Toronto·Analysis

Kathleen Wynne takes fight with Stephen Harper to St. John's

Ontario's Kathleen Wynne is set to raise a little hell at the annual summer get-together of premiers and territorial leaders in St. John's that begins today.

Frosty relationship between Ontario and Ottawa part of a long tradition

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne arrives for a meeting of Canadian premiers and national aboriginal leaders in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., on Wednesday. Wynne is intent on not letting Stephen Harper off the hook on many issues affecting Ontario, says CBC's Robert Fisher. (The Canadian Press)

Kathleen Wynne is set to raise a little hell at the annual summer get-together of premiers and territorial leaders in St. John's that begins today.

Though Ontario's genteel premier would probably phrase it as "a little heck," at least in public.

However you say it, Wynne is intent on not letting Stephen Harper off the hook on a variety of issues affecting Canada's most populous province.

Wynne's message track for this meeting of the Council of the Federation will be clear and oft-repeated:

  1. That Ontario needs a partner at the federal level.
  2. That Harper is AWOL on a whole set of problems, not the least of which is climate change.

Wynne and the prime minister have had what might generously be called a strained relationship.

The frostiness between the two was evident during the opening ceremony for the Pan Am Games in Toronto. Sitting in the same VIP box at Rogers Centre, Wynne and Harper barely acknowledged each other.

But Wynne — and some but not all of her provincial and territorial colleagues in St. John's this week — are likely to have a lot of say about Harper and his government during their meetings.

And some of it, even Wynne admits, will have a tinge of the coming federal campaign as she admits she'll be at Justin Trudeau's side, as he was with her in last year's Ontario provincial election.

Long-held battles between Wynne, PM

With the federal vote on the horizon, Ontario is very much in Harper's sights. To retain a majority, he must win in this province in general — the Greater Toronto Area in particular. He must hold the seats he has and pick up more.

But, as daunting as that may seem, Harper appears determined to win by not making nice with Wynne, and that seems to suit her just fine.

The two have battled over a variety of issues, from an Ontario pension plan to, more recently, infrastructure spending.

Each has a clear agenda, and except for their shared political interest in the all-important Ontario auto sector, they have failed to find common ground on much else.

Not the only premier with Ottawa issues

But disagreement with Ottawa is a practised art at Queen's Park.

For decades, Ontario premiers all had issues with the federal government.

Go down the list: Bill Davis, Frank Miller, David Peterson, Bob Rae, Mike Harris, Ernie Eves and Dalton McGuinty have all had their differences with sitting prime ministers.

And it's not always partisan: Davis fought with Joe Clark, a fellow red Tory, and Liberals McGuinty and Paul Martin had their public and often very nasty spates.

Wynne insists her battles are not personal. It's all about dealing with a federal government that has, in her view, "neglected" Ontario while making unilateral decisions.

The Premier's C.V. includes a diploma in conflict resolution. She would argue it takes two to resolve a dispute.

So whatever the word — hell or heck — Wynne is going to raise some, following a long line of Ontario premiers who have won some and lost some battles with the federal government of the day.

And isn't that what Ontarians expect? A premier standing up for her province against the man in Ottawa.

Imagine the public's reaction if she didn't.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for CBC.ca. He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.

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