Premiers To Push Health Care, Infrastructure Needs Ahead Of Federal Election

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OTTAWA - The country's premiers presented a united front on everything from infrastructure and seniors' health care to the need to protect Canadians from terrorism as they held their winter gathering on Friday without Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Wrapping up the Council of the Federation meeting, the premiers almost uniformly praised a presentation on the economy by Kevin Lynch, vice-chair of BMO Financial Group and former clerk of the privy council under the Harper government.

Lynch's presentation made it clear that investment in infrastructure is critical to economic prosperity, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said.

"It was very much focused on the kind of long-term investment and long-term thinking of which infrastructure is a perfect example and infrastructure investment was part of what Mr. Lynch talked to us about."

Wynne criticized federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who issued a statement earlier in the day to express dismay that the premiers were seeking more federal money for infrastructure at a time when falling oil prices threaten Ottawa's finances.

"The response that Mr. Oliver has given so quickly to our discussions really demonstrates, in my opinion, that the oblivion is not on the part of the premiers," said Wynne, who has proposed a multibillion-dollar, federal-provincial infrastructure partnership.

"The oblivion actually is on the part of the federal government that is apparently not listening to all of the voices at this table who have said that infrastructure and investment in infrastructure is very important on a number of fronts."

Wynne got backup from B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

"We can't build a country if we don't have infrastructure, because it's that infrastructure that allows us to get our goods to market, whatever those goods are, and that's why this investment is so important right now," she said.

A spokesman for Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel took issue with the premiers.

"Our government has introduced the largest and longest infrastructure plan in Canadian history with a $75-billion investment in public infrastructure over the next decade," Vincent Rabault said in an email.

P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, the host of the meeting, insisted that party affiliation was left at the door during the premiers' gathering even as he ribbed Harper for meeting with Wynne on the sidelines of a hockey tournament earlier this month.

"If I had planned it a little bit better, maybe I would have planned this meeting around the World Junior Hockey championships and he would have been here, but, you know, hindsight is 20-20," said Ghiz, who's retiring in mid-February.

For all the chuckles, however, there was plenty of antagonism on display via some of the premiers' remarks, particularly Wynne's, and on the sidelines of the meeting.

Six of the 11 premiers in attendance were Liberal; one is NDP. Some provincial officials griped off the record about the Conservatives' terror bill announcement earlier Friday, suggesting the government timed it to steal thunder from their meeting.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ghiz told reporters at the end of the meeting that the premiers have agreed to work closely with law enforcement agencies in their jurisdictions to ensure Canadians are safe from terrorism.

Although Harper's absence at the meeting was a repeated complaint all day, Clark suggested the provinces are happy to take the bull by the horns.

"The premiers get a lot accomplished around this table, and we have since I've been here," she said.

"It's always better when we collaborate as broadly as we can in order to build a country, but I think we accomplish a lot without them here too."

One of those accomplishments was a consensus on the need for a national strategy on seniors' health care. Both the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association had urged the premiers to address the issue at the meeting, and they heeded the call.

"There are many different avenues where an aging population is affecting us in terms of our economic ability but also in terms of cost," Ghiz said.

Climate change was also a key topic of discussion at the gathering, the premiers said.

Wynne and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said the provinces and territories are making progress on the so-called Canadian Energy Strategy, an initiative involving all 13 premiers and focused on climate change and clean energy.

Couillard said proposed pipeline projects like TransCanada's $12-billion Energy East are important to the Canadian economy but "the environment and the security of communities must come first."

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, meantime, reiterated his belief that Energy East will create jobs and stimulate the economy in an environmentally responsible way.

He added that a list of principles from Wynne and Couillard that must be met before they back Energy East is "very reasonable and I also think they are very achievable."

The pipeline would cut through large portions of both Ontario and Quebec, carrying western oil to a deepwater, East Coast port.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25

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