Buy America, pensions, EI top premiers’ agenda

REGINA — Canada’s premiers are calling for an overhaul of the employment insurance program, but they haven’t completely agreed on what changes should be made.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall

REGINA — Canada’s premiers are calling for an overhaul of the employment insurance program, but they haven’t completely agreed on what changes should be made.

The premiers, who are meeting this week, say the program needs to be reformed to help more Canadians especially as the country struggles to pull out of the recession. As part of the reform, the federal government must increase the money put toward training, they said.

“We need to modernize the employment insurance program and modernization has to include a bigger emphasis on training,” said Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall who hosted the meeting in Regina.

“Premiers are saying … let’s lift the ceiling on the amount that can go into training. This is obviously an urgent need, too.”

Among the changes, the premiers say EI should provide equitable support to Canadians regardless of where they live. They also want the current 58 EI regions — each with different thresholds to qualify — reduced.

The western premiers put forward a proposal that the 58 thresholds be reduced to just three, for urban, rural and remote areas.

However, Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty has said he’d like to see a single national eligibility standard. McGuinty argued that residents in areas hit hard by the recession, such as Windsor, likely wouldn’t see much help in the three-category proposal.

The premiers failed to reach a consensus on the regions issue.

But Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie, who tabled the western premiers’ proposal Thursday, says he’s still encouraged by the progress made on employment insurance.

“What needs to be done in modernizing, reforming EI in country has to also address the fact that it doesn’t really make sense to have 58 different regions in the country if we want to get a more streamlined and more efficient system,” Fentie said after the meeting.

The premiers are also jointly calling on the federal government to hold a national summit on pensions amid concerns that many Canadians are facing retirement without adequate income.

McGuinty said a recent study has shown that by 2030, two-thirds of Canadians will not have enough retirement income to pay for their necessary living expenses. It’s a national challenge that warrants a national conversation, he said.

“This is an issue that is in some ways independent of this global recession, but the recession has exacerbated or has highlighted some of the challenges associated with folks who don’t have an adequate level of retirement income,” said McGuinty.

“We don’t impose ourselves on our kids, who turned to our generation and say … ’Why didn’t you ensure that you had enough money to retire on?’ ”

While employment insurance talks dominated the afternoon, the premiers spent time earlier in the day talking about swine flu. They briefly said they’re in a good position to fight a resurgence of H1N1 expected this fall.

Wall says he will call Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of all the premiers and advise him what they think the priorities should be — one of which includes educating people about the need to get inoculated against the H1N1 virus should a vaccine become available.

The premiers will meet again Friday and are expected to discuss trade issues, including the “Buy American” policy in the United States.

“I certainly feel that the American administration has not been up to the rhetoric that they have held,” Quebec Premier Jean Charest said Thursday. “President Obama made a commitment that they would live up to world trade rules, and they haven’t.”

“If they cannot, on this issue, come to an agreement with their major trading partner, their ally, their friend, their neighbour, then what does that say about the Americans’ attitude on trade worldwide? I think this a test for them and hopefully they will respond to what is a very reasonable request on behalf of Canada.”

The Canadian government has been lobbying to get the U.S. Congress to halt “Buy American” provisions from being tacked onto about US$290 billion earmarked for infrastructure projects. Canadian companies complain they have been shut out of bidding for water treatment and school renovation projects.

Ottawa believes U.S. lawmakers are using the reluctance of provinces to sign on to international guidelines for free trade in government procurement bids as an excuse.

McGuinty said it’s a matter of reciprocity — if American businesses want access to Canada, the United States must offer the same access to Canadian firms. He said the premiers can send a strong message to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is to meet this weekend with Obama and Mexico President Felipe Calderon.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said the premiers must speak and act with one voice. But he cautioned that Canada must break down some of its own trade barriers to speak more strongly to its southern neighbour.

“We can’t say to Americans … make an exception for Canada, make sure we have free, open access to their markets if they don’t have free, open access to our markets,” he said.

“We now have to take down barriers in Canada. We have to open up our procurement strategies in Canada and as we do that we will speak with a much stronger voice than saying to the Americans ’You do this and we’ll get to it later.’ We need to get to it now.”

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