Jason Kenney gets 'frosty' reception to job grant plan

Canada's provinces and territories continue to seek an opt-out option from the controversial Canada Job Grant plan following a "frosty" meeting between labour ministers and federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney in Toronto on Friday.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney says there is 'flexibility' built into the grant plan

Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney is meeting Friday in Toronto with his provincial and territorial counterparts, who are not happy with the federal government's changes to job training funding. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's provinces and territories continue to seek an opt-out option from the controversial Canada Job Grant plan following a "frosty" meeting between their labour ministers and federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney in Toronto on Friday. 

Kenney got a chilly reception from provincial and territorial labour ministers as he tried to sell them on the federal government's Canada Job Grant at a meeting in Toronto Friday, CBC News has learned.

Discussions that began early Friday morning were described as "frosty" and "tense" by a person privy to the meeting.

The premiers stood firm and united against Kenney in their assertion that the program is not working in its current form, according to a second person familiar with the talks, while Kenney stuck to his talking points and listed off the organizations that have come out in support of the federal plan.

At stake is $500 million a year in funding the provinces receive from the federal government under Labour Market Agreements that are set to expire next year. Under the new job grant plan, the provinces will lose $300 million in funding from the federal government.

Publicly, the most blunt assessment of today's meeting came from Quebec Labour Minister Agnès Maltais who said today's discussions did not bear fruit for the provinces and territories.

"There was no progress," Maltais told reporters in Toronto.

Maltais went further, in a press release sent out after the news conference, saying that Quebec has no intention of taking part in the Canada Job Grant program, nor is Quebec open to negotiating changes to the current Labour Market Agreements.

The provincial and territorial labour ministers said, in a joint news release, "they cannot support a Canada Job Grant that would pull funding from proven and effective provincial and territorial programs that help the most vulnerable Canadians build skills to participate in the labour market."

The provinces and territories must have "the ability to opt out" from the Canada Job Grant program with "full compensation," the release said.

Quebec said it would not hesitate to opt out of the federal plan if Ottawa goes ahead with its implementation in April 2014.

Theresa Oswald, Manitoba's minister of jobs and the economy, welcomed the face-to-face meeting with Kenney but told CBC News in an email "there are many signs that the current approaches to labour force development are working and we want to make sure that resources aren't diverted from programs with a proven track record.​"

Ontario's minister Brad Duguid told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that the consensus among the provinces and territories is "a sign to the federal government that they’ve got it wrong on this. But there is opportunity and time to get it right, but they are going to have to listen and they’re going to have to act."

'A great deal of flexibility'

The Canada Job Grant program, according to Kenney, has enough flexibility built into it to appeal to everyone despite assertions to the contrary from the provinces and territories.

Kenney reiterated that the federal government is open "to flexible approaches to deliver the proposed Canada Job Grant, the goal of which is to increase employer investment in job training while ensuring that those who participate get a guaranteed job at the end of their training."

The minister's office publicly issued a list of employers, labour groups and educators who today came out in support the federal grant plan.

The National Association of Career Colleges, Canada's Building Trades Union, the Canadian Home Builders' Association, the Christian Labour Association of Canada, and the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada were among the groups indicating support of the grant program today, according to Kenney's office.

In an interview on CBC New Network's Power & Politics on Thursday, Kenney said the provinces won't get a "one size fits all" approach, which has been the main point of contention since Ottawa announced the program in the budget last March.

"We'll be having 13 agreements, with 13 provinces and territories. We're talking about a great deal of flexibility here," Kenney said.

The provinces have been asking the federal government to reconsider proposed changes to the way the provinces provide skills training to Canadians looking for work.

The federal program provides funds to train unemployed workers who are not eligible for employment insurance, but the provinces say the proposed changes will put funding for key programs that are working well now at risk.

Those who will be impacted the most by the proposed changes, according to the provinces, are low-skilled workers such as youth, aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, social assistance recipients, recent immigrants, older workers and long-term unemployed Canadians. 

Kenney noted the federal government already provides billions of dollars in funding for those under-represented groups.

'Not flexible enough'

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said on Thursday that the Canada Job Grant will cost Ontario $232 million to continue delivering programs for low-skilled workers.

"The way that the Canada Job Grant is configured doesn't work; it's not flexible enough for the provinces," Wynne told reporters in Toronto.

Wynne, also chair of the Council of the Federation, which brings together Canada's premiers and territorial leaders, said the provinces need more flexibility to design and deliver the programs to those most in need. 

Shirley Bond, the B.C. minister of jobs, tourism and skills training, told CBC News in an email Thursday "the proposed changes mean that the British Columbians who most need support to enter the job market will be left standing on the sidelines."

B.C. expects there will be one million job openings in the next decade and is concerned the proposed changes by the federal government will not support low-skilled or underemployed individuals

The shift "away from essential skills training is unanimously opposed by Canadian premiers and labour market ministers," Bond said.

Kenney has often said the way the current system works turns most of the people involved into "habitual welfare recipients," adding that if the provinces want to train their welfare recipients, they should pay for it out of their own budgets.

The premiers and territorial leaders will gather for their annual fall meeting in Toronto on Nov. 15.

With files from The Canadian Press


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