A deal between the provinces and the federal government over the controversial proposed Canada Job Grant appears to be within reach, if today's "constructive" call between provincial ministers is any indication.
“Today, provincial and territorial labour ministers from across the country had a constructive conversation about the federal government’s response to our counter-offer on the Canada Job Grant,” said Allen Roach, P.E.I's minister of innovation and advanced learning, after Tuesday's call with his counterparts.
“All ministers agreed that they will now bring it back to their respective premiers for further discussion," Roach said in a written statement.
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Employment Minister Jason Kenney also expressed optimism that a deal was near when he spoke to reporters in Ottawa earlier Tuesday afternoon.
"We're making good progress," Kenney told reporters before question period in Ottawa.
"I've spoken to a number of provincial ministers. I think they are very pleased with the flexibility we've demonstrated."
In fact, one of the grant's most vocal critics welcomed Kenney's final offer ahead of a provincial meeting Tuesday.
"Overall, I think it's a positive development and a positive response," Brad Duguid, Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities, said Monday of Ottawa's final offer.
"It appears we've come a long way and I'm looking forward to hearing my colleagues across the country to get their assessment," Duguid told reporters in Toronto on Monday.
The provinces spent the weekend analyzing the details of the final offer sent to them last Friday by Kenney, who has given them until the end of the week to respond.
'Meeting of the minds'
Duguid said he spoke with Kenney on the weekend. "I thanked him for the work that he's done to bring forward what I see as a positive response."
Kenney told reporters Tuesday there has been "a gradual meeting of the minds."
"We recognize they've got some good programs in certain areas, and I think they recognize there is a lot of value in getting more employer involvement," Kenney said.
In his final offer, Kenney agreed to give the provinces more flexibility over what funds they use to fund the federal grant and more time to get the program up and running by agreeing to delay the start of the grant by three months, from April 1 to July 1.
The provinces' main beef with Ottawa's proposal was that the provinces use $300 million out of the $500 million they receive from the federal government under current Labour Market Agreements, money the provinces said is being used to fund skills training programs for Canada's most "vulnerable workers."
"I think we owe it to out-of-work Canadians and out-of-work Ontarians to do our homework before we declare victory, but it certainly appears to be a positive response," Duguid said.
In a counter-proposal obtained by Radio Canada, the provinces had also asked Ottawa to phase in the grant over six years instead of four, and review the grant after two years in order to "make required changes or move funds to programs or services that are yielding better results."
It is not yet clear whether Kenney's final offer included any movement on those specific proposals.
Kenney to meet with Quebec
The federal employment minister was asked whether he would agree to let Quebec opt out of the Canada Job Grant with full compensation.
Kenney said he hoped to meet with Quebec Labour Minister Agnès Maltais in the near future and that discussions were ongoing.
While an upcoming provincial election in Quebec could stall the talks, Kenney said he would not impose a deal on Quebec during a writ period but he hoped that "a deal in principle" could be reached by March 31, when the Labour Market Agreements are set to expire.
As for reaching a deal over the grant, this month's federal budget indicated that in provinces where a deal cannot be reached, the federal government will go ahead and implement the grant on April 1 directly through Service Canada.
The Canada Job Grant would allow employers to provide unemployed individuals with a grant of up to $15,000 to obtain the skills they need to find a better or new job by the end of it.
Kenney agreed over the course of the negotiations to fund the provinces' share of the grant up to $10,000, with employers kicking in the other $5,000.
Several organizations have come out in support of the federal grant such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Building and Construction Trades, and the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, among others.