Premiers' meeting: When the premiers gather, it's all family dynamics

The Federation Family has many issues, but at the core it is all about The Parent, Evan Solomon writes from Charlottetown. And you know who he is referring to.

Dare we call this parental obsession? Or just your ordinary dysfunctional federation?

Canada's provincial premiers, and some period actors, walk to a morning meeting at historic Province House during their Council of the Federation summit in Charlottetown. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters)

It's all about The Parent.

Sure, the Federation Family has other issues. The premiers talk about internal trade barriers, infrastructure, roundtables and health care, but the underlying issue  — if you put all 13 premiers on a giant couch and asked, what's REALLY getting to you  — it would be The Parent thing. 

The Federal government. The PM. The Parent.

Why isn't The Parent coming to the table to talk to us? The Parent owes us money. He's not the boss of me!

For all the press releases and scrums, this is really what it's like in Charlottetown right now where the Council of the Federation is gathering.

Like any family, there is lots of internal bickering, small resentments and alliances among the siblings. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is sniping at Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne about trade protectionism. Is it a serious issue?

Well, when I asked the conference chair, PEI Premier Robert Ghiz, about the spat he smiled and dismissed it as torque. "Oh, this is just what we do," he said cheerfully. Right. They fight. Ok. 

 But the thing that unites the Federation Family is their parental obsession.

This is not a popular way to view the conference.

Premiers are loath to see themselves as children begging from a parent — they are partners in a federation of course. They have their own jurisdictions that they feverishly protect. 

But the reality is the feds have the money, they collect the most revenue. And they wield a very big stick.

Battle of the backdrops? Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands on the front deck of the HMCS Kingston in Eclipse Sound near Pond Inlet earlier this week on his annual summer tour of the Arctic. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

Look at health care. Even though Ottawa has chopped its health contribution from 50 per cent to around 23 per cent, that's a lot power over an area that is, ostensibly, provincial responsibility. 

Canada has always had this tense family dynamic — right back to 1864, when the first leaders gathered to dream of a prosperous federation right here on this little island. And this year is no exception. After 150 years, provincial federal tensions still shape the family dynamic.

Missing and murdered aboriginal women

Nothing reflects this tension more poignantly than the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. 

The prime minister refuses to call a national public inquiry because, he argues, it would be redundant.

There have been over 40 studies already on the topic, he points out, including last May's RCMP report called Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operation Overview.

That report concluded that police solve crimes against aboriginal women at the same rates as any other crimes. We already know why these tragic murders happen, Harper insists, we just need to stop it happening.

But instead of calming the calls for action, the PM's response has enflamed them.

His comments in the wake of the homicide of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine — "We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon" — rankled the premiers and aboriginal leaders.

Ontario's Kathleen Wynne  said she "categorically" disagrees with Harper, arguing that housing, education and health care are deeply connected to the vulnerability of indigenous women. 

"Those are all social factors" she told me. "He is wrong."

Provincial premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario greets period actors prior to the Council of the Federation summit in Charlottetown on Thursday. She had less kind words for the PM. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters)

Brad Wall, her Saskatchewan counterpart, agreed. "You can't separate the two," he said. "These are crimes and they are connected to critical social issues."

Greg Selinger, premier of Manitoba, was livid when I spoke to him, pointing out that the very same RCMP report says indigenous women are five times more likely to be victims of violence than non-aboriginal women. "Why is that?" he thundered rhetorically, before a launching on a lengthy dissertation on colonialism, residential schools and poor health conditions. "We need to look at these factors."

But they all know it's pointless. The Parent won't budge. No public inquiry. 

Compromise time

So, Family Federation came up with a compromise: they offered The Parent an olive branch of sorts. Convene a roundtable to discuss the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and set the some real goals for better outcomes. 

Reasonable people might wonder what the difference is between an inquiry and a roundtable or a panel. Attempts to find out exactly what either would do and accomplish got a series of passionate but vague answers.

I heard it would "share best practices" and "raise awareness" and "set targets," but it was like trying to grab a handful of water.

