7 things to watch as Canada's premiers gather in N.B.

Canada's premiers kick off their summer gathering this morning in Bouctouche, N.B. Here's a quick guide to who's there (and who's not), what they're talking about (and what they'll avoid), and one pretty big elephant in the room.

Will this be the last year the premiers invite Indigenous leaders to their summer talks?

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant takes over the chair of the Council of Federation today, as he hosts Canada's premiers in Bouctouche, N.B., for the start of their three-day summer gathering. (Stephen MacGillivray/Canadian Press)

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant has invited the rest of Canada's premiers to join him on his home turf in Bouctouche, N.B., on Wednesday morning, as three days of interprovincial talks get underway.

The first gathering of the Council of the Federation will take place at Pays de la Sagouine, a replica Acadian village where most — but not all — of the premiers will meet with the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, two organizations representing Indigenous people living off-reserve.

Three other Indigenous leaders declined the premiers' invitation for the second year in a row.

Nevertheless, a meeting is going ahead, with new speakers added, Gallant said Tuesday. The conversation will focus on economic development and Indigenous children in care.

Later Wednesday, the premiers will travel across the province to Saint Andrews, where their discussions through Friday will run the gamut from Canada–U.S. relations, to cannabis legalization, to the opioid crisis.

Here's a guide to who's there (and who's not), what they're talking about (and what they'll avoid), and one pretty big elephant in the room.

Which Doug Ford will show up?

New Ontario Premier Doug Ford's election campaign and early governing style have invited comparisons to the brash and unapologetically populist style of U.S. President Donald Trump, causing some to wonder which Ford might show up: a table-flipping status quo disrupter, or a statesman-like dealmaker more in line with past premiers of Canada's largest province.

The answer — at least at first — is neither. Sources on the ground in New Brunswick are not expecting Ford at the Indigenous talks in Bouctouche.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is attending his first summer premiers' meeting this year. But he's skipping the first day of meetings Wednesday, when his counterparts will meet with Indigenous leaders. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

B.C. Premier John Horgan's office also confirmed to CBC News that his travel plans won't see him arrive in New Brunswick until Wednesday afternoon.

It's not unprecedented for some premiers to have scheduling conflicts or other reasons for being absent from the traditional first day of meetings with Indigenous leaders.

When Ford joins the group Thursday, he says he "can't wait" to meet the rest of the premiers in person — and he's ready to listen.

"I always like going to these places and bringing back the best ideas," he told reporters in Toronto Tuesday, adding he "loves the East-Coasters." 

"We love different ideas from around the world that we can bring and adopt them into Ontario, and make ourselves a better province overall."

Will this be the last year for Indigenous-focused talks?

Last week, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council all announced they were declining invitations for the second year running — something Gallant said is "unfortunate, but not surprising."

He's among those reconsidering whether it's worth continuing the premiers' traditional pre-meeting with Indigenous leaders, especially now the federal government meets directly with treaty rights holders.

Gallant expressed frustration at how much time is spent discussing who is or isn't at the table, instead of "the real discussions that we should be having on how to grow the economy in an inclusive way, to help Indigenous people further their prosperity," and address their challenges to improve their quality of life, he said.

There's value in the personal relationship-building that happens at summer premiers' meetings. But more effective, practical work may happen when the premiers meet with local representatives.

"I value the input we receive at these meetings," Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister told reporters. But he added: "I accept the rationale of those who have chosen not to come."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister told reporters Tuesday that he's hoping premiers can agree to work harder to reduce internal trade barriers during their summer talks in New Brunswick. (Sarah Sears/CBC News)

Pallister said he'd met with all of the absent Indigenous leaders in the past and his discussions with them would continue in other venues.

Who's not in the room, Part 1

Since its founding 15 years ago, premiers have used the summer talks of the Council of the Federation to compare notes and stake out common ground in their dealings with the federal government. This year is no exception.

"You'll see a strong consensus among the premiers that we need to get back to a sustainable partnership with the federal government on health-care [funding]," Pallister said, when asked what issues he thought premiers would rally around.

