Budget's job training promotion masks provincial reluctance

The Harper government is pushing ahead with ads and roundtables to promote its proposed Canada Job Grant. But the retraining scheme isn't sitting well with the provinces that have to match the funding to make it work.

Provinces threaten to opt out of federal budget centrepiece

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen here with Fisk Johnson, the CEO of SC Johnson, launched consultations for the proposed Canada Jobs Grant in Brantford, Ont., last month. While some businesses have been enthusiastic, some provinces are less keen to participate. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The Conservative government began roundtable discussions for one of its budget centrepieces Tuesday, with television ads already running in prime time to extol the Canada Job Grant's advantages for unemployed workers.

But amid all the promotion, it's no sure thing the program will be implemented across Canada the way the federal government would like.

The retraining grants were one of the few new measures in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's March budget. The program would provide up to $15,000 per worker toward skills training to find a new or better job, but the federal contribution will only be $5,000, with the worker's province and employer contributing the rest.

The government says that Canada has enjoyed comparatively low unemployment rates, but skills shortages remain.

"Our [economic and job creation] policies are on the right track," government House leader Peter Van Loan said, as he held one of the first roundtables at Toronto's George Brown College on behalf of Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

"The one area that employers continue to raise with us is the challenge of finding those [workers with] skills."

TV spots started this week

Canada Job Grant ads began appearing under the Harper government's Economic Action Plan banner this week, including during Monday and Tuesday night NHL playoff broadcasts.

The on-screen fine print in the television ad notes that the grant is "subject to parliamentary approval." 

Ads promoting the Canada Job Grant began airing this week in large-audience, prime-time slots. But as the fine print says, the grant hasn't been approved yet: not by Parliament, nor by provinces who have to contribute matching funds. (actionplan.gc.ca/CBC)

It could have added "subject to provincial agreement."

Because the proposal requires provinces and employers to match the federal contribution, the grants won't be available to workers unless their respective provincial governments sign on.

Flaherty's budget estimated that 130,000 people a year could benefit if all the provinces and territories signed on to new labour market agreements that include the grant as a cornerstone.

The new agreements are intended to grow gradually over the next four years. Current labour market agreements, which were not tied to particular federal programs but allowed provinces to create their own, expire in 2014.

Finley contacted her provincial counterparts on the day of the federal budget to share preliminary information about the proposal and plans to continue negotiations in order to "iron out the final details," her office said Tuesday.

Provinces warn they'll opt out

When the premiers of the four Atlantic provinces met on April 29, their joint communiqué noted "significant concerns with the recent unilateral decisions of the federal government regarding skills, training and employment supports."

The four provinces expressed concerns about the Canada Job Grant, "particularly the ability of small-and medium-sized businesses to participate in the program."

The premiers' statement said they wanted "clarity on the design of the program" and suggested that opting out was a possibility.

"Premiers will consider if the program meets the needs of the provincial economies and labour markets, and whether the provinces will participate in the program or opt out with full compensation," the joint statement said.

Finley's office did not say Tuesday that provinces could opt out with full compensation, offering only that the federal government looks forward to working with provinces and is "still in the negotiation period in terms of how this will work."

The Atlantic premiers' statement echoed early reaction to the budget in March, when Quebec's labour minister quickly indicated that Pauline Marois's Parti Québécois government would be opting out, incensed at the federal government's intent to renegotiate the labour market agreements.

"We refuse to go 15 years backward," Agnes Maltais said.

Ontario and British Columbia also voiced concerns about control over job training funds shifting toward the federal government's priorities.

In a written statement to CBC News Tuesday, a spokesperson for Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta's deputy premier and minister of enterprise and advanced education, said that the current labour market agreements had "served Albertans well" and that Alberta had invested the federal dollars well.

"We would look forward to any consultations about the proposed Canada Jobs Grant and learning more about it," wrote Janice Schroeder.

When asked how many provinces had indicated that they will participate in the new program, Van Loan didn't say. 

Business, education groups interested

Finley's office has characterized the grant as a way to "bring employers to the plate" and "take training out of the hands of government." In the weeks since the federal budget, some groups representing business and post-secondary educational institutions have voiced support for the idea. 

"We certainly encourage provincial governments to join with the federal government in making this new initiative a success but, barring this, we hope the federal government will move unilaterally and implement its project," wrote Serge Buy, the CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges, in an email to CBC News on Wednesday morning.

Van Loan said Tuesday other feedback he's heard had been positive, so far.

"What we've announced is a concept of how it could work," he said, characterizing the consultations now underway as "grassroots" despite the fact that the announcement and advertising for the grant came before negotiations for its development.

"It's a proposal that needs to be fleshed out and developed fully, but [the budget announcement] gives something to have a discussion about," he said.

The jobs grant program is not part of the government's first budget implementation bill, which it hopes to pass before the summer recess.

Consultations with businesses and educational institutions were launched by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finley in Brantford, Ont., on April 19.

Van Loan defended the ad campaign as particularly important for small businesses who may not be aware of what's available to them to help train workers.

"People have been already coming to us, saying — as a result of that advertising — saying 'I want to be able to participate in this, and I want an opportunity to be a part of this,'" the minister said. 

"We want to create that awareness early, so that when this program is in place, it will have real success."


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca