The provincial and territorial leaders concluded a meeting Friday on the economy in Halifax, where they said their governments — and not Ottawa — are best positioned to deliver settlement services and address their labour market needs through immigration.
"In a nutshell, we want greater flexibility," said Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, attending his final gathering with his counterparts.
"We want to become masters of our own destiny when it comes to the immigration file. Nobody better understands our needs and our capacity to accommodate and our capacity to develop new Canadians so they can develop to their fullest.
"Give us more space. Let us run with this."
Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia echoed that message.
"We want more space to be able to make our decisions about which immigrants will come to our provinces, where they will be settled and how many we'll get," Clark said.
"It's provincial governments that drive economies in every part of the world. Immigration is one of the single most important economic levers that any jurisdiction has and the provinces ... don't control it."
They are pushing the federal Immigration Department to raise the number of people they can accept through immigrant nominee programs. Clark wants Ottawa to allow it to take in 6,500 people through its program next year — up from 3,500.
In Ontario's case, McGuinty wants that to be hiked to 5,000 from 1,000.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he has long been lobbying to increase its annual immigration nominee program cap to 6,000 from 4,000.
"If the answer is zero that will be difficult to understand," said Wall in Regina.
"We're asking for not another dime. In fact, we've said to them if for whatever we are asking causes some federal costs, we'll pay for them. That's how important it is for us."
Wall didn't attend the meeting but joined the premiers by teleconference, saying he didn't travel to Halifax because he wanted to save taxpayers' money.
Alexis Pavlich, a spokeswoman for federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, said in an email that Ottawa is already working on a system that would allow employers and provinces to select additional immigrants from a pool of highly trained workers.
Pavlich also said the government has expanded provincial nominee programs, with plans next year to bring 42,000 to 45,000 people into the country, representing a seven-fold increase since 2004.
But she added that the programs have had problems in the past that Ottawa is trying to address with the provinces, referring to the tendency for some immigrants to leave the provinces that recruited them.
Robert Vineberg, a research fellow with the Canada West Foundation, said if Ottawa allows immigration to rise from about 250,000 people a year to about 300,000, it would likely meet the provinces' demands without having to relinquish control.
"If the overall immigration levels were increased at a reasonable rate over the next five years or so, the provinces will probably be satisfied with the numbers available to them," he said.
As for the premiers seeking more authority over settlement programs, Vineberg said the provinces should be prepared to pay for taking that on, adding that some of them spend little on helping immigrants find work.
"Ottawa spends close to a billion dollars a year on this," said Vineberg, a former executive with Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
"In terms of settlement, he who pays the piper calls the tune."
The idea for a discussion between premiers about the economy came up during their last meeting in July, when they agreed to try to find ways on how they could protect their provinces from a global economy in flux.
The premiers invited Prime Minister Stephen Harper but he declined, saying he has met regularly with the premiers individually and will continue to do so in the future.
McGuinty said he would've preferred Harper attend the meeting, but added that it's time for the provinces to move on and do what they can on their own.
"It's not a matter of 'Waiting for Godot,'" McGuinty said, referring to Samuel Beckett's existentialist play about two men who wait endlessly for another character who never arrives.
"It's a matter of seizing opportunities."
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, who hosted the conference, said the provinces want Harper to come to the table and start renegotiating funding agreements in skills development and training before they expire in 2014.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, attending her first premiers' conference, used the occasion to hold separate talks Thursday with Alberta Premier Alison Redford. They agreed to study the economic opportunities and environmental issues associated with bringing Alberta oil to eastern Canada.
Marois said she will continue coming to the meetings, even though she represents a government that aims to separate Quebec from Canada.
"All premiers of Quebec since Jean Lesage have never kept a chair empty in these kinds of institutions," Marois said.
"This is the new institution to ensure the premiers have a place to exchange and discuss."