Economy tops premiers' summit agenda

Canada's premiers are calling for the private sector to take up the baton of stimulating the economy when the federal government turns off the spending taps next March.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty talks with Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger at the opening session of the premiers' annual meeting in Winnipeg on Thursday. ((John Woods/Canadian Press))

Canada's premiers are calling for the private sector to take up the baton of stimulating the economy when the federal government turns off the spending taps next March.

The premiers gathered Thursday in Winnipeg to discuss provincial and territorial deficits and the continuing recovery from the recent global recession.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said governments have done a lot to stimulate the economy, and the private sector needs to continue the work. He encouraged other provinces to help by taking down barriers to investment.

"Now it’s time for the private sector to step up," he told reporters Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the provinces need to move together "in lockstep" to complete infrastructure projects before the federal stimulus funding comes to an end.

"We're going to run as quickly and as hard as we can in this relay race, and on March 31, 2011, we’re going to give the baton to the private sector," he told reporters Thursday.

McGuinty said it's not the job of governments to act as a permanent driver of economic growth, but added it would be a mistake to cut off projects that won't be completed by the deadline.

"I just think we need to be sensible in terms of how quickly we shut off that tap," he said.

New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham said he wants the federal government to keep providing stimulus money to help Canada weather the recession.

Health care the 'elephant in the room': Charest 

On health care, Quebec Premier Jean Charest called for the provinces to start preparing now to make sure the federal-provincial Health Care Accord is renewed. The current agreement, reached by provincial leaders and the then prime minister, Paul Martin, in 2004, expires in 2014.

Canada is feeling the pressure from an older, sicker population, the costly demands of high-tech medicine and a national shortage of nurses and other health-care workers. 

"This is an elephant in the room for all of us," Charest told reporters Thursday.

"Every politician or premier in the country and bureaucrat and media behind closed doors all say the same thing. They all say, 'Well, listen, you know, this system is unsustainable financially,' and then publicly, everyone walks on eggs because they don't want to offend anyone. But we all know the system is financially in difficulty."

Premiers differ on census

Although it wasn't on the conference's agenda, the premiers also briefly discussed the potential impact of the federal government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census, Charest said.

The Quebec premier said he believed most provinces, including most Quebecers, don't understand the government's decision. He suggested Ottawa eliminate the penalties for not responding instead of scrapping the mandatory survey altogether. 

"Let's get rid of the penalty," he said. "That's obviously the solution, and I don't have any problem with that. But I just don't understand why we would deprive ourselves of this census exercise, which we see as extremely important to have the critical databases that we need to make decisions."

While other provinces have spoken out against the change, Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan adopted a wait-and-see approach.

"Information obviously is extremely important," Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach told CBC News earlier in the day.

"But we're waiting to see how the federal government will unfold the new plan to provide the necessary information to our government and so that we can work in partnership with the federal government."

On Wednesday, the premiers met with aboriginal leaders in Churchill, Man., and called on the federal government to help them improve aboriginal education.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams is not attending the conference because he is recovering from an injured back,  Elizabeth Matthews, the premier's director of communications, told CBC News.

With files from The Canadian Press