Harper, Wynne agree Ring of Fire funding must be of 'public benefit'

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne did not talk funding dollars when the two met to discuss the development of infrastructure around Ontario's Ring of Fire on Thursday, but they agreed that any amount of funding by either level of government must represent a 'public benefit."

NDP motion on Ring of Fire rejected as Ontario premier meets prime minister

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Thursday to discuss Ontario's Ring of Fire, infrastructure investments and pension reform. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had what his office is describing as a "productive" and "constructive" meeting with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on Thursday in Ottawa.

The two packed a number of issues into a half-hour meeting including the controversial Canada Job Grant program, infrastructure funding, pension reform, and the Ring of Fire -- a mining project in northern Ontario, worth up to $60 billion.

"On the Ring of Fire, they both agreed that the two levels of government will continue to collaborate on this important development," Jason MacDonald, the director of communications for the prime minister said in an email to CBC News late Thursday night.

"They also agreed that any investments by either level of government must represent a public benefit, including for First Nations."

Wynne downplayed expectations Thursday telling reporters an hour before her meeting with Harper that she wasn't going in with specific demands today but that she was looking for meaningful engagement.

The Ontario premier, however, has asked Harper to split 50/50 the costs associated with developing the project in a letter she wrote to him on Nov. 8.

The Ontario government has estimated the total capital investment for infrastructure in the range of $800 million to $1 billion, with the estimated costs of connecting the Ring of Fire communities to all-season access roads at $1.25 billion.

On Thursday, Wynne told reporters she still expects the federal government to come to the table with matching funds but that today she was going in with an open mind.

Wynne 'optimistic'

Wynne emerged from Thursday's meeting satisfied that she has the prime minister's ear on the Ring of Fire.

"I'm more optimistic than I was before I went in to the meeting that we'll be able to work together," Wynne told The Canadian Press in a brief interview late Thursday.

Wynne suggested the two made progress saying "definitely, we have each other's ear on this."

"He and I agree that this is a very important project. He and I also agree that infrastructure is critical, and infrastructure that will be directly associated with the development of the Ring of Fire but also infrastructure that will serve the needs of First Nations and other communities in the north."

Greg Rickford, the minister responsible for the federal economic development initiative for northern Ontario, spoke to reporters on Parliament Hill around the same time Wynne was holding a press conference at a university campus a few minutes away.

Rickford complained that Wynne did not give the federal government enough advance notice about the province's decision to announce a development corporation to build infrastructure in and out of the Ring of Fire.

"I'm confident that today's meeting will reflect a willingness to be more collaborative," Rickford told reporters gathered outside the House of Commons.

Wynne appeared satisfied Thursday after meeting Harper that Ottawa is prepared to come to the table.

"He's open to considering the notion of a development corporation and that was the engagement I was looking for," said the Ontario premier.

"No dollar numbers thrown around, none at all."

NDP motion on Ring of Fire

Wynne met with Harper, a day after the Conservative majority on a House of Commons committee shot down an NDP proposal to have Ontario provincial officials appear to testify about the Ring of Fire resource development. 

NDP MP Claude Gravelle introduced a motion on Wednesday calling on the House of Commons natural resources committee to "invite the government of Ontario on its Ring of Fire initiative with a view to understanding their specific policy concerns and to determine federal policy actions that would help move this multibillion-dollar project forward."

The committee went behind closed doors to assess Gravelle's motion on hearing from Ontario officials about federal help in developing the Ring of Fire, but sources tell the Canadian Press the government majority voted down the motion.

The Opposition New Democrats have been pushing to end what they describe as the government's "abuse" of secrecy in committee meetings.

MPs are not allowed to disclose publicly what unfolds once the meeting goes in-camera or behind closed doors.

Members of the committee that were present on Wednesday were:

  • Conservatives Mike Allen, Leon Benoit, Kelly Block, Joan Crockatt, Ryan Leef, Brad Trost, and Bob Zimmer.
  • New Democrats Linda Duncan, Peter Julian and Gravelle.
  • Liberal Geoff Regan.​​

Wynne told reporters prior to her meeting with Harper she also wanted to raise the "fairly urgent" issue of pension reform, another topic that has caused considerable tension between the province and Ottawa.

Ontario has said it will create a provincial retirement income plan if it can't convince Ottawa and the other provinces to enhance the Canada Pension Plan.

Provincial finance ministers will be meeting with federal finance minister Jim Flaherty to discuss the issue of pension reform at Meech Lake on Dec. 15 and 16.

With files from the Canadian Press

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