Finally I spoke to Premier Selinger, who openly admitted even he wasn't sure what it would accomplish. But, he said, that did not diminish his support.

After all, the roundtable idea came from First Nations leaders themselves. "They are clearly looking for a way, any way, to talk with the federal government about this issue," he said. "We have to support that."

But talking to National Chief Ghislain Picard I got the sense this debate over whether we should have an inquiry or not is missing the point.

The tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women is in itself important, but because of the increasingly hot debate, it is now a proxy issue for many First Nations.

It is as much about a tragedy as it is about trust. For some, how the PM approaches this issue is emblematic of how he approaches broader challenges facing aboriginal peoples.

And as Picard argues, the federal government has a trust deficit with First Nations that is very consequential, one that is also playing out in the debates over big infrastructure projects like pipelines and mining. 

Fiscal imbalance

Nothing says "parental problems" like the words "fiscal imbalance." 

Ok, forgive yourself if you feel like propping toothpicks between your eyelids to stay awake. You are not alone. 

But the truth is, it is, well, important. 

It affects everything from health care and infrastructure to pensions. The federal government is heading into massive surpluses while provinces are facing massive deficits and growing costs to deliver services. 

To highlight this crisis, the premiers commissioned a report from the Conference Board of Canada. It finds the provinces will have a combined budget deficit of $16.1 billion in 2013-2014 and an aging population that is draining their coffers with health-care costs. 

"Canada's aging population will result in weaker economic growth over the long term and less revenue for governments to fund a variety of different programs," the report concludes. "The combination of lower revenue and rising expenditures will make it challenging for the provinces and territories to balance their books."

Got that? The parent is living off the kids' money and the kids don't like it!

If you believe PEI's Ghiz, this is not just the central message of the entire conference, but the kick-off to the 2015 federal campaign.

Host Robert Ghiz, centre, walks with fellow Liberal premiers Philippe Couillard of Quebec and Stephen McNeil of Nova Scotia through the streets of Charlottetown Thursday. Next year's federal election is on their agenda. (Reuters)

"We need to get our priorities out there for the 2015 election," Ghiz said candidly to a passel of reporters waiting to hear "The Big Policy Announcement."

Ghiz, a Liberal, didn't even bother to spin it. There is no Big Policy Announcement coming out of this conference. There is just the agenda for the next federal election.

That must be disappointing to the federal Industry Minister James Moore.

He would love the premiers to announce that they are dropping all internal trade barriers. He would love them to discard the 20-year-old Agreement on Internal Trade that protects so many industries and start from scratch. He would love to add labour mobility to the AIT, or at least get a mandate to totally reform the agreement. 

No such luck. Instead the proposed changes amount to small beer. Or, more accurately, small wine. 

The three members of the new West partnership will likely announce B.C. wine can now be sold in Saskatchewan. And maybe spirits too.

But what about free wine trade between Ontario and B.C.? That one is still fermenting in the political cellar. 

There were some other announcements, sure, coming out of this gathering.

Before he bolted back to his troubled election campaign, New Brunswick Premier David Alward and B.C.'s Christy Clark announced a memorandum of understanding about labour mobility for apprentices.

Now apprentices can get certified in B.C. and work back in New Brunswick. OK. That's something, right? But it's not what the federal government is asking for. 

Minister Moore claims internal trade barriers cost the country $50 billion, but when I asked Premier Wynne about that she was skeptical. "There is no evidence that figure is real," she said acidly. "I don't know where he is getting that."

The Federal Family and The Parent just don't communicate that well.

One premier told me on background, "We are all just trying to figure out how to talk to this federal government, how to engage them on something productive. We just can't figure it out."

It sounded, well, a little like a cry for help.

So, while you will likely hear something about working groups on health innovation, energy, and disaster mitigation, it is process. This gathering is all about laying the groundwork for 2015. All about The Parent. 

 The Family wish list is being made. Will The Parent read it?

About the Author

Evan Solomon

Evan Solomon was host of CBC News Network's "Power & Politics" and CBC Radio One's "The House" until June, 2015.


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