Premiers in Whitehorse: Is Canada ready for free trade, with itself?

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Day two of the Council of the Federation talks in Whitehorse sees the provincial and territorial leaders wrestle with one of the most perennially dysfunctional aspects of Canada’s economy: how hard it is to do business across provincial borders.

An agreement on internal trade was worked out by First Ministers over two decades ago, but it’s proven inadequate to streamline a host of jurisdictional snags that restrict growth at a time when some regions really need a boost.

This year’s chair of the premiers meeting, Yukon’s Darrell Pasloski, told CBC News earlier this week that there’s been a lot of work done towards forging a deal this week. Even if it doesn’t work out today, he’s making it a priority for his chairmanship over the next year.

“We can’t have trade with other countries be easier and less restrictive than what we have between our borders ourselves,” he said, acknowledging that the Canada-EU trade agreement, should it come to pass on schedule next year, offers free movement of goods, services and people beyond what Canadians enjoy in their own country.

The provinces helped negotiate that international deal. So why can’t they offer the same concessions to each other?

Pasloski wouldn’t disclose what sticking points remain as the premiers sit down Thursday morning.

“We will get there,” he said. “There is no problem that is insurmountable.”

Close, but hung up?

Earlier this month, Ontario’s minister of economic development, Brad Duguid, hosted his provincial and territorial counterparts in Toronto to hammer out the makings of a deal premiers could finalize and announce this week.

Federal Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains was at his side then, calling the proposals “historic.”

The deal was worked out on a “negative list” basis — seeking to liberalize everything by default, except for a set of excluded, sensitive items.

But leading up to the premiers gathering, some provinces warned that a deal wasn’t as close as Duguid let on, particularly in terms of liberalizing interprovincial trade in beer and alcohol.

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New Brunswick has argued this part of the deal should wait for the appeal process to finish in a much-discussed case of a man charged with bringing home beer from across the border in Quebec. A judge had tossed his charges, suggesting provincial prohibitions need to be dropped.

Another case at a tipping — or is that tippling? — point: a dispute between Alberta and Saskatchewan that escalated Tuesday over Alberta deciding to tax a small Saskatoon brewery (that employs Albertans, to boot) some $7 a case because it’s not considered as local as its Prairie competitors.

This, between Prairie neighbours that are supposed to trade freely under the New West Partnership both signed with British Columbia in 2010.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall are set to meet on the margins at midday to see if they can sort it out.

Labour mobility talks key

Bigger issues loom that could make this small brewery tax look like small beer indeed.

The free movement of people has become more important as the economic fortunes of different regions change.

Premiers Haines Junction 20160720

An aboriginal drummer welcomed premiers and the leaders of Canada’s five national Aboriginal organizations to a cultural event in Haines Junction Wednesday afternoon. The group was originally set to hold their meetings there all day, but fog and heavy rain delayed their flights and forced an improvised Whitehorse location for the first day of talks. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The post-boom bust in the oil and gas industry leaves Alberta, once crying out for labour from Atlantic Canada in particular, needing to find solutions for a lot of unemployed workers of its own. But any effort to favour its residents works against the spirit of labour mobility Duguid’s deal champions.

“Every province has always wanted to protect itself in some way, shape or form,” Conservative finance critic Lisa Raitt said earlier this week, as she called on premiers to get an internal trade deal done for the sake of the economy.

“If we want to be able to trade on a free basis around the world we should be able to do so within our own provinces too,” she said. “Especially when economies in one area may not be as robust as it would like to be, people can work in other provinces and still maintain a residence in their home province. I’m from Cape Breton — that happens all the time.

“Making it easier to work across our country makes a lot of sense,” the former cabinet minister said. “Some provinces are going to have to put a little water in their wine to ensure that they get this job done.”

“What I would say to premiers is: have some courage.”

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Premiers in Whitehorse: Is Canada ready for free trade, with itself?

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