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Drop-dead date on Canada Job Grant not 'threat,' but 'back-up plan': Kenney

Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty speaks at a post-budget event in Ottawa on Wednesday, February 12, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

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Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty speaks at a post-budget event in Ottawa on Wednesday, February 12, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA - Employment Minister Jason Kenney says the federal government is "very close" to implementing the contentious Canada Job Grant on its own, but insists the provinces and territories are not being held at gunpoint.

"My department has been working on prospective delivery of the Canada Job Grant through Service Canada for the better part of a year, so we are very close to being ready to deliver that if necessary," Kenney said Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"This is nothing like a threat, it's just a back-up plan."

Time is of the essence in negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces and territories because existing labour market agreements, which provide the federal funds used to train workers who are eligible for employment insurance, expire March 31.

In its 2014-2015 budget tabled Tuesday, Ottawa signalled its intention to go it alone — with or without any stragglers among the provinces and territories — if a deal isn't reached by April 1.

That warning went over like a lead balloon in some provinces, particularly Quebec, where the Conservative government was likened to a "predator" and officials lamented anew the lack of an opting-out clause in the job grant program.

"We've been clear from the beginning that our preference is to work out provincial delivery of the job grant and the labour market agreement," Kenney said.

"But if certain provinces or territories refuse to participate, that's not the end of the world. We'll deliver the job grant, but there will continue to be base funding to the provinces through the labour market agreements."

That's a far more diplomatic tone than the one struck earlier Wednesday by Kenney's cabinet colleague, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who scoffed at provincial complaints about the grant program.

"The money is being put into job creation. Job training in Canada is not provincial tax money; it's federal tax money," Flaherty said on his way into a Conservative cabinet meeting.

"And it's not for a provincial government to tell the federal government how to spend federal tax money.... The provincial governments have taxation powers; they can raise their own taxes."

Kenney didn't comment on Flaherty's harsh rebuke, nor would he provide any details on the ongoing job grant talks between the government and the provinces, saying it's "bad form" to negotiate through the media.

He's yet to respond to a counter-offer put forth by the provinces earlier this month, but provincial officials have reported Kenney has been conciliatory and open to new ideas throughout the negotiations.

The proposed Canada Job Grant aims to provide $15,000 for each eligible worker, divided equally among Ottawa, the provinces and employers. In the face of a hue and cry from the provinces, Kenney offered to cover the provincial portion of grant, upping the federal share to $10,000.

But Kenney’s provincial and territorial counterparts argue they’d still be forced to remove hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money from existing provincially run programs for youth, aboriginals and disabled citizens.

Flaherty, meantime, says billions of dollars of federal money flow to the provinces each year and some don't even report the results, while others fail to use the cash for job training.

"We don't even know what they do with the money; so we're going to do better than that," he said. "We will do it with the employers directly and the government of Canada."

Kenney says Service Canada is ready to lead the charge should a job grant deal fail to materialize between Ottawa and the provinces. He called the Service Canada approach a "light touch."

"This would be an opportunity for employers to apply online through a secure website operated by Service Canada," he said.

"They'd be nominating an individual or a group of individuals for particular training. They'd make an attestation that they'd hire that person at the back end of the training, and they'd be committed to paying for a certain percentage of the training costs."

The government would then reimburse the employer at the end of the training sessions, he said.

Several provincial officials have taken issue with the April 1 deadline imposed in the budget.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois accused the Conservative government of acting like "a real predator" on the grant program.

On the other hand, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne sounded a more measured note.

"I hope we'll be able to get there; it's a very important program and I hope that we're going to be able to have a situation where the federal government understands the kind of flexibility that the provinces need," she said.

"I hope we can do it by (April 1)."

Theresa Oswald, Manitoba's jobs minister, called the April 1 deadline "arbitrary." She added that the programs funded through the labour market agreements have a high success rate.

"To suggest that there was no evaluation, there was no accountability, just isn't so," Oswald said. "What they want to do is blow up a program that was having an 87-per-cent success rate, which is pretty darn good."

In Edmonton, Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk bristled at Flaherty's characterization of "federal money."

"It's not their money. It's not provincial money. It's Canadian taxpayers' money and 12 per cent of Canadians happen to be Albertans," Lukaszuk said.

Having the Canada Job Grant funnelled through Ottawa would be problematic because it's a program that is best addressed provincially, given the unique job needs of every province, he added.

"For the federal government to continue with a one-size fits all pan-Canadian approach is not going to address these issues."

The April Fools Day deadline, he added, is "an ironic date to pick."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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