Alberta files trade complaint after Saskatchewan ignores licence plate ultimatum

Alberta filed a trade injunction Thursday after Saskatchewan ignored its ultimatum in a spat over licence plates, said Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous.

'Saskatchewan did not back down,' Alberta minister Deron Bilous says

Alberta's Minister of Economic Development said he reported Saskatchewan's licence plate ban to the New West Trade Agreement Secretariat. (CBC)

Alberta filed a trade injunction Thursday after Saskatchewan ignored its ultimatum in a spat over licence plates, said Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous.

"This morning I reported their actions to the New West Trade Agreement Secretariat," Bilous said at a news conference in Edmonton. 

The matter will go to an arbitration panel that will render a binding decision. Bilous said Saskatchewan faces a maximum $5 million fine if it is found to have violated the agreement. 

"We have every confidence we will win this dispute," he added. "And when we do, every dollar we are awarded will go back to Alberta businesses this reckless policy has affected."

The panel has 30 days to collect evidence. If Saskatchewan backs down within that period, it will face no penalty. 

Bilous wants businesses affected by the license plate ban to immediately contact the Alberta government.

Officials will help those companies apply for an individual bid-protest-mechanism to claim damages. This will also help the government identify who can receive a portion of the fine, if Saskatchewan loses the dispute. 

The Lloydminster Construction Association has offered to host a meeting between Saskatchewan and Alberta in January to resolve the dispute.

The secretariat takes a maximum of 226 days to rule on a complaint, but Bilous thinks it won't take that long. 

Clear violation, Bilous says

Last week Saskatchewan imposed a ban on construction crews using vehicles registered in Alberta at provincial road or building construction sites.

Bilous responded by warning Saskatchewan if it failed to rescind the restrictions by midnight Wednesday, Alberta's NDP government would launch a formal application under the New West Partnership, a trade agreement between the four western provinces.

Bilous said Saskatchewan licence plate ban is a clear violation of the agreement that calls for a barrier-free interprovincial market between the four provinces.​  

Saskatchewan Infrastructure David Marit said the ban was imposed because Alberta had similar rules for Saskatchewan workers. 

But Bilous and Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason are puzzled by the allegation. Mason said he asked Alberta contractors and construction associations if what Saskatchewan is saying is true. 

"Nobody has told me that Saskatchewan licence plates are unwelcome on government jobs sites in our province," he said. "In fact, the reaction has been more one of bewilderment and confusion."

Marit also said that because Alberta doesn't have a provincial sales tax on vehicle registrations, giving Alberta contractors an unfair advantage.

But Wall said the ban was payback after Alberta changed rules on craft beer taxes to help its own industry and lobbied against open borders on procurement.

'They were all over the map'

Bilous and Mason said Marit and Saskatchewan Trade Minister Steven Bonk could not provide a credible rationale for the ban when they spoke on Tuesday. 

"They were all over the map as far as the reasons behind doing this, citing Alberta not having a PST," Bilous said.

"They listed a couple of other examples, but weren't able to provide any concrete examples of Alberta contractors or Alberta tenders forcing Saskatchewan contractors to change their plates."

On Wednesday, Bonk said they have anecdotal evidence.

"We're hearing loud and clear from the Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association as well as some of our contractors that this is a real issue for them," Bonk said.

"This is a measure to protect Saskatchewan companies. We just want to level the playing field."

Mason said he pressed Marit and Bonk to provide the names of the contractors making these allegations, not to retaliate, but to remedy the problem. 

"If you give us enough information, I'll look into it and I'll fix it," Mason said. "But we didn't get anything so I'm not sure that there's anything that they really have.

"And this dance of the seven veils is not going to resolve the dispute."

Mason and Bilous were joined at Thursday's news conference by construction industry representatives in Lloydminster, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. 

They also seemed puzzled by Saskatchewan's actions. 

Dorothy Carson, executive director of the Lloydminster Construction Association, said there was no evidence Saskatchewan members were being forced to register their vehicles in Alberta. 

But president Cody Bexson said the dispute isn't having an effect on how people are working together on site. 

"We're not seeing anything in our local area as far as any distrust or hurt feelings or anything like that," he said. "Everybody's just a little baffled to be honest."

'A little bit hypocritical'

Bonk said he was a bit taken aback that Alberta was moving ahead with the formal protest under the New West Partnership after the meeting.

"I thought we had quite a productive conversation," said Bonk.

"We're a little bit surprised by that because when we left the call yesterday we were under the impression that we agreed to meet in the new year in January to discuss this further."

Bilous said Saskatchewan tried to get them to hold off on filing the complaint until after that January summit. 

"Which I think is a little bit hypocritical considering they've already initiated action which is impacting Alberta workers today," he said. 

Bilous also accused Saskatchewan of applying the licence plate ban to not only new contracts as promised, but also to existing ones.

Bonk said that is not the case.

Service Alberta, the department that handles licences, says a non-resident needs to register a vehicle if it is in Alberta for six months or more. However, commercial vehicles and trucks are not included in the requirement.

With files from the Canadian Press