Premiers vent over climate 'goal posts' and internal trade at first ministers meeting

The bluster leading up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's fourth first ministers meeting didn't translate into any dramatic showdowns. But as the talks wrapped up in Montreal Friday, it became clear this tension didn't lend itself to any tangible progress, either.

In the end, nobody walked out - and that might be the gathering's biggest accomplishment

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the first ministers talks with Indigenous leaders Friday morning in Montreal, flanked by Quebec Premier Francois Legault, right, and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The federal-provincial bluster leading up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's fourth first ministers meeting didn't translate into any dramatic showdowns. But as the talks wrapped up in Montreal Friday, it became clear the tension didn't lend itself to any tangible progress, either.

Several days of public bickering over the agenda, including a threat from Ontario Premier Doug Ford to walk out, seemed to simmer down when the leaders actually got into a room together.

Sources told CBC News Ford spoke very little during the day-long meeting, as cameras caught him smiling and saying things were "fantastic."

The prime minister met early Friday morning with national Indigenous leaders before the premiers joined First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders for a larger discussion of their economic development issues.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Canada's ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, joined the group this morning for six hours of talks on economic and trade issues.

Cameras were invited into the room briefly to record opening remarks from Trudeau, who touted his government's record on job creation and economic growth and its efforts to protect the environment.

"Pollution should not be free anywhere in Canada," he said, as several premiers who adamantly oppose the federal carbon pricing strategy looked on. (Saskatchewan and Ontario are both challenging the federal carbon tax in court, calling it unconstitutional.)

Trudeau praised Quebec's cap and trade system for reducing carbon emissions. 

Emissions cut confusion

The biggest disagreement that emerged from the talks seemed to come more from confusion than controversy.

The Ford government's decision to end its cap and trade system has affected Canada's overall math for meeting its 2015 commitment to the UN's climate change convention in Paris to cut carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

The previous Ontario government had committed to a 37 per cent reduction, but the new Ford government's plan will only curb provincial emissions by 30 per cent.

The difference has to be made up somewhere, a fact noted by Trudeau when, according to people in the room at the time, he told the premiers that some provinces are going to exceed their targets — and if it's possible for Ontario to exceed 30 per cent without bringing in a carbon tax, it should do more.

Other provinces, Trudeau reportedly said, can't hit 30 per cent. (He may have been referring to Alberta, which — because of its carbon-intensive oil industry — faces a significant challenge cutting emissions.)

The prime minister's remarks were interpreted by Ford and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe as the federal government changing its demands on provincial governments and asking some to do more.

"All of a sudden, the goal posts got changed," Ford said. "That creates uncertainty."

"We're going to keep our side of the bargain. We're now asking the prime minister to keep his side of the bargain."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford chats with Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc at the start of the first ministers meeting in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"We did not move the goal posts," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told reporters.

Other premiers, including Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, agreed with McKenna that Trudeau wasn't asking some provinces to exceed their emissions reduction targets. Nova Scotia, McNeil said, is on track to exceed the 30 per cent target.

"Premier Ford put forward a plan that is a step backwards," Trudeau said. "Canada's targets are national targets, even though the premier may wish to play games with numbers.

"If anyone is moving the goal posts, it's Premier Ford."

At the closing news conference of the First Ministers' Meeting in Montreal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says its Premier Ford who's "playing games with numbers" over the tax on pollution. 0:42

Trudeau said later that all the premiers expressed a desire to protect the environment, but disagree on how to do it.

Ford, Moe and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, all of whom oppose the federal government's carbon pricing strategy, collaborated on strategy ahead of the talks.

Other premiers, like B.C.'s John Horgan, remain supportive of carbon pricing, while other premiers like McNeil have come around to the federal climate strategy despite initial concerns.

Protesters outside the first ministers meeting in Montreal on Friday called on the premiers to take more action to reduce carbon emissions. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

Protesters outside the Montreal meeting called on the premiers to do more, not less, to reduce carbon emissions.

After this meeting, McKenna, the federal environment minister, is heading to Poland for the UN climate conference

Debate over C-69

Several premiers made it clear going into the meeting that they were not interested in being lectured by Trudeau or any of his ministers.