As chair, Gallant has the challenge of trying to manage several difficult agenda items, as provinces line up on competing sides over different federal policies, from climate change to equalization-payment formulas. 

That may not necessarily translate into drama. When premiers don't agree on something at these meetings, they simply move on to another topic, focusing on areas where consensus is possible.

"You'll never see in a communiqué, 'premiers disagree over this,'" said Jared Wesley, a former provincial civil servant who now studies the council as a political scientist at the University of Alberta.

"You may see, on occasion, an asterisk that gets placed on it," he said, especially on energy policy.

Will Ontario and Quebec meet separately?

Wesley will be watching this year to see if there's a side meeting between Ford and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard about their cap-and-trade carbon system. Or more specifically, Ontario's plans to bail on it.

"They've got to figure out what to do with all those Ontario businesses that invested in this program," he said.

Couillard likely can't change Ford's mind, as "that ship has sailed," Wesley said. 

But with more than $3 billion in purchased carbon credits at risk of now being worthless, the two leaders have to figure out how to amicably dissolve the partnership.

Will Alberta and B.C. meet separately?

Wesley pointed to the so-called "Starbucks summit," where feuding former premiers Alison Redford and Christy Clark had a coffee together — in front of a few cameras, of course — to signal they were trying to patch things up amid dissension over energy policy.

Former Alberta premier Alison Redford, left, and former British Columbia premier Christy Clark staged a photo call featuring the two chatting over coffee in 2013 — a time when the provinces disagreed strongly on Canada's energy strategy. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Their successors, Rachel Notley and John Horgan, may also want to grab coffee to signal a thaw in their relationship after harsh talk of trade retaliation for B.C.'s decision to try to block in court the building of the Trans Mountain pipeline — something Alberta says is about "market access" to Asia, but B.C. characterizes as an intolerable environmental risk to its coast.

Notley can't leave the impression she's buddy-buddy with Horgan because she'll be attacked at home for it, Wesley said, but she doesn't want to talk about pipelines in the months leading up to her re-election bid either.

The pair may find common ground lobbying for support for passenger-bus services in the wake of Greyhound's demise, for example, as Notley has asked for this to be on the premiers' agenda.

Horgan is unlikely to win his pipeline court battle anyway, said Wesley. At some point, he's going to have to say to British Columbians "we did our best," and accept the likely consequences of his partnership with B.C.'s Green Party on the issue.

Who's not in the room, Part 2

A far easier united front to build among the premiers exists around trade — especially on Canada–U.S. trade issues.

No one is coming to New Brunswick to talk about Trump, but they can't really avoid it these days, and they all understand the importance of hanging together on this topic.

As he did last year, Canada's ambassador in Washington, David MacNaughton, will speak to the premiers on Thursday morning. Several premiers have been helping the federal government in its cross-border lobbying campaign, trying to persuade all levels of U.S. government to value and protect the trading relationship with Canada.

Gallant is also promising to lead an "aggressive discussion" Thursday on reducing internal trade barriers, saying there remains a willingness to make progress on this file despite the premiers' relative inaction since Canada's interprovincial trade deal took effect a year ago.

Standing beside Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil after a highway infrastructure announcement Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while his government is working hard on international trade issues, it's "kind of frustrating, not just for Canadians, but for me, to see barriers to internal trade."

Trudeau said his government would continue to pressure premiers to "move forward in real and tangible ways."

"At a time when there are challenges from our largest trading partner, we have to make sure there are no challenges within Canada," he said.

Don't mention the elephant

By this time next year, Trudeau will be in pre-election mode. He's expected to shuffle his cabinet Wednesday morning, based at least in part on the changing provincial and territorial landscape. 

The rise of Ford's conservatism and the loss of his Liberal government ally in Ontario is part of that equation. 

Quebec and New Brunswick voters will head to the polls this fall, and three more provinces will have their say in 2019. Horgan's minority government in B.C. is also of uncertain duration.

Summer premiers meetings can be a time for casual relationship-building and high-minded, blue-sky policy discussions. This year's may be that — but electoral politics loom large, too.


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


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