7 storylines shaping this week's Council of the Federation talks

Don't look at the agenda for this week's Council of the Federation talks and think little has changed since the premiers last met. Significant shifts have altered the landscape the 13 provincial and territorial premiers are looking at, starting with the location itself.

Annual summer premiers meeting heads north for the 1st time

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the premiers of Canada's 13 provinces and territories together within weeks of forming government last November. A re-engaged federal government changes the landscape for the premiers gathering this week for their annual summer meeting in the Yukon. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Don't look at the agenda for this week's Council of the Federation talks and think little has changed since the premiers last met.

Sure, there's a familiar feeling when premiers haggle over carbon taxes, health care transfers and internal trade barriers.

But two recently-elected premiers (Dwight Ball from Newfoundland and Labrador and Brian Pallister from Manitoba) weren't in St. John's for last summer's reunion. And other significant shifts have altered the landscape the 13 provincial and territorial premiers are looking at.

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Collaborating with First Nations

The 2016 meeting is the first hosted by one of Canada's territories. But the trip north is about more than Yukon taking its turn. Premier Darrell Pasloski, who heads the right-leaning Yukon Party, is focused on economic development as this year's chair.

While the Thursday and Friday sessions are in Whitehorse, the first sessions with national Aboriginal organizations on Wednesday are west of town, in Haines Junction.

Premiers will hear how local First Nations collaborated on resource development projects.

The premiers agreed on a Canadian energy strategy last year and implementation is underway.

The focus: moving oil and gas to tidewater for export.  There's an understanding now that pipelines don't happen without First Nations buy-in.

Northern views on carbon pricing

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna needs to develop a pricing scheme for carbon pollution as part of a national emissions reduction strategy due later this year.

But premiers disagree on how to do it. Some feel unfairly burdened.

"The situation in the territories in the North is different than in the rest of the country," McKenna said last week in Yellowknife, where she met with her three territorial counterparts. "There's a high cost of living, goods are brought in." 

For example, goods shipped into Nunavut may come from Quebec, where there's already carbon pricing. Should northerners have to pay twice?

B.C. Premier Christy Clark (centre) hosted the premiers from Canada's western provinces and territories in Vancouver in May. (Jimmy Jeong/Canadian Press)

McKenna said she was listening to concerns. But a national system is a tough goal while things like home heating and electricity generation vary from province to province.

Respecting regional differences also suits a province like Nova Scotia, with its renewed interest in coal-powered electricity even as others phase that out to cut emissions.

MMIW inquiry details expected soon

When premiers met last summer, the former Conservative government was uninterested in holding a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. 

The Council of the Federation considered calling their own.

Then Justin Trudeau's Liberals were elected on a pledge to hold one. After months of consulting, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says it's "very close" to launch.

But at the Assembly of First Nations gathering last week, chiefs accused a couple of provinces of dragging their feet, despite federal assurances that they won't need to shoulder the cost.

Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson told CBC News she wants more consultation, and at least one commissioner from Manitoba, to reflect her province's large Indigenous population. 

Manitoba and British Columbia are concerned about duplicating previous provincial inquiries.

A forced hand on internal trade?

In April, a New Brunswick judge tossed out charges against a man who brought beer back from Quebec, once again focusing minds on interprovincial trade barriers. 

While that argument continues in court, Canada remains a place that can't agree on selling milk in jugs or bags and where you have to check before booking a tradesperson from just across a provincial boundary.

Even Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz says it hurts economic growth.

The four Atlantic premiers - left to right: New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball - meet regularly, as they did here in Annapolis Royal, N.S. in May. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Provincial trade ministers announced the makings of a deal to fix this earlier this month. It won't cover everything — some provinces wish there weren't so many exclusions — but it's a starting point for the premiers on Thursday.

A deal may prevent the embarrassment of provinces having agreed to more free trade internationally than they allow amongst themselves.

For example, the Canada-EU trade deal includes things like recognizing professional credentials across jurisdictions.

If it proceeds towards at least provisional ratification by 2017, provinces — who participated in the negotiations — need to pass legislation to comply.

Looming health accord deadline

When the current federal-provincial health accord expires next spring, growth in health transfers will be limited to either an annual minimum of three per cent, or an increase matched to the rate of Canada's GDP growth, whichever is higher. 

That's a substantial dip from the six per cent growth in place for more than a decade, a bombshell that stunned provinces when former finance minister Jim Flaherty announced it in 2011.

Provinces hope for a better deal with the new Liberal government. 

Health Minister Jane Philpott says a $3 billion campaign pledge for new home care funding is still available.

But the federal government wants to target new spending, not just increase transfers. 

Ottawa's help on the inside

When the federal government was Conservative, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall sometimes echoed Ottawa's perspective on certain files.

Federal-provincial relations have a different dynamic now: a 401 shuffle, after many Liberal advisors from Ontario government backgrounds moved from Toronto to Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Canada's premiers last March in Vancouver. it was the second First Ministers' meeting since he formed government. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Premier Kathleen Wynne's strong stand on Canada Pension Plan enhancement has already helped move provinces towards a deal with the federal government.

How might Wynne influence other files? 

Council of Federation's future?

Former prime minister Stephen Harper didn't like meeting with premiers.

Frustrated, provinces and territories decided they'd work together on shared national concerns, with or without Ottawa.

Now the federal partner has returned to the table and re-engaged. A new prime minister is once again keen on First Ministers' meetings.

Are premiers-only gatherings still useful? We'll see this week.


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