As we approach the Québec meetings of the Council of the Federation, I write to support you and your fellow Premiers to continue your thoughtful work on behalf of all Canadians. Your combined efforts to bring about a balanced discourse between distinct regional and community interests and the need for a positive, common vision for our future are to be commended. We have achieved much success in building a modern nation of shared heritages, equality of opportunity, common services and diversity of peoples and cultures.
Unfortunately, our ability to achieve greater progress on a wide range of essential social, environmental and economic issues for Canadians is seriously impeded by the absence of constructive national leadership. This is what makes your work through the Federation vitally important and challenging.
The economic slowdown in the United States and other parts of the world has already weakened Canada’s economy, has led to the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs. This will create increasing economic challenges in the months ahead. Record-high oil prices and high commodity prices may benefit some regions, but they are compounding the economic difficulties in the provinces and in most sectors. Rising energy and food prices are also creating increasing hardship for Canadian families, especially low and middle-income families.
In January, I urged the Prime Minister to call a national conference on the economy. Since then the need for such a forum has become critical. The federal government should work together with the Premiers in your efforts to strengthen our economy. Instead, they have chosen to attack and undermine your efforts.
On behalf of over 570,000 hardworking Canadians who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in communities across Canada, I outline here the main priorities we believe you and your fellow Premiers need to take into consideration at the Council of the Federation meetings.
Canadian provinces and municipalities continue to struggle under the pressure of a mounting infrastructure deficit. In response, the federal government has developed a widely promoted yet unsubstantial Building Canada program. This federal funding for infrastructure is slated to grow by less than the rate of inflation from 2009/10 on, and to decline significantly as a share of our economy. Yet it has been well documented that public investments in infrastructure generate high rates of return that exceed the benefits from tax cuts and private investments.
Priority: Canada needs significant increases in federal funding commitments for public infrastructure to rebuild our communities and the economy. The provinces must urge the federal government to develop a long-term plan and an adequate funding strategy to eliminate the public infrastructure deficit.
Privatization and P3s
Canada needs substantial investments in the economy from both the public and private sectors. However when private involvement spreads into the public domain, for instance in financing, delivering and managing of public services and infrastructure, there is cause for concern. Federal and provincial government measures are currently in place to promote public-private partnerships and other forms of privatization. Creative accounting aside, private financing invariably costs more than traditional forms of public financing and procurement and quite simply leads to diminished services and increased costs paid by future generations. Despite rosy financial projections and provisions for risk transfer, when these schemes fail, governments and the public are left with the responsibility to bail out the projects and to provide the public services.
Priority: Federal funding for infrastructure should be provided without costly and damaging ideological strings attached. We strongly urge you to reject pressure from the federal government and business to engage in privatization schemes such as public-private partnerships. At a minimum, your province should enact provincial accountability legislation requiring that P3s and other forms of privatization are subject to full disclosure, transparency and accountability.
Internal Trade Agreements
Our union is extremely concerned about internal trade agreements such as the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) and the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT), with provisions that undermine the democratic powers of governments and other public organizations.
Sweeping prohibitions against measures that could be interpreted as restricting or impairing trade are particularly disturbing. The “dispute resolution” measures provide corporations and investors with broad powers to sue governments or, in the case of the AIT, for governments to be heavily fined.
As our experience with NAFTA’s highly contentious Chapter 11 shows, these types of provisions create a regulatory chill that explicitly and implicitly restricts governments from acting in the best interests of their citizens and to govern.
Despite requests for substantiation, we have yet to see any evidence of barriers to trade that would justify these harsh measures. Priority: We call upon the federal government and the premiers to name the serious province-to-province trade and investment disputes that have prompted heavy enforcement measures. We encourage you to wisely consider the decisions of Saskatchewan, Yukon and Manitoba and to reject TILMA and TILMA-like interprovincial agreements. Leadership by the Premiers is strongly needed to take a stand for democracy, good public policy and good governance.
Strengthening our Economy
A hands-off laissez faire attitude based on tax cuts and deregulation won’t build the economy we need for the 21st century. Canada’s auto and manufacturing sectors are floundering because of the high dollar, high petroleum prices, the US economic downturn and corporate reversals.
Canadian workers and communities will bear the brunt while the Federal government maintains its stance on balancing the budget and cutting government spending even if the economy slows down.
Priority: The Premiers must continue to insist that the federal government work together with provinces, industry and labour representatives to develop forward-looking sectoral development plans for Canada’s major industries – and particularly for the hard-hit manufacturing and forestry sectors. A macroeconomic monetary, fiscal and trade policies designed to promote economic stabilization will secure our fiscal future far more than rhetoric around a balanced budget. Canadians need re-investment in public services and infrastructure instead of tax cuts, to strengthen the economy.
Improved Income Security
With a widely expected economic slowdown on the way, Canadians need improved income security programs, especially for working-age adults. A number of provinces have moved forward with their own poverty reduction strategies.
Priority: We need the federal government to take a leadership role in developing a national plan to reduce poverty, coordinated with the provincial governments. At a minimum, we need to take steps to increase economic security for workers and households by extending and improving employment insurance benefits, improving public pensions and expanding other social benefits and supports.
Labour Markets, Training and Conditions
While pushing for greater labour mobility across Canada, the federal government has increasingly relinquished its responsibility to provide national programs for labour market support and training, including literacy programs. Funding to colleges and universities has plummeted over the past two decades. While more than a million Canadians remain unemployed, the federal government’s main solution to labour market needs is the wholesale expansion of Temporary Foreign Worker Programs. These programs are often highly exploitative for highly vulnerable foreign workers. Implicitly, allowing the exploitation of these workers to continue is not only an injury against these workers, it weakens standards and conditions for workers everywhere. Furthermore, this is no answer to Canada’s long-term labour needs.
Priority: We urge the provinces to push for comprehensive national programs and a stable base of public funding to support students, workers and the labour market. The federal government must involve labour in the development of new labour markets and training strategies and programs.
Our members are very concerned about increasing commercialization of our children’s public schools, universities and colleges, and of research and development centres and laboratories. Inadequate funding, contracting-out and public-private partnerships in education are increasing the forms of commercialization in our education system.
Priority: Canadians deserve a public education focused on the needs of our children without growing intrusion by corporate interests.
Early Learning and Child Care
Access to affordable and high quality early learning and non-profit child care programs are a priority for many families who are struggling to balance work, family priorities and financial pressures. The cancellation of the federal-provincial child care agreements with the cut of $1 billion in annual funding was clearly regressive. We commend those provinces that have moved forward with funding and support to develop high quality non-profit programs.
But greater progress is needed in many provinces. Unless steps are taken to restrict the growth of big-box corporate child care and to eliminate restrictive trade agreements, it will be extremely difficult to develop a fully public, non-profit child care system.
Priority: Ultimately, federal funding for a pan-Canadian public, non-profit early learning and child care program is required.
Strengthening Public Health Care
Canada’s public health care system needs to be strengthened – and not weakened through the expansion of commercialized health care and private health insurance.
Priority: We outline a number of actions that the federal and provincial governments should take to achieve this collaboratively. These include: a public-sector only wait time strategy, a national long-term care program, a national Pharmacare program, a national strategy to combat healthcare acquired infections and greater support for primary health care reform. We also urge the federal government to enforce the Canada Health Act, to create a national infrastructure fund for building and redeveloping hospitals and long-term care facilities, to move forward with strategies to improve working conditions and training for health care workers and to follow through on commitments to improve health for Aboriginal peoples.
Climate Change and Energy
A number of provinces have moved ahead with plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deal with climate change.
Priority: To be effective and to establish credibility, environmental initiatives and plans must involve a central role for the public sector to set an example with its own operations, and with public investments to increase energy efficiency and to invest in renewable energy. Further privatization and deregulation of energy and electricity markets would make progress in this area much more difficult to achieve.
The impacts of climate change actions and higher energy and food prices will especially hurt lower income households and workers in vulnerable sectors and communities. Most provinces are far ahead of the federal government in this area.
Priority: Support must be provided to help workers whose jobs have been displaced, programs provided to help lower and middle households reduce their carbon emissions, compensation provided to the vulnerable for increased costs and public services provided to help with the impacts of climate change. Stronger provincial actions and interprovincial coordination is necessary. But climate change is a global problem and Canada desperately needs effective national leadership in order to make the progress required.
On behalf of CUPE and our members we wish you a productive meeting in Québec City. Canadians and communities across the country are relying on the Premiers, as elected officials and fellow citizens, to collaborate on our priorities, to provide wise and well-considered public policy, and to fundamentally uphold democracy. We are counting on your leadership.
PAUL MOIST National President