It's an annual fixture on the country's summer political calendar. A chance for Canada's premiers to gather and connect on shared priorities. And more importantly, especially in a federal election year, a golden political opportunity to express their displeasure with the direction of the federal government on multiple fronts.
The summer Council of the Federation (COF) meeting, being held in Saskatoon from July 9 to 11 and hosted by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe with all Canadian provincial and territorial leaders, serves as a vehicle for premiers to come together and meet face-to-face.
Agendas are always chock full of policy files, ranging from energy to healthcare to infrastructure. This year is no different, with issues such as internal trade and the federal carbon tax topping the list.
From a business perspective, the long-standing push on reducing domestic free trade barriers and bolstering labour mobility efforts are tied directly to the political backyards of the leaders. “Energy corridors”—an idea supported by federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer—could also receive attention. The bottom line is that all premiers need to show they’re creating jobs and reducing red tape for their respective economies. COF, therefore, remains a signature chance to show collective progress.
Yet, given the always tricky dynamic of Canada's federation—and the push and pull tension of the relationship between Ottawa and provinces/territories—the lion's share of the attention is invariably on the person who isn't invited: the Prime Minister of Canada. T'was ever thus.
This scrutiny will undoubtedly be even more heightened this year, going far beyond the normal “13 on 1” approach used by provinces against the federal government when such federal-provincial meetings are convened at the ministerial level.
Why? There has been an undeniable “blue wave” of multiple Conservative wins in provincial elections, a significant political sea change, compared to the period just before the last federal election in 2015. Four years ago, the country was predominantly “red” at the provincial level, including in B.C., Ontario, Quebec and throughout Atlantic Canada.
Voters in Alberta, New Brunswick and P.E.I. voted blue in 2019. Add these wins to long-serving provincial Conservative governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan—along with the majority won by Doug Ford’s Ontario Conservatives in 2018—and a blindingly obvious “united front” has coalesced against PM Trudeau in advance of the October federal election. The headwinds facing Trudeau will be strong.
These jurisdictions won't go easy on him, both in Saskatoon this week and beyond, and their efforts are becoming more coordinated.
Exhibit A: a COF “pre-meeting” of Conservative premiers was just spearheaded by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney Monday in Calgary. This serves as an opportunity to coordinate messages and tactics. Expect the criticism on the proposed federal carbon tax, for example, to deliberately highlight how the current Liberal government is “out of touch” or “following the wrong path.”
Notwithstanding coordination efforts, a single COF “script” is rarely followed by all attendees, as premiers are cognizant of how their approaches play back home. To this end, keep an eye on the following this week:
- B.C. Premier John Horgan: The western premiers recently convened in Edmonton. Premier Horgan and his western counterparts seemingly “agreed to disagree” on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, with B.C. as the outlier. Yet he found common cause on multiple issues. Expect Horgan to continue to find this balance of holding his ground, yet looking to advance other files within the noise of COF.
- Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: He has quickly turned into the de facto dean of provincial Conservative governments, seemingly serving a “quarterback” role for core issues of concern, particularly on the energy front. While his Saskatchewan ally is the host, expect Kenney’s voice to cut through in Saskatoon.
- Ontario Premier Doug Ford: Ford will be looking to change the channel from a very forgettable spring and early summer. Following a lukewarm budget rollout and a major cabinet shuffle meant to reset his Government’s message, Ford has had to deal with the fallout of his former Chief of Staff’s appointments scandal. COF offers an opportunity to join with like-minded provincial leaders and focus his sights back on the Trudeau government and their many disagreements as BBQ season kicks into full swing.
- Quebec Premier François Legault: Since his win in late 2018, Premier Legault has deftly remained politically pragmatic with both Ottawa and his provincial counterparts, while continuing to chart his own path on issues of concern to Quebec. He also knows full well how important Quebec will be during the federal election in October. Having set the table Monday with an astonishing 180 on the federal carbon tax levy, his public stances and continued political chess moves will be parsed by provinces, federal public leaders, and the media alike in Saskatoon.
NATIONAL’s market-leading team of public affairs leaders will be watching COF with interest this week, particularly on how the meeting triggers political ripples for federal election race. While the official starting gun has yet to go off, the federal campaign has started. And provincial dynamics will undoubtedly weigh heavily on the road to October.