Premiers wrap meeting by agreeing in principle to internal trade deal

WHITEHORSE – Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders have agreed in principle on an internal trade deal they say will help create jobs and improve the economy.

“This truly is a historic day,” said Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, speaking at the end of a two-day premiers meeting in Whitehorse.

It’s not clear, however, what will immediately change under the agreement, which will replace an old agreement dating back 23 years.

“The old agreement covered only specific sectors of the economy,” said Pasloski. “The new agreement covers virtually the entire Canadian economy and will have unprecedented transparency.”

Provinces and territories will be able to keep exemptions and preferential programs they now have but creating new exemptions will become more difficult.

“Yukon and the other two territories as well as other provinces have exemptions in place. We will be using those exemptions,” Pasloski said.

The premiers also agreed to remove many of the barriers that now exist, although a list of those changes has not been made public yet. Pasloski said that will happen down the road.

“There will be an opportunity to have that list provided.”

He said there are still some technical issues to work out before the deal is submitted to the federal government and First Nations.

Pasloski said the deal also establishes a working group to study how to improve trade in beer, wine and spirits across the country.

Earlier in the day, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec agreed to allow online purchases of wine from each other’s provinces.

“We haven’t freed the grapes entirely, but they’re a little bit freer,” said B.C. Premier Christy Clark in making the announcement.

A deal to allow consumers to purchase wine online through each province’s government-controlled liquor monopoly may seem like a small step in the context of the overall agreement on free interprovincial trade the premiers were seeking at their Whitehorse meeting this week.

But Quebec’s Philippe Couillard said it was just the start.

“More will come,” he said. “We didn’t want to tie us down and wait until we work on the whole gamut of issues around our state-sponsored agencies.”

Couillard said that could take another two or three years. He added Nova Scotia, another wine-producing province, is interested in signing on to the deal.

The announcement was an indication of the difficulty of achieving a deal to allow Canadians to trade freely with their fellow citizens.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley acknowledged that several provinces, including hers, are seeking exemptions for economic development initiatives.

“It’s really important that we open up trade across the country,” she said. “But it’s also important to ensure that, where there’s a need for provincial governments to engage intentionally in economic stimulus or regional development, that they’re able to do that.”

Alberta is planning to spend billions on infrastructure to energize an economy damaged by low oil prices and the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Earlier in the day, Clark emphasized the importance of internal free trade, especially after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement during his speech Thursday night.

“If there was ever a time when Canadians need to come together and have free trade in our own country, it must be now when Americans are making noises like that,” she said.

The premiers were also debating how many strings they’re willing to accept on new federal money for health care. They have been asking the federal Liberals to increase their share of the funding to 25 per cent from an average of about 20 per cent.

Ottawa has suggested it’s willing to provide more money, but wants much of it spent on federal priorities such as mental health.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he’s willing to listen.

“What the premiers are saying is let’s deal with the funding situation first,” he said. “Then we discuss federal government priorities. If their priorities are long-term care and seniors care, that will be the priority of almost every province and territory.”

Couillard repeated his opposition to any strings at all.

“We are totally opposed to targeted funding,” he said. “This is a concept we will never let go. We will decide how to use the funds.”

At the end of the day, the premiers agreed that new federal health programs should allow for separate agreements between Ottawa and another province or territory.

The next summer meeting of the premiers is scheduled for July 17, 2017, in Edmonton.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960