OTTAWA - The federal government's Canada Job Grant proposals are in trouble, officials and opposition critics are warning on the eve of Jason Kenney's meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts.
Seven months after Ottawa first proposed the program in its March 2013 budget, the minister of employment and social development can expect a litany of complaints when he sits down with his colleagues Friday in Toronto.
Quebec has even demanded to opt out of the program.
"They're out on a branch on this one, a very fragile branch," Brad Duguid, Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities, said this week.
Provinces and territories are particularly opposed to Kenney's plan to slice $300 million — about 60 per cent — from the so-called Labour Market Agreement implemented by the Conservatives in 2007.
That initiative provided funds to train unemployed workers not eligible for employment insurance and is aimed at aboriginals, immigrants, women, youth, older workers, people with disabilities and those with low literacy levels.
The program has been a big hit with the provinces and territories, with provincial officials pointing to a recent joint evaluation with Ottawa that determined those participating in the plