Saskatchewan blinks first, lifts ban on Alberta licence plates

On Monday, Alberta Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous confirmed the Saskatchewan government dropped its ban on Alberta licence plates on construction sites.

Dispute would have gone to binding arbitration if Sask. didn't lift ban by Monday

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who is retiring, had said he was standing up for his province's interest and didn't need Alberta's permission to enact a licence plate ban. On Monday, Saskatchewan ended the ban. (CBC)

It looks like the Saskatchewan government has blinked in its licence-plate trade war with Alberta.

On Monday, Alberta Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous confirmed the Saskatchewan government dropped its ban on Alberta licence plates on construction sites. 

Bilous said Premier Brad Wall's government knew they were "off-side on this, that they were going to lose when it came to the tribunal, and so they've done the right thing, in the 11th hour, today being the deadline, to rescind the restriction."

Instituted on Dec. 6, the ban prompted the Alberta government to file a complaint under the New West Partnership, a trade agreement among the four western provinces.

Monday was the last day of the tribunal's 30-day fact-gathering period. If Saskatchewan didn't drop the ban by then, the dispute would have gone to binding arbitration.

Saskatchewan could face a maximum fine of $5 million if it was found to have violated the agreement.

Bonk sends letter to Bilous

In a letter sent to Bilous Monday, Saskatchewan Trade Minister Steven Bonk said the ban "was suspended" as a measure of good faith related to Bilous's comments about the trade complaint launched by Calgary-based Artisan Ales. 

Bonk said Bilous's quote in a recent Canadian Press story made it sound like Alberta will change the beer program if  the appeal upholds an initial decision by the Agreement on Internal Trade. 

We are confident that Alberta will return to the spirit of the New West Partnership when it comes to beer and alcohol pricing should the original panel's decision be upheld.- Saskatchewan Trade Minister Steven Bonk

"Thank you for your commitment to honour the upcoming AlT's Appeal Panel's findings," Bonk wrote. "We are confident that Alberta will return to the spirit of the New West Partnership when it comes to beer and alcohol pricing should the original panel's decision be upheld."

Last July, the three-person panel found the Alberta government violated inter-provincial trade rules with graduated beer mark-ups and a rebate program designed to help the province's small brewers.

Calgary-based Artisan Ales, a company that imports beer from Quebec and outside Canada, laid the complaint, alleging the 2015 graduated mark-up was devastating to its bottom line. The government has appealed the decision. 

Saskatchewan-based Great Western Brewing Company has also taken the Alberta government to court over the mark-up, arguing against the grant program. 

Bonk told reporters in Regina that the resolution was "absolutely" a victory for Saskatchewan as it forced Alberta to acknowledge it would follow the ruling from the AIT. 

He suggested this was always the plan, even though Saskatchewan didn't mention the beer issue when the ban was imposed last month. 

"It should be a surprise for no one as this was in the throne speech that we will retaliate for the measures that Alberta put on beer," he said. 

Mystery complaints 

In December, the Saskatchewan government claimed the ban was in retaliation for Alberta forcing vehicles with Saskatchewan plates to register in Alberta.

Bonk and Highways Minister David Marit said they had heard complaints about the practice from Saskatchewan workers. 

Saskatchewan Trade Minister Steven Bonk informed Alberta about the "suspension" of the license plate ban on Monday. (CBC )

The claims have mystified both the government and construction associations in Alberta, which have denied anyone is forcing Saskatchewan workers to register their vehicles. 

The Saskatchewan government has never provided evidence of its claims. Bonk said people were afraid they would face repercussions if they were named.

Carla Beck, the NDP MLA for Regina Lakeview, shook her head when told about beer being the reason for the dispute. 

"That's the reason of the day and that certainly that wasn't what was provided initially," Beck said. 

"We need leadership in this province, we don't need these schoolyard tactics. This is really an appalling lack of leadership by this government."

Alberta Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous thinks Saskatchewan is making up reasons for imposing the license plate ban last month. (CBC)

Although Saskatchewan said it is "suspending" the plate ban, Bonk said the reversal is "for good." 

He added Marit will meet with Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason to discuss "some irritants and some issues."

Bilous held another news conference late Monday afternoon where he was able to respond to Bonk's remarks and his letter. 

The letter suggested that Bilous changed his position by agreeing to follow the ruling from the AIT, which is expected next. But Bilous said he never said Alberta would disregard the ruling, even if the appeal failed. 

Asked if he thought Saskatchewan was making things up to save face, Bilous responded: "Absolutely."

There are four reasons that Saskatchewan "gave all within, I think, a 12-hour period," Bilous suggested.

"So to us and to me that sounds a lot like they were grasping at straws to come up with a reason to bring this policy forward other than to change the channel from the bad-for-business budget that Brad Wall brought into Saskatchewan," he said.

Bilous said he still wants to meet with his Saskatchewan counterparts at the end of January, and he would prefer it take place in the border city of Lloydminster. 

Last week, Saskatchewan's government said it wanted the meeting to take place in Medicine Hat. 

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