A source in the room told CBC News that, at one point, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs interrupted Morneau's presentation to suggest he take questions. Morneau answered one, then carried on speaking.

Higgs later told reporters he didn't think he was being lectured and felt positive about how things were going.

"People presented a few issues that we need to continue to work on," Morneau told reporters, describing the ambiance as "good" and the premiers, including Ford, as "leaning in", engaged and working constructively during his one-hour session with them.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault (left) speaks to his Nova Scotia counterpart Stephen McNeil. As talks got underway Friday, McNeil announced several concrete steps his province had taken to cut interprovincial trade barriers. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

When the discussion turned to energy issues — such as pipelines and Bill C-69, the Trudeau government's legislation to change the environmental assessment process to approve future projects — premiers expressed a fear that the federal cabinet's veto power will deter future investments.

Some premiers said they want C-69 repealed. (It's currently stalled in the Senate.) Others disagreed, saying the old system was worse.

Trudeau pushed the premiers to suggest other solutions to the oil crisis. The only one offered was to move more oil by rail, a source said.

Close to alcohol announcement?

Interprovincial trade barriers were supposed to be original focus of this gathering. But the premiers don't appear to have done much on this file since they last met in July.

Quebec was chairing the committee on internal trade before the October election that replaced Philippe Couillard's Liberals with a Coalition Avenir Québec government under Premier François Legault; a new minister is now in the chair. Efforts to harmonize regulations for the trucking industry have moved forward, but on other files — such as liberalizing alcohol sales — the provinces seem to be digging in their heels.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters on her way into the talks Friday that the single most important economic issue facing Canada now is the difficulties in the oil and gas sector. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

McNeil, one of two premiers tasked with the alcohol file coming out of the premiers' talks last July, issued a news release outlining several moves his province was making to facilitate internal trade, including removing personal exemption limits on alcohol transported into Nova Scotia for personal consumption.

The premiers tried but failed to draft a joint announcement on alcohol exemption limits last summer. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, the other premier working with McNeil on trade issues, said nine provinces are ready to end these exemption limits, but the other provinces haven't agreed to opt out publicly so the rest can move forward.

"Perfection is the enemy of the good," Pallister said, lamenting that other priorities keep taking precedence and standing in the way of progress on issues that should have been settled 30 years ago.

Energy, climate issues divisive

Instead of these trade issues, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Saskatchewan's Premier Moe went public with a letter Tuesday demanding a focus on the energy crisis. Canada's energy sector is being crippled by rock-bottom prices for Canadian oil and pipeline bottlenecks frustrating efforts to sell Canadian petroleum products in new markets.

The federal government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project earlier this year, but a renewed consultation effort to secure approval for the project is not guaranteed to succeed. In the meantime, Notley is moving to purchase extra freight cars to move more oil by rail — a plan Trudeau seemed willing to consider getting involved in during an interview Thursday with The National's Rosemary Barton.

Notley reminded reporters that it only "makes sense" for Canada to be more strategic about how it uses its oil resources. Although no solutions resulted from this meeting, she expressed satisfaction with having raised the profile of the issue.

At the closing news conference, Trudeau said he wants to keep working with Notley on how to help the oil and gas sector in her province in difficult times.

Higgs had expressed interest in reviving the Energy East pipeline proposal, perhaps with new government investment. Premier Legault has said he isn't interested, citing strong opposition in his Quebec.

Legault told reporters he wants $300 million in federal funding to pay for the costs of asylum seekers crossing Canada's border illegally outside regular border crossings. The federal government had only been paying for the cost of housing them — about $76 million over the last year — and Legault said Ottawa is willing to discuss doing more.

Quebec dairy farmers also protested outside the first ministers meeting Friday. They don't believe the federal government is doing enough to compensate for their losses in recent international trade deals. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Representatives from Quebec's dairy sector were also protesting outside the meeting. They're anxious for compensation from the federal government for what they've given up in recent international trade deals, something Legault also raised Friday.

With files from Hannah Thibedeau and Katie Simpson