Pensions and feds job grant program top agenda for premiers' meeting

TORONTO – Improving retirement incomes and making the federal job grant program more flexible will be high on the agenda when Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders meet in Toronto on Friday _ although almost half of them will participate by phone.

Host Premier Kathleen Wynne warns of “a huge economic crisis” if steps aren’t taken now to reform the Canada Pension Plan, and vows to set up an Ontario retirement income plan if there’s no agreement on the CPP.

“If we do not do this, if we don’t find a way to do this now, we will pay later,” said Wynne. “So we make a choice about whether we plan or whether we react.”

Prince Edward Island has proposed increasing maximum CPP contributions to $4,681.20 a year from $2,356.20 starting in 2016, and hiking the maximum annual benefit to $23,400 from $12,150.

Newfoundland and Labrador also wants to see improvements in the CPP.

“We’re all facing significant challenges around our own pension plans in our provinces, but also in terms of the Canadian Pension Plan,” said Premier Kathy Dunderdale. “We keep saying to the federal government: ‘We need a well funded CPP,’ and we hope they’re going to take that into account.”

Alberta and the federal government are cool to the idea of boosting CPP contributions, currently 9.9 per cent of annual salary split between workers and their employers, worried about adding costs to businesses during the slow economic recovery, as is Nova Scotia’s new premier, Stephen McNeil.

“We have some issues about what that will mean to small business owners in this province, and what is the impact on low-income Nova Scotians and Canadians,” said McNeil. “I think it’s important that we look at all of the options and alternatives that are out there to ensure that Nova Scotians and Canadians get an opportunity to retire with some level of security.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses warned “hiking payroll taxes” by boosting CPP premiums would kills jobs and result in lower wages, while the Canadian Labour Congress wants a doubling of CPP benefits for all Canadians.

The provincial and territorial premiers were also demanding more flexibility in the Canada Job Grant program, complaining Ottawa’s one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t meet their varying needs. They also said it would cost the provinces $600 million to maintain their current programs as well as match the cost of the Canada Job Grant.

Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall said he’s “encouraged” federal Employment Minister Jason Kenny has shown some flexibility on the program, but the provinces still need Ottawa to agree to more changes.

“The way the Canada Job Grant was structured prior to Minister Kenny getting the file and indicating some interest in changes, there wouldn’t be a great uptake for it because that’s not where the demand is in our province,” said Wall.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said infrastructure and jobs for young people will be main topics of discussions with his colleagues, along with trying to persuade the federal Conservatives to change plans to cut transfer payments to the provinces.

“We want to make sure we continue to have stable transfers for health care and post secondary education,” Selinger said in an interview. “The forecast is for a federal reduction in transfer payments there and that is something that is causing a concern among the provinces.”

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s press secretary said the federal government has committed to increasing health transfers as recently as Flaherty’s fall economic update.

“In fact, our government has committed to long-term funding for the provinces that will see health transfers reach historic levels of $40 billion by the end of the decade,” Marie Prentice said in an email.

Earlier this month, Saskatchewan repealed legislation to allow for the election of Senate nominees and passed a motion calling for the abolition of the upper chamber. Wall said he would provide his colleagues with “a quick” update on Senate, but did not elaborate.

The premiers will also discuss an issue that came up at their last meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake in July, asking Ottawa to set up a monitoring system to track trains carrying hazardous materials and to tighten insurance rules.

Quebec’s Pauline Marois said such measures could have helped prevent the derailment that decimated Lac-Megantic last summer, killing 47 people. The final statement from the premiers in July said there was a “clear lack of information” on hazardous materials travelling by train.

B.C.’s Christy Clark said provinces have the right to be fully informed about what’s moving through their jurisdictions.