There's concern across the board over the Canada Job Grant, said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is hosting the Council of the Federation meeting.
"There really was a very strong feeling that the program as it exists won't work," she said.
The Harper government wants to divert some of the money it gives to the provinces and territories to the new program, which would provide a grant of $15,000 per worker. The provinces and territories, as well as the employers, would each kick in $5,000.
But the premiers are worried that it won't give them enough flexibility to direct the money where it's needed most and could jeopardize existing provincially run programs. Small businesses aren't interested in taking part in this program either, Wynne said.
The provinces and territories, who have jurisdiction for skills training and labour market programs, would have to find more than $600 million to maintain their current programs as well as match the cost of the Canada Job Grant, they said in a joint statement Thursday.
"Premiers reiterated that federal funding agreements or initiatives such as the proposed Canada Job Grant must allow jurisdictions to opt out, with full compensation," it said.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and New Brunswick Premier David Alward will look into the issue and report back to their counterparts this fall, said Wynne.
"We are all calling for a federal, provincial, territorial ministerial meeting to discuss these important issues, because we do not believe the way the program is designed that it will work," she said.
Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney agreed to meet with the premiers this fall and "move forward with timely implementation of the Canada Job Grant."
"The federal government's focus remains on job creation, economic growth and long-term prosperity," he said in a statement.
Behind the scenes, Ontario and B.C. say they're open to negotiating an arrangement that works for everyone. But Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, one of the most vocal opponents of the Canada Job Grant, suggested that some provinces would rather opt out entirely. But she wouldn't name names.
"We do not want to have the invasion of the federal government," she said.
The program, which is supposed to kick in April 2014, is contingent on negotiations with the provinces that were set to start this summer.
The federal Conservatives have started reaching out to some of the provinces, such as British Columbia and Alberta. But others, like Ontario, didn't get the memo.
The nine-page document — entitled "An Offer to Provinces and Territories to Transform and Renew the Labour Market Agreements, and Implement the Canada Job Grant" — says Ottawa is "looking to discuss the detailed design" with the provinces.
"As soon as possible, the government of Canada will arrange a bilateral meeting to discuss the elements of the proposal in more detail and initiate negotiations toward new agreements as quickly as possible to ensure they are in place by April 1, 2014," says the draft, obtained by The Canadian Press.
The offer also makes it clear that the provinces and territories must give the federal government credit for the program once it is in place.
One provincial official speaking on condition of anonymity said they don't have a problem sharing credit with Ottawa for jobs training. What the provinces want are programs tailored to their individual needs, which they're best equipped to provide.
It's clear the Harper government, which spent a great deal of money on ads extolling the virtues of a program that doesn't yet exist, is trying to pit some provinces against the others, said NDP critic Libby Davies.
"One can only surmise that this is a calculated decision to divide the provinces, and to play one off against the other, and to give some information, and others no information," she said.
"That creates a very unstable situation, makes it more difficult for the provinces themselves to work together."
Wynne wouldn't go that far, but acknowledged: "None of us is happy with the program as it's either been rolled out, or the process around it."
There were divisions among the provinces on developing a national energy strategy, however, with Quebec and British Columbia still refusing to sign on.
"But everyone stayed at the table, everyone was interested in the discussion," Wynne said.
The issue will crop up again Friday, when the leaders are expected to talk about the transportation of oil and other dangerous goods. Complicating matters is the Lac-Megantic derailment disaster, which has some groups calling for a review of all forms of transportation, including pipelines.
The premiers will likely touch on a proposed west-east pipeline to transport Alberta oil to foreign markets. Wynne said she raised it at Thursday's meeting, but it wasn't an "in depth discussion" and no agreement was struck.
In terms of the proposed pipeline, Wynne said she wants the highest safety and environmental standards to be met, that aboriginal groups and communities be consulted and that current consumers of natural gas be protected, since the project would involve converting an existing natural gas pipeline to transport oil instead.
But the Council of the Federation isn't the forum for discussing potential pipeline project, said Alberta Premier Alison Redford. Last year, Clark left the meeting early, saying she wouldn't participate in energy talks until the public feud over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline was resolved.
"The pipeline conversation is a conversation about independent approval processes that don't take place at Council of the Federation, and commercial projects, which again aren't part of what we do at the Council of the Federation," Redford said.
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