EDMONTON — Saskatchewan — facing a free trade probe and potential multimillion-dollar fines for banning Alberta licence plates — reversed course Monday, labelling its about-face a triumph.
Saskatchewan Trade Minister Steven Bonk said the province is immediately ending a policy it imposed in December that banned vehicles with Alberta licence plates on government construction projects.
Bonk said they were doing so because Alberta Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous told reporters last week his province would abide by a pending panel ruling on a separate free-trade issue surrounding support for Alberta micro-brewers.
"Since they've backed down, we've decided to completely back down," Bonk said in Regina.
"It's absolutely a victory for Saskatchewan."
Alberta officials have never said publicly they would not abide by the upcoming appeal ruling on the Agreement on Internal Trade over whether recent tax changes and subsidies for Alberta craft brewers violate interprovincial free-trade rules.
Bonk said they believed Alberta wouldn't abide by it.
"That was definitely inferred," he said. "We've heard them say that they will not back down."
Speaking to reporters in Edmonton, Bilous dismissed Bonk's accusations that Alberta wouldn't abide by any ruling on beer, which is expected as early as February
"Is Bonk making this up to save face?" Bilous was asked.
"Absolutely," he replied.
Bilous said the real reason Bonk reversed course was because Monday was the deadline to walk back the policy or face an arbitration panel investigation, and potentially $5 million in fines, for contravening free-trade rules under the New West Partnership trade agreement.
"When you're wrong, you're wrong," said Bilous.
"(Saskatchewan Premier) Brad Wall waited until the 11th hour to do the right thing."
When Saskatchewan imposed the ban Dec. 6, it was not about beer but workplace fairness.
Saskatchewan officials at that time said the licence plate ban was in response to similar restrictions facing Saskatchewan workers on Alberta job sites. Alberta said that was not true and Bonk has never provided evidence to back up the claim.
As the war of words escalated, Wall stepped in and said the plate ban was in response to anti-free-trade initiatives by Alberta, including the beer dispute.
Alberta then filed a legal challenge under the New West deal, leading to Monday's deadline.
Carla Beck, the Saskatchewan opposition NDP deputy house leader, said it's been clear from the beginning that the governing Saskatchewan Party had no justification.
"Now, even after backing down, they're still playing games. We should be able to expect better from our government," Beck said.
Both sides also agreed in December to meet in Lloydminster — on the boundary between the two provinces — to hash out trade concerns.
The two sides still want to meet and have set a date of Jan. 31. But Saskatchewan wants to hold it in Medicine Hat, Alta., which is closer to Regina, while Alberta insists on Lloydminster.
It's the second time in 10 months that Wall's government has walked back on free-trade incursions into Alberta.
Last March, Wall sent letters to oil companies in Calgary. He offered incentives such as relocation costs and help finding office space if firms would move to Saskatchewan.
After Alberta Premier Rachel Notley threatened to take the issue to arbitration as a violation of free-trade rules — and hinted at retaliatory measures — Wall's government sent followup letters to the oil companies stressing the province couldn't violate trade agreements.
The ongoing spat underscores the bad blood between Notley and Wall, particularly as it relates to rehabilitating their non-renewable, resource-based economies.
As late as last week, Wall and Notley were publicly sniping at each other. Wall has criticized Notley's decision to rack up debt and deficits to help revive Alberta's finances, while Notley says Wall's austerity budgets have made a bad situation worse in his province.
Wall is leaving politics, however, and Saskatchewan Party members are to pick a new leader — and premier — on Saturday.