest here. They object to the dispute resolution mechanism.
"It's not in the public interest, it's anti-democratic," complained Alberta Federation of Labour prez Gil McGowan. "Decisions about public policy should be made by elected, accountable officials."
Quebec federation president Michael Arsenault picked up where Gil left off.
"It's the end of democracy if we allow a private tribunal to make the decisions regarding the law of the land," Arsenault snapped.
He warned that Quebec's rock-bottom hydro rates and subsidized daycare could be under threat. Then he demanded the premiers "back off."
Ontario Federation of Labour honcho Wayne Samuelson branded the dirty deal "disgraceful," which puts workers "at the beck and call of the business elite."
"When politicians start talking about free trade," he blasted, "if you are a worker in Ontario, you better duck."
He also complained about a "crisis in the economy" after 45,000 Ontario jobs were lost in the last month.
Meanwhile, a labour press release said the agreement was negotiated in a "culture of secrecy."
Adding to the union guys' overreaction was a letter from Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty and other business booster outfits, which urged the premiers to beef up the agreement with an "effective and enforceable" dispute resolution mechanism "to bring parties into compliance."
The union bosses charged this will "open the door for corporations who might want to challenge a province or municipality's laws and regulations if they are deemed a barrier to trade."
It sounds a whole lot different than the simple labour mobility agreement - where trade tickets and other qualifications are recognized across the country - that the premiers were spinning it to be yesterday.
"The sad part of this issue," Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach shot back, "is there's a fair amount of misinformation."
But the deal clearly has teeth: The tribunal will have the power to impose fines up to $5 million for non-compliance.
"This brings some common sense to labour mobility," Stelmach said. "In Alberta, we're greatly short of people."
But he did admit "there are some details to work out."
It didn't get any better for the Alberta Tories when it was revealed that taxpayers could be stung for up to $6.5 million to pay Calgary Health Region CEO Jack Davis's settlement after the unelected authority was disbanded.
Meanwhile, Stelmach goes into the final showdown over greenhouse gas reduction later today with a poll that shows he's got a majority of Canadians on his side.
And premiers like Ontario's Dalton McGuinty and Quebec's Jean Charest are on the outside looking in when it comes to the dubious carbon-cap-and-trade scheme they want to impose on Canada's energy provinces.
The Innovative Research Group survey found Alberta's plan to capture and store carbon dioxide in rock formations received a "more positive initial response," with 54% of Canadians for it. Only 46% backed the McGuinty/Charest deal, which Stelmach calls a sneaky "wealth transfer."
Churchill and Roosevelt have no fear of being upstaged by these guys.
Edmonton Sun, Fri July 18 2008Byline: Neil Waugh