Canada Job Grant April 1 target start lacks 'sense of reality'

Even if a deal is reached this week on the Canada Job Grant, it's unrealistic for the federal government to expect the provinces and territories to have the skills training program in place on April 1, B.C. Minister Shirley Bond says in an exclusive interview with CBC News.

Budget 2014 is expected to include money for internships and apprenticeships

Employment Minister Jason Kenney is weighing a counter-proposal by the provinces on the Canada Job Grant and is expected to have a response in the coming days. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The provinces and territories say even if a deal is reached this week on the Canada Job Grant, it's unrealistic for the federal government to expect them to have the skills training program in place on April 1, CBC News was told.

In an exclusive interview, B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said giving the provinces less than seven weeks to implement a new program and possibly cut existing ones just isn't enough time.

"To suggest that we can begin a new program, have it up and running in a meaningful and thoughtful way by the beginning of April, to me and to all ministers, doesn't reflect a sense of reality," Bond said.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney is expected to give the provinces a response to their counter-offer in the coming days.

Bond, as well as Jody Carr of New Brunswick and Allen Roach of P.E.I., met face to face with Kenney last Tuesday in Toronto to present the federal minister with their counter-proposal.

As CBC News reported last Tuesday, the provinces have asked Kenney in their counter-proposal, which was obtained by Radio-Canada, for an extra six months to implement the controversial Canada Job Grant.

After last Tuesday's meeting, Kenney's office told CBC News the minister was still hopeful a deal could be reached by April 1.

"To have a simple 'no' we're not going to extend it by six months or a 'no' to some of the other suggestions, I think is unfair and very unfortunate," Bond said.

Programs at risk

Bond described the four-hour meeting with Kenney as "polite and respectful." She said the minister has been engaged and "at the table" with the provinces since he took over the file.

The main sticking point, according to Bond, continues to be the $500 million a year in funding the provinces currently receive from Ottawa under existing Labour Market Agreements (LMA) that are set to expire on March 31.

The government wants to reform the LMA by taking $300 million of that agreement and putting it towards the Canada Job Grant, which would help Canadians gain the skills to find work in high-demand sectors.

But according to the provinces, taking 60 per cent of the LMA funds and redirecting them towards the new grant would put current skills training programs for "vulnerable workers" at risk.

"That is the inherent difference we have with the federal government at the moment," Bond said.

"We are concerned about putting existing programs at risk that have actually been effective."

Those program include BladeRunners, which targets at-risk youth and provides participants with the skills they need to enter the labour force, Bond said.

B.C. said that under the current LMA, it has invested $6 million per year in the BladeRunners program, which helps aboriginal youth. Nearly half of youth who completed the program in 2012-13 went on to find a job, with an additional 20 per cent going on to pursue further training or study, according to B.C.

'Maximum flexibility'

The Canada Job Grant would provide up to $15,000 per worker toward skills training to find a new or better job.

Under the original plan, proposed in last year's federal budget, funding for the grant would have been split equally three ways between Ottawa, the provinces and employers.

Kenney made a concession in December, offering to fund the provinces' share, up to a total of $10,000, with employers kicking in the other $5,000.

While the provinces appreciate the gesture, Bond said the provinces are looking for "maximum flexibility."

According to the provincial documents leaked to Radio-Canada, the federal government would allow "small employers" to count wages towards their contribution to the grant.

The provinces' counter-proposal would still see employers contribute up to one-third of the grant, but would go even further giving employers "full flexibility to recognize employer in-kind contributions."

Eligible expenses would include equipment or facilities used directly to provide training, transportation costs, accommodation expenses for out of town training and wages.

Kenney also offered in December to have the provinces fund one-third of the grant from the Labour Market Development Agreements, a fund used to support the unemployed, particularly those who are eligible for Employment Insurance benefits.

Under the provinces' counter-offer, only a fraction of the grant would come out of the LMA. The rest would be paid for through other funding streams, including the LMDA and other sources of revenue.

The message to Kenney was, "allow provinces and territories to determine the best way to determine a level of funding … don't be restrictive about that," Bond said.

Opting out with full compensation

Both Ottawa and the provinces want "incremental investment," Bond said.

The federal government's latest offer, according to the provincial documents leaked to Radio-Canada, would see the grant phased in over a period of four years until it is fully implemented in 2017-18.

Under the province's counter-proposal, the grant would be phased in more gradually over a period of six years.

The provinces also want Ottawa to commit to reviewing the grant after two years and make changes "as necessary."

"We're saying we want to try to make this work Minister Kenney, but you need to give us more time, you need to allow us to transition, and you need to allow us more flexibility," Bond said of the provinces' message to the federal minister.

The provinces' counter-offer also includes an option to opt out with full compensation — an option Quebec is in favour of since it has outright rejected the Canada Job Grant.

But opting out with full compensation was not the focus of last week's meeting with Kenney.

"There was no major discussion about that," Bond said.

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told CBC's Chris Hall that Tuesday's budget is expected to include money to tackle youth unemployment, including money for internships and apprenticeships.

However, the 2014 budget will not include new money for the Canada Job Grant, Nick Koolsbergen, Kenney's director of communications, told CBC News.


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