Politics

Trudeau's call with premiers gets testy as leaders butt heads over funding to reopen economy

Thursday evening's weekly call between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers was marked by testy exchanges over the federal government's pledge of $14 billion to help provinces reopen their economies and the future of the military in Quebec's long-term care facilities, according to sources with knowledge of the call.

Premiers say they're happy to get the $14 billion but want fewer strings attached

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's call with Canada's provincial and territorial leaders Thursday evening was an unusually tense affair, sources told CBC News. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Thursday evening's weekly call between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers was marked by testy exchanges over the federal government's pledge of $14 billion to help provinces reopen their economies and the future of the military in Quebec's long-term care facilities, according to federal and provincial sources with knowledge of the call.

The premiers said they were grateful for the money but argued that it isn't enough to meet their needs and comes with too many strings attached.

The sources — who spoke to CBC News under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly share details of the conversation — said the premiers told Trudeau they want the freedom to set their own priorities for the money.

When Trudeau announced the $14 billion on June 5, he said it would be earmarked for specific measures to help provinces reopen their economies safely.

Those measures include the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers and businesses. The money is also being earmarked to support childcare services, increase assistance for the elderly, fund ten days of sick pay for workers without benefits, help municipalities fund transit and community programs and shore up health care systems in the short term.

The sources said Ontario Premier Doug Ford's primary complaint was that the $14 billion was not enough to meet his province's needs, while Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister called for a broader conversation about increasing health transfers to the provinces.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball told CBC News Network's Power & Politics today that his province is also looking for an increase in health care funding, as well as the flexibility to spend his province's share of the $14 billion on its own priorities.

"Of course we'd like to have flexibility on how the money is spent ..." Ball told host Vassy Kapelos. "I mean, all of us will have our opinions and our views on what the priorities would be for the people that we represent. So that would give us the flexibility to use the federal support, to support our constituents."

Ball said that, despite the disagreements, everyone on the call was committed to staying at the table. 

Watch: Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball on $14 billion for the provinces:

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball discusses Thursday evening's call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the other premiers. 6:45

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver told Power & Politics Friday that his government is pleased with the federal funding pledge and acknowledged that the conversation with Trudeau was challenging at times.

"I think it was a tough conversation for sure, but what I heard right across [Canada, from] coast to coast to coast, was premiers saying [they were] very thankful for those supports, the federal supports so far," Silver said. 

"I think that those details are going to be worked out and hopefully we'll get the flexibility that we're looking for."

Despite the criticism, the sources said Trudeau told the premiers that he would not offer the funding unconditionally, reminding them that it's only intended to help with costs associated with the pandemic for the next six to eight months.

Quebec's long-term care problem

The sources said British Columbia Premier John Horgan told his fellow premiers that while they were expressing valid concerns about federal funding, their focus should remain on battling the pandemic. A spokesperson for Horgan told CBC News Friday the premier also talked about the importance of federal programs during and beyond the pandemic. 

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe also pressed Trudeau on the inflexibility of the funding, the sources told CBC News, arguing that municipal budgets in his province did not need the extra cash to provide services, while other areas of his province's budget do need help.

The sources said Trudeau told the premiers they can adjust the funding envelope to suit their specific needs — in the case of Saskatchewan, for example, by sending the federal funding to municipalities and then redirecting provincial funding for municipalities to other targets — providing the federal money is spent on the designated service.

Watch: Yukon Premier Sandy Silver discusses his territory's funding needs during the pandemic:

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver on the $14-billion the federal government has announced for provincial and territorial reopening costs, as well as the Canada-U.S. border, and systemic racism in the RCMP. 10:07

Horgan's intervention and Trudeau's argument seemed to satisfy the premiers, the sources said.

The sources said that Quebec Premier François Legault and Trudeau butted heads over Quebec's request to have Canadian military members currently serving in the province's long-term care homes remain in place. The prime minister insisted that the military rotation in care homes needs to end.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Friday morning, Trudeau said that members of the Canadian Armed Forces were only deployed to Quebec's long-term care homes to stabilize the situation. He said they've been able to do that over the past few months, and many facilities are now functioning much better than they were before.

"We will continue as a federal government to ensure that our seniors in Quebec are protected," Trudeau said.

"We are proposing and working with the province of Quebec to progressively replace those military members with trained people from the Canadian Red Cross who will be paid, who will be properly trained to be able to continue the important work being done while Quebec works to get its system back under control."

With files from the CBC's Hannah Thibedeau

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