Provincial and territorial labour ministers emerged from a teleconference call Friday afternoon united in their position that the Canada Job Grant, a new skills training program scheduled to come into effect on April 1, should not come at the expense of existing training programs for Canada's most vulnerable workers.
The provinces don't want Ottawa to cut from existing Labour Market Agreements (LMA) that provide skills training for young adults, aboriginal people, new immigrants, older workers, people with disabilities and other groups who are under-represented in the workforce and looking for work.
In a letter sent today to Employment Minister Jason Kenney, and obtained by CBC News, P.E.I. Innovation Minister Allen Roach said, "Ministers are united in their concerns and expressed disappointment that you continue to propose to fund the Canada Job Grant through substantial cuts to LMA programs."
The ministers responsible for overseeing the new federal plan will be sending Kenney a counter-proposal following Friday's call, the letter said.
Kenney's office released a statement in response late Friday, saying the federal government has listened to the provinces' concerns and "significantly restructured the offer based on their feedback.
"We hope to receive a formal counter-offer from the provinces shortly, and we hope provincial governments show a willingness to also be flexible in these negotiations. We remain prepared to deliver the Canada Job Grant ourselves if an agreement with the provinces is not met," the statement said.
Differing views on transfers
While the federal government may have shown some flexibility regarding the money provinces were required to match for the Canada Job Grant program, it has not budged on one of the main sticking points, which is a reduction in federal transfers, Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities told CBC News going into the call with his counterparts.
"We still remain very concerned that the federal government is still asking us to take — $300 million across the country and in Ontario alone $116 million — out of our programs that fund our most vulnerable workers to put towards this untested and untried Canada Job Grant."
Duguid said he was going to share Ontario's position during a teleconference with his provincial and territorial counterparts Friday when they gathered to discuss a revised proposal sent to them Kenney at the end of December.
'Our major concerns in many cases are still very much left unaddressed.' -— Brad Duguid, Ontario minister of training, colleges and universities
The Canada Job Grant plan, as it was introduced in last year's federal budget, would have provided up to $15,000 per worker toward skills training to find a new or better job, with the provinces and employers matching the government's contribution of $5,000.
Kenney made a concession by offering to pay the provinces' share up to $10,000 of the job grant with employers kicking in the other $5,000.
"We're pleased the federal government has responded to make some changes. However, our major concerns in many cases are still very much left unaddressed," Duguid said.
That's because the revised offer doesn't compromise on a reduction in federal transfers.
The provinces currently receive $500 million a year in funding from Ottawa for training under-represented groups, under existing labour market agreements that are set to expire on March 31. The Canada Job Grant program would see the provinces lose close to $300 million or nearly 60 per cent of Ottawa's contribution through the agreements.
"In effect, many of those training programs would have to be eliminated likely altogether if this would go forward as it is," Duguid said.
The federal government points out that although growth in the transfers to the provinces has slowed, it is still going up.
Provinces favour more flexibility
It was believed the provinces would have been able to divert federal money from a fund used to train unemployed Canadians, who are eligible for employment insurance, and use it to train low-skilled workers looking to enter the workforce.
But that no longer appears to be the case, Duguid said.
"We have confirmed with the federal government that no, we will not have the flexibility of covering in Ontario's case that $116 million through the Labour Market Development Agreement as opposed to the Labour Market Agreement."
"The areas of flexibility they've talked about so far are extremely marginal and not particularly helpful. That is something that is certainly up for discussion," Duguid said.
A senior federal government source told CBC News on Friday that under the revised plan, the provinces will be able to divert a good chunk of the funds from one envelope to another.
“The provinces have been offered the flexibility to cover a significant portion of the funds for the Canada Job Grant from the Labour Market Development Agreement."
Today's call was meant as an opportunity for the provinces and territories to gauge how far apart they still are with the federal government on the controversial Canada Job Grant program.
Roach, the P.E.I. minister, told CBC News in an interview on Thursday that the provinces and territories will be discussing the impact of the cuts to their funding.
"We'll be discussing each and every one of those points and seeing whether we feel it's moved far enough," Roach said.
"Once we finish that call, then we'll be in a better position, as one voice, to get back to Minister Kenney and give him our feedback, which he is waiting for."
Roach and Kenney are co-chairs of the Forum of Labour Market Ministers, a group that meets regularly to discuss labour market matters.