OTTAWA - Canada's provincial and territorial premiers will sit down Friday in Ottawa to discuss energy, skills training, internal trade barriers and the need for infrastructure funding as plummeting oil prices threaten the federal government's bottom line.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has skipped the Council of the Federation meetings for years, isn't attending this one either as the premiers meet just a few blocks from his office.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne invited Harper to the gathering earlier this month, and recently expressed disappointment that he's not showing up.
"It's a frustration to me; I think it would be better if we did have an opportunity, as premiers, to have a discussion with him," she said in an interview.
"I think it's better for the relationship, which is better for the country ... when he has an opportunity to deal with us as a group, directly, and we with him. But it's his choice and he hasn't chosen to do that."
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard agreed.
"It's always good to have a meeting between the prime minister of Canada and his provincial and territorial counterparts," Couillard said earlier this week.
"I think it's a good practice, but it's not up to me to comment on the agenda choices of Mr. Harper."
During the daily question period Wednesday in the House of Commons, the NDP's Guy Caron chastised Harper for failing to attend the meeting.
Harper's parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, defended his boss.
"The prime minister continuously meets with premiers," Calandra said, adding cabinet ministers also consult "all the time" with their provincial counterparts.
Wynne says the premiers will discuss the so-called Canadian Energy Strategy, a initiative involving all 13 provinces and territories focused on climate change and clean energy. Coulliard will provide an update, she said.
The premiers will also discuss skills training, as well as internal trade barriers.
Two western conservative premiers, Alberta's Jim Prentice and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall, will not be in Ottawa for the meeting. Wall's office says he's participating via conference call, while Prentice is sending the province's municipal affairs minister in his place.
A spokeswoman for P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, the meeting's host, wouldn't comment on whether the fact two leaders who are on the front lines of the oil price crisis would not be there in person would diminish the meeting's effectiveness.
The Council of the Federation's main function is to present a united front among the 13 provinces and territories when dealing with the federal government.
In addition to its formal meetings twice a year, the council gatherings allow premiers to discuss a host of issues concerning their provinces and territories on the sidelines of official events.
"Obviously Premier Wall feels that's not the case, (but) personally I prefer to meet face-to-face on a regular basis," Bob McLeod, premier of the Northwest Territories, said Tuesday in Ottawa.
"It's a very good forum for us. As a small jurisdiction, we really benefit from interacting with larger provincial premiers."
B.C. Premier Christy Clark says she'll represent Wall and Prentice, and the interests of the West, during the meeting.
"The three of us have a plan that we put together to create free trade between us, to lobby the federal government for modest investments in infrastructure, to grow the economy; we've got a plan to work together on skills training," she said earlier this week.
Last week, Wynne proposed a sweeping, multibillion-dollar national infrastructure partnership between the provinces and the federal government.
She said the so-called Canadian Infrastructure Partnership would be a collaboration aimed at investing five per cent of GDP in infrastructure renewal — almost $100 billion a year.
Wynne said she's already discussed the need for a provincial-federal partnership on infrastructure at last summer's Council of the Federation meeting in Charlottetown, and will raise it again on Friday.
"There is no province or territory across the country that doesn't believe we need infrastructure funding and that we need a partnership with the federal government," Wynne said.
— With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25
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