Western premiers pitch freer trade, loosening TFW crackdown

The leaders of Canada's westernmost provinces say Ottawa needs to do more to cut red tape on trade between provinces and loosen up a little on the recent crackdown on temporary foreign workers.
Canadian premiers say there are onerous barriers to trade between provinces, to the point that it's often easier to ship outside Canada than within it. (The Canadian Press)

The leaders of Canada's westernmost provinces say Ottawa needs to do more to cut red tape on trade between provinces and loosen up a little on the recent crackdown on temporary foreign workers.

The western premiers wrapped up a series of meetings with their Nunavut and N.W.T. counterparts in Iqaluit on Thursday with a largely unified front on what Ottawa needs to do to help provincial and territorial economies.

Flooding kept Manitoba's Greg Selinger and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall away from the venue itself, so they dialed in to the meeting and the subsequent news conference.

Onerous labour rules

After several high profile abuses, Ottawa recently overhauled the rules governing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, a move that some western communities said made it more difficult to meet their labour needs. 

"All of us agree that the changes are detrimental to our jurisdictions," Alberta Premier Dave Hancock said at the end of the conference. "We will continue to talk to the federal government about that. But we also want to talk more broadly with the federal government ... on immigration policy, on labour market policy."

In the communique released at the end of their meeting, the western leaders chastised Ottawa on the new rules.

"Limiting the ability to hire foreign workers to address critical labour shortages will unduly punish responsible employers in Western Canada, particularly those in smaller and remote communities where Canadian workers are not readily available," they said.

Barriers to trade

The TFW program was just one of the topics on the table. The leaders of the Western provinces also pushed the federal government to take steps to loosen trade barriers within Canada. Arcane, outdated rules severely limit the transport of a host of goods between provinces, so much so that it's easier to ship goods out of Canada than within the Byzantine interprovincial system.

"The new agreement and free trade deal with the European Union, for example, would provide for open procurement with Canadian provinces even though we're not providing each other with open procurement," Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said Wednesday in Regina.

"Arguably, it's easier for a company in the United States to bid on government procurement in Canada than it is for some Canadian companies to bid in other jurisdictions in our own country. This doesn't make any sense."

The current system is based on the Agreement on Internal Trade which was signed in 1995 and is built on a principle that protectionism for Canadian industries should be the default, until a case for an exception can be made.

Flipping that around — to assume that all trade in Canada should be free of hurdles unless there's a good excuse for an exception — is a better system, Wall said.

"It's just time in our country that we have the kind of free trade we expect with other countries. We should have that between provinces," he said.

"We know that freer trade is not perfect, but it's better than protectionism. It's better for the economy and we'd like to see that."

B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan already moved earlier this year to harmonize trucking regulations, something that's already having an impact, Wall said.

The premiers also singled out a number of issues outside the purview of trade, including a proposal to work with the federal government to "consider ways to reduce the number of aboriginal children taken into care by child welfare authorities and to improve the quality of care."

The communique also pushed the federal government to improve the quality of its economic data to make it is more "trusted, reliable, and up-to-date," something private sector economists have been pushing for, too.

They also urged the federal government to "broaden the definition of a 'disaster event' to include multiple, smaller events that have large, cumulative impacts" and to increase federal disaster relief funds.

They went over the need to improve domestic trade among provinces and territories and increase labour mobility, so that those seeking work can easily travel to regions of the country that have labour shortages.

The communique also pushed for progress on getting remote communities that are largely off the grid better access to renewable energy technology, so that they are not so dependent on diesel technology.

The western premiers will be hoping for progress on all those files when all the premiers meet in Charlottetown in August.