MONTREAL — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is warning that nothing will be accomplished at today's first ministers' meeting if premiers insist on expanding the agenda to discuss a laundry list of issues.
"That's the trick, isn't it? When you've got a few hours to discuss things and there are many things," Pallister said on his way into a meeting of first ministers with Indigenous leaders preceding the main event. "But if we have too many priorities, we won't get anything done."
Pallister's warning may well turn out to be a prediction. Premiers arrived for the meeting with a host of conflicting issues they want addressed and no clear agreement among themselves on which are the most pressing or what should be done about them.
New Brunswick's Blaine Higgs, chair of the premiers and like Pallister a Progressive Conservative, said he's got a list of up to eight items that his fellow provincial and territorial leaders consider priorities that must be discussed.
"It could be a neverending list, I guess, but there's probably six or eight issues that we want to be sure to have discussion (on)," he said.
In brief remarks opening the main session with premiers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged: "We have a lot of subjects to discuss and I want to give as much time as possible for discussions."
Trudeau had intended to make lowering interprovincial trade barriers the focus of the meeting. But amid grumbling from premiers pushing their own priorities, he's said he's willing to talk about whatever they want.
In addition to trade and the economy, Trudeau said: "Of course, today the premiers and I will talk about how we can best support Canadians working in sectors that are currently facing significant challenges, whether they're oil and gas workers in Alberta hit hard by the price differential or GM workers in Oshawa."
But grumbling about the agenda continued even after the first ministers went behind closed doors. One provincial source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Finance Minister Bill Morneau spent more than 10 minutes boasting about federal economic management, until Higgs finally intervened, "in a spirit of this being a dialogue, not a lecture," to call for questions.
Emerging from the meeting later, Morneau described the proceedings as a constructive, positive and robust discussion of the state of the economy, including the challenges it faces.
For Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley, "the single most important economic issue facing the country" is the crisis in the oil and gas industry, caused by slumping prices linked to her province's inability to get its resources to ports for shipment overseas.
"It is a huge contributor to our GDP, hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country," she said.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Quebec party is on the centre-right, sees the meeting as an opportunity to push his demand for federal compensation for the costs of dealing with the influx of asylum seekers who have used unofficial border crossings to enter the country from the U.S. He is asking for $300 million from the feds and said he raised the issue during a pre-meeting dinner with Trudeau on Thursday evening.
"There is an opening," Legault said. "Yesterday, I had the opportunity to discuss it with Mr. Trudeau. As of now, they are offering about half of the total."
But Pallister is one of the few premiers who wants to keep the focus on Trudeau's preferred priority.
"We need a unified commitment to eliminate trade barriers that are of our own creation," Pallister said, calling it a "100-year area of neglect."
"A fifth of our GDP depends upon internal trade and we're charging each other about a seven-per-cent tariff on everything we ship to each other. So that's ridiculous; it needs to be addressed."
The meeting promises to be the most acrimonious — and likely the least productive — first ministers' gathering Trudeau has hosted.
Gone are the days when he was surrounded by friendly provincial Liberal allies. Now, he's facing a phalanx of conservative premiers who are putting up determined opposition to some of his signature policies, in particular his plan to impose a federal carbon tax next year.
And one of them — Ontario's Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford — has vowed to ensure Trudeau's Liberals are defeated in next fall's federal election. Federal officials privately believe that will include efforts to derail today's meeting, potentially even staging a dramatic walkout — a scenario Ford and his aides have not ruled out.
Ford's team has been a major source of the complaints about Trudeau's agenda and demands that it be expanded to include a host of provincial concerns.
In a preliminary meeting with Trudeau on Thursday, Ford listed the carbon tax as his top priority but said he also wants to talk about aluminum and steel tariffs, the oil-price crisis, illegal border-crossers, the impending closure of GM's plant in Oshawa and internal trade barriers.
No other premier seems inclined to join Ford in threatening to walk out of the meeting.
"I'm optimistic that we'll all see it through," said Higgs. "Now, if that changes, I guess it would be maybe a sad day for Canada, but I'm hopeful we won't get there."
Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan, a Liberal, put the chances of a walkout by any premier at "very close to zero."
He acknowledged that "everybody's coming at things from different perspectives or different interests" and likely won't be "100-per-cent on the same page" at the end of the day. But he played down the seriousness of the current tensions compared to some of the "existential" disputes of the past when the unity of the country hung in the balance.
Joan Bryden and Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press