Trudeau’s next headache? The provinces

There are more signs this week that it will be hard for Justin Trudeau’s government to do business with the provinces between now and the fall election.

On Wednesday, New Brunswick’s Tory government said it was scrapping plans to host the 2021 Francophonie Games, blaming increased costs and inadequate federal funding.

Initially estimated at $17 million when New Brunswick bid to host the games — which are considered the biggest sporting and cultural event in the French-speaking world — the projected costs had since skyrocketed to $130 million.

A revised budget produced this week still came up with a price tag of more than $60 million.

The province’s new Conservative government was unwilling to put more than $10 million in the pot. Under the current federal funding formula, Ottawa would only match New Brunswick dollar for dollar.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc — himself a New Brunswick MP — had been scrambling to keep the project alive, but Premier Blaine Higgs was not impressed.

“It’s like a wealthy friend inviting you to a fancy restaurant and offering to split the bill. You still can’t afford it,” he argued.

Many in New Brunswick’s Acadian community will see the decision as confirmation that Higgs’s government has little interest in supporting New Brunswick’s linguistic duality.

Coming on the heels of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to shelve plans for a French-language university, Higgs’s move stands to be construed as part of a larger provincial Tory retreat on the minority-language front.

In the case of the games, as in that of the university, pressure will be on Ottawa to step in the provincial breach.

For Trudeau’s government, it is the latest in a string of federal-provincial setbacks and probably not the last.

If the ruling Liberals cannot strike a deal with a province on a file as ultimately modest as the Francophonie Games, how could they ever hope to build a pre-election federal-provincial consensus on something as ambitious as the national pharmacare initiative they have been musing about since the last federal budget?

The beginning of the federal election year also finds Trudeau’s government at loggerheads with Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick over the federal carbon tax.

Alberta’s NDP government has threatened to pull out of Ottawa’s climate change framework over the failure to get the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion off the ground.

Federal lawyers are about to face B.C.’s New Democratic government in court over the latter’s determination to regulate the amount of oil that transits through its territory.

As adversarial as the federal-provincial climate is, it stands to get worse between now and the fall campaign.

Since the Quebec election, Trudeau has tried to avoid a frontal collision with Premier Francois Legault, but such a collision seems increasingly inevitable.

With every passing day, it is becoming more difficult to paper over the gap between the views of the two governments.

While there has been no official word on Legault’s demand that Quebec collect the federal income tax on behalf of Ottawa, the signals coming from the national capital are anything but positive.

On immigration, Legault’s call to decrease Quebec’s intake of newcomers has so far been met by the federal counter argument that more immigrants are needed to address the province’s labour shortages. It has been as if the two governments are talking past each other.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, the Bloc Quebecois called on the federal government to make proficiency in French a precondition for permanent residents in Quebec to qualify for Canadian citizenship.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez shot back that the BQ wanted to divide Quebecers along language lines. But the Bloc was only relaying Legault’s immigration agenda.

The moral authority of a prime minister always tends to decrease as his term runs out.

If only to avoid giving Trudeau a win between now and the fall campaign, there will be little will on the part of his Conservative provincial counterparts to meet him part of the way.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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