Canada's premiers lashed out at the federal government Monday, saying Ottawa is treading on thin ice by signing bilateral housing deals directly with municipalities while leaving provinces out of the mix.
The premiers also faulted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not having convened an in-person first ministers' meeting in five years.
At a time when the country is facing a series of crises — a housing crunch, a stressed health-care system and big changes in climate policy — the country's premiers need face-time with Trudeau, they said.
In the 2015 federal election, Trudeau campaigned on restoring "collaborative federal leadership," something he said was missing during former prime minister Stephen Harper's time in office.
Some premiers said today he hasn't lived up to that promise.
Under intense political pressure to get more homes built to ease an acute shortage, Housing Minister Sean Fraser has been signing deals with cities like Calgary, Hamilton, Halifax and London and Vaughan, Ont. under the Housing Accelerator Fund, which gives money to municipalities that commit to reducing red tape.
In exchange for commitments to increase housing density, Fraser has agreed to cut cheques for municipalities. The issue for the premiers is these deals have been made without provincial involvement — except in Quebec, where the province brokered a $900-million deal with Ottawa on behalf of all its cities and towns.
Every Quebec municipality will have access to funds, while others across the country will have to meet Ottawa's terms to get money through a bilateral deal, said Alberta Premier Danielle Smith.
The other premiers are now intent on getting what Quebec got — and they are threatening to enact legislation to stop Ottawa from going around provincial leaders when brokering such funding arrangements.
"We need fairness, we need equity and we're not seeing that with the current model," Smith said. "If defending our jurisdiction by passing legislation similar to Quebec assists us in getting fair treatment, then that's what we're going to do."
Left to right: Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston and Quebec Minister Responsible for Canadian Relations and the Canadian Francophonie Jean-Francois Roberge attend a meeting of Canada's premiers in Halifax on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. (Kelly Clark/Canadian Press)
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said the "lack of collaboration" on housing has "created duplicate processes" and it "risks pitting provinces and territories against each other."
"If people continue to be excluded, it's really hard to talk about unity," added P.E.I. Premier Dennis King. "We're working at breakneck speed and we need to all be pulling at the same end of the rope here."
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimates the country needs to build 3.5 million more housing units by 2030 to meet explosive demand as the country's population expands, thanks in part to record immigration.
To solve this problem, the federal government needs to work hand-in-hand with the provinces, Houston and King said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the federal Liberal government has been "surprising" premiers by popping up in municipalities unannounced and splashing cash around "when it's not their jurisdiction." He said Ottawa needs to put an end to the practice.
"Housing is a massive issue, not just in Ontario but right across the country," Ford said.
"All premiers would agree with this — you can't have the federal government going into a certain town or city and dumping funding and not even discussing it with the province. That's unacceptable. We call it jurisdictional creep. Obviously, they don't want to work collaboratively when they do that."
The final communique of the Council of the Federation meeting in Halifax demands that Ottawa ensure "predictable and flexible federal funding flows exclusively through provinces and territories."
Speaking to reporters before question period, Fraser said he will press ahead with a housing plan that's working.
"We have seen real progress as a result of the change in approach that we have adopted," he said. "I would hate to take a tool off the table in the middle of a crisis, particularly one that's proving its utility with the success we've had in cities across the country.
"My next move is getting more homes built in every corner of the country."
Premiers demand carbon tax reprieve
In addition to their criticism of how Ottawa doles out housing funds, the premiers raised concerns about the carbon tax.
Trudeau announced last month that home heating oil would be exempt from the carbon tax for a three-year period while the federal government ramps up a program to subsidize the purchase of heat pumps, which generally run on electricity.
While the carbon tax exemption is national in scope, Atlantic Canadians will disproportionately benefit from the program because residents there are more likely to use oil to heat their homes.
That has prompted claims that the pause is unfair because other energy consumers are left paying the carbon tax.
Some premiers said the carbon tax is punitive because it imposes costs on consumers even when their provinces are working to reduce emissions in other ways.
Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew said carbon pricing is not a 'silver bullet' to end climate change. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)
"The carbon tax is not the silver bullet when it comes to climate change," said Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew. He said the province has a low-carbon electricity grid and it's doing more to make it cleaner and greener.
The carbon tax exemption should be extended to people in his province, he said.
"During this inflationary period, people are suffering. In light of that, we do think there should be similar considerations given to the people of Manitoba to get us through this period of economic pain," Kinew said.
"The carbon tax is not effective. They should just get rid of it," Houston added. "There are much more efficient ways to protect the planet."
B.C. Premier David Eby said the carbon tax has worked well in his province — B.C. has had its own carbon tax in place for years — but he said he supports "fair treatment for all Canadians" on the issue.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, a long-time opponent of the carbon levy, reiterated his plan to instruct the provincially owned SaskEnergy to stop collecting the carbon tax on power until there's a nationwide reprieve.
"The Canadian government needs to extend fairness to all Canadian families," he said.
Trudeau has said there will be no more carve-outs to the carbon tax.