Inflamed relations between Ottawa and the prairie premiers don’t even need oil and gas to ignite

By Andrew Steele

After Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won re-election without any representatives from Alberta and Saskatchewan, all eyes are on the potential clash between those oil-producing provinces and the federal government over carbon action.

But this is not the only confrontation that looms for Confederation. Behind the soothing language of the Liberals’ “Choose Forward” platform is a myriad of specific details sure to infuriate the (mostly conservative) premiers of the Prairie provinces.

Take, for instance, an innocuous-seeming bullet on Page 12. “To help make life less stressful and to give people more time to do the things they love, we will move forward with new federal labour code protections, including: … greater labour protections for people who work through digital platforms; these are often contract or freelance workers (such as drivers for ride-sharing companies) whose status isn’t clearly covered by provincial or federal laws, so we will give them greater protection by developing relevant federal rules for this growing area of the economy.”

The Bank of Canada reports that nearly one-third of Canadians participate in the gig economy today, the equivalent of 700,000 full-time jobs. Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft already provide work for more than 90,000 people in Toronto, up from 30,000 just three years ago – making these firms by far the largest private-sector employers in the region, if they were indeed designated as such.

Its platform suggests that the Liberals plan to assert federal jurisdiction in what could be the lion’s share of future employment in Canada. Analysts already predict several professions currently regulated at the provincial level, such as engineering, accounting and law, will soon be disrupted by online offerings. How will provincial accounting designations maintain relevance in a global digital marketplace that falls under federal employment law?

The federal government currently has the ability to regulate telecommunications, and that precedent may establish their paramount power over the new economy. The provinces are unlikely to cede this ground easily, but it is hard to argue against the federal government protecting workers made vulnerable by digitized globalization.

Another potential battle can be found on the platform’s 14th page: “We will continue to collaborate with the provinces and territories to move forward with more accessible care, shorter wait times, and better health outcomes, and we will … set clear national standards for access to mental health services so Canadians can get the support they need quickly, when they need it most.”

In this point, the Liberals are getting at their displeasure that the money it transferred to provinces for mental-health care isn’t being used as they’d like; for instance, Doug Ford’s Ontario Progressive Conservative government redirected such money to policing initiatives – valuable, but not what was intended.

To correct this, the Liberals appear poised to amend the Canada Health Act, adding mental health as an insurable service. The money included in the plan could deploy the federal government’s fiscal levers to enforce those new mental-health national standards.

This would be another policy that would be unpopular to oppose. While the premiers are loath to accept strings on federal money, a pre-election poll commissioned by the College of Family Physicians of Canada reported in June that two-thirds of Canadians think it is very important to improve the availability of mental-health services.

There are also broad federal-provincial conflicts to fight in the very notion of universal pharmacare – and potentially even more so with the decisions around the formulary of what drugs are covered. The Liberal platform pledged that the government would “make sure that sexual and reproductive health medications are covered under national pharmacare.” Taxpayer-funded contraception and over-the-counter “day-after pills” will be anathema to some conservative constituencies of the provincial regimes, as may pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV or hormones for trans youth. As Andrew Scheer’s socially conservative views will likely be under the microscope going into a leadership review next year, the federal party may also try to hush such concerns from their provincial cousins.

Finally, the Liberals’ plan to give cities the power to ban handguns received significant attention during the election. However, municipalities are creatures of the provinces, not the federal government. Implementation may potentially require action from rural-based, conservative administrations in the provinces – and at the very least, such a ban is vulnerable to conservative provincial governments blocking cities from acting on the federal plan.

Having seen a plurality of voters issue a mandate for a progressive, activist federal government on issues such as climate change and pharmacare, the Liberals may feel justified in championing further national action on problems confronting Canadians. Of course, the future of the federation will have to come first, limiting how far the Trudeau government can push the provinces.

Generally, the Liberals would also be wise to use a conciliatory approach. You make more friends with honey than with vinegar – and the federal government often achieves more public policy goals with sweetness as well.