An agreement in principle over the Canada Job Grant was made possible because Ottawa's final offer was notably different from the take it or leave it grant sprung on the provinces during last year's federal budget, says one of the ministers who spent the last few months negotiating face to face with Employment Minister Jason Kenney.
"The government's final offer is significantly different from the unilateral announcement the government made without consultation in last year's federal budget," Shirley Bond, B.C.'s minister of jobs, tourism, and skills, told CBC News in an interview Friday afternoon.
While concerns over the grant remain, the provinces feel with the exception of Quebec, they have come far enough in their negotiations that each provincial government can now finalize the details of the program on a one on one basis with Kenney.
"There's a pretty strong consensus that there has been enough movement that this is the time now to move to the bilateral discussions," said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on Friday.
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Kenney used a speech he gave to an audience gathered at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa on Friday to confirm there was an agreement with all provinces and territories except Quebec, as CBC News reported yesterday.
"I am pleased to announce that we have arrived at an agreement in principle with 12 provincial governments and territories on their delivery of the Canada Job Grant," Kenney said.
Kenney welcomed the news saying "I believe this is good news for unemployed Canadians, it's good news for taxpayers who will get better bang for their buck, it's good news for the economy because we'll increase the private sector investment in skills development."
The provinces fought hard to negotiate changes to Ottawa's plan to "minimize the losses" of a program they did not want in the first place.
Kenney sealed the deal by making several concessions, which he took to cabinet for approval.
The Canada Job Grant will be phased in incrementally over four years, allowing provinces to allocate a greater proportion of the Labour Market Agreements for existing programs to train vulnerable workers.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said, "10 per cent of the existing LMA will now be shifted towards the job grant. So in the first year, provinces will have to find 10 per cent to look after the programs that serve vulnerable people."
The provinces will have to find an additional 10 per cent in each of the first four years, up to 40 per cent. "That's the challenge," Selinger said during a joint news conference with Wynne on Friday.
However, the provinces will have the choice to take those funds from the Labour Market Agreements, the Labour Market Development Agreements, or a source of their own choosing.
It was also revealed today that Kenney has agreed to let the provinces review the program two years after its implementation, a request the provinces made in their final counter offer dated Jan.28 which was obtained by Radio-Canada.
"There will be a review of the Canada Job Grant by December 2015," Selinger said on Friday. This will allow the provinces to make changes as necessary in order to ensure the grant is meeting the needs of those looking for jobs and the employers who are paying to train them.
Kenney also removed the cost-matching requirement for the provinces, leaving Ottawa to fund up to $10,000 of each individual grant with employers kicking in up to $5,000.
And even there, Kenney gave small businesses with 50 employees or less greater flexibility by allowing them to put up only 15 per cent of the cost of the grant with "cash or in-kind contributions."
Provinces will also have until July 1 to implement the grant, an extra three months to get the program up-and-running from the original proposal.
As the provinces start working to finalize the renewal of bilateral Labour Market Agreements which are set to expire on March 31, several concerns with the Canada Job Grant remain.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who was also in Ottawa for the Manning Conference, said he liked the grant but was concerned businesses in his province would not be able to use it.
"We like the principle of employers being involved in training, we like that part of the job grant — we always have. But in our economy, where we have basically full employment… we need basic skills, we need to make sure we are providing training for the vulnerable," Wall said.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who appeared to be offside with his provincial counterparts at the time of Kenney's announcement, said he secured an agreement with Ottawa after speaking directly with Kenney today.
"The province has secured an agreement with the federal government to ensure that Nova Scotia's concerns with the Canada Job Grant are addressed," said a statement issued by McNeil's office.
"I communicated to Mr. Kenney that the Canada Job Grant must work better for Nova Scotians," McNeil said in the written statement. "The program must be affordable for our small businesses and must protect employment support for our most vulnerable citizens."
Kenney said he would "continue working with provinces and territories on the details in the days to come."
In their joint news release Friday, the premiers said now that the provinces will move to iron out whatever concerns remain on a bilateral basis with Kenney, they expect those individual agreements to include "a betterment clause."
If a province succeeds in negotiating a better deal with Kenney, such a clause would ensure that the same agreement is made available to other provinces too.
Quebec deal imminent
While Quebec is still very much interested in negotiating the renewal of its LMA, it continues to seek an option to opt out with full compensation from the Canada Job Grant.
Quebec Labour Minister Agnès Maltais indicated on Friday that the two sides are in "intense negotiations" and that a deal could come as early as Saturday.
Maltais said Kenney hoped to reach an agreement with Quebec "in the coming days," but that she was prepared to sign on the dotted line "tomorrow."
"Quebec is ready to ready to settle tomorrow morning. If Mr. Kenney wants us to sign a deal tomorrow morning, I'm ready to sign tomorrow morning — because I think we are close enough to a settlement to do so," Maltais told reporters on Friday
Kenney will travel to Germany next week to study the country’s dual education system which he has touted as a model Canada could learn lessons from.