Pensions and Canada Job Grant top of agenda for premiers’ meeting in Toronto

TORONTO – Pensions and a contentious federal job grant program are under discussion as Canada’s provincial and territorial premiers meet in Toronto on Friday.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is hosting the Council of the Federation meeting, said most of the talks revolved around the two issues.

Her top priority is reforming the Canada Pension Plan, warning there will be a huge financial crisis if action isn’t taken now.

But the provinces are divided on the issue, with some advocating for CPP improvements, while others oppose it out of concern that a hike in premiums will kill jobs.

However, Wynne expressed confidence that the provinces and territories could find a way forward.

“I think we’re demonstrating it on the retirement security issues, because we have said clearly that we want finance ministers to continue to look at what the solutions might be to these issues,” she said.

“I think it’s a very useful discussion and it’s useful that we share our positions with each other because out of that comes, I believe, a better discussion across the country.”

Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island also want CPP improvements, with P.E.I. proposing to hike maximum CPP contributions to $4,681.20 a year from $2,356.20 and boosting maximum annual benefits to $23,400 from $12,150.

But Nova Scotia, Alberta and the federal government are worried a hike in premiums, which are split evenly between workers and employers, would be the same as increasing taxes on businesses and could kill jobs.

Wynne said provinces and territories can find “nuanced agreement and unanimity” on the Canada Job Grant too.

The federal Conservatives want to divert about $300 million — or 60 per cent — of what they currently give the provinces and territories to the yet-to-be-implemented program.

It would provide a grant of $15,000 per worker, with the federal government, provinces and territories and employers each kicking in $5,000.

But the provinces and territories want more flexibility to direct the money where it’s needed most, saying it could jeopardize existing provincially-run programs that help disadvantaged groups.

They say they’d have to come up with more than $600 million to maintain their current programs as well as match the cost of the Canada Job Grant.

The program was proposed in last spring’s federal budget, but Employment Minister Jason Kenney hadn’t met face-to-face with his provincial and territorial counterparts to talk about the plan until last week. The existing agreement expires in March.

Kenney has said he’s willing to listen to their concerns and be flexible on some aspects of the plan, such as the contribution ratios, to accommodate small businesses.

Wynne said she’s encouraged by Kenney’s comments, but rebuked the Tories for trying to push the program through without talking to the provinces and territories first.

“It would have been great had there been consultation up front on the design of that program,” she said.

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