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Tories say latest offer to provinces on Canada Job Grant coming shortly

Employment Minister Jason Kenney speaks in Toronto on January 23, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Employment Minister Jason Kenney speaks in Toronto on January 23, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO - The federal Conservatives will submit their latest offer shortly to the provinces and territories in an effort to strike a deal on the Canada Job Grant, a government spokeswoman said Thursday.

There were no immediate details of what it contains or whether it incorporates the changes the provinces want before signing on to the contentious federal skills training proposal.

The Harper government has been at odds with the provinces and territories over the job grant, which was intended to replace labour funding agreements that expire at the end of March.

In last week's federal budget, the Tories said they'd launch the program on their own if a deal was not reached by then.

Earlier in the day, Ontario urged Ottawa to take action soon, so the fate of provincially run job skills training programs wouldn't be left up in the air come April 1.

With time running out and no reply yet from the federal government, the province said it fears organizations that rely on the money to provide services to about 425,000 out-of-work people would be forced to shut their doors.

"That's a lot of people to be leaving out in the cold for the sake of politics," said Brad Duguid, Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities.

There's nothing stopping the Tories from extending the current agreements until a deal on the Job Grant is reached with the provinces and territories, he said.

"As of April 1st, if there's no agreement, there's actually no funding as far as I know," he said.

Irene Sihvonen of Toronto-area Access Employment, who joined Duguid at his news conference, said the federal money constitutes most of the funding for the not-for-profit organization.

"We do fundraising and corporate sponsorship to augment those funds as well and to reach more job-seekers and employers," she said.

"But it is a significant component. We would not be around if the whole funding disappeared, for sure."

The provinces and territories have put up a rare united front over the job grant proposal, which was the centrepiece of the Tories' 2013 budget.

Ottawa has already spent millions of dollars on ads extolling the virtues of the program that doesn't yet exist.

The proposed grant is supposed to provide $15,000 for each eligible worker, with the cost divided equally among Ottawa, the provinces and employers.

But the provinces complained Ottawa was covering their portion by diverting federal cash used for provincially run jobs training programs, while forcing the provinces to pony up millions more to cover their portion of the grant.

Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney offered in December to cover the provincial portion, but no new money has been allocated for it.

Earlier this month, the provinces countered with changes that they said would provide more flexibility in how the job grant would be funded, as well as allowing more small businesses — who couldn't afford the $5,000 per worker — to participate.

Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said the provinces had been expecting a counter-proposal last Friday from Kenney, but it didn't show.

He said it's "refreshing" to see the provinces and territories in solidarity in terms of their opposition to certain elements of the job grant, saying that a national approach to training is impractical given the disparate demographics and industries in each province.

Duguid said the Tories have been sending mixed messages, with Kenney saying he's willing to work with the governments while Finance Minister Jim Flaherty blasts the provinces, saying they don't account for how they spend job training money.

Ontario's programs are audited each year and reported directly to the federal government, which posts them on their website, Duguid said.

Nationwide, 87 per cent of people who graduate from these job training programs are going on to work — a figure that comes directly from the federal government, Duguid added.

"The federal data proves that these programs are working, they're working well, and we'll strive to improve those programs as best we can," he said.

The Tories have provided no evidence to the provinces that their plan would be more effective, he said.

Kenney was unavailable for comment, but his spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier said a counter-offer was coming in the very near future.

The grant will ensure that skills training leads to a guaranteed job, she added in an email.

"It also reflects the fact that employers know better than governments what training needs exist," she said.

"The Canada Job Grant will ensure employers put more skin in the game when it comes to training unemployed and underemployed Canadians. The federal government has listened to provinces' concerns and significantly restructured the offer based on their feedback."

The provinces will still be able to keep a large portion of the labour market agreement funding for their priorities, she said, and Canadians will be eligible for training whether they're employed or unemployed.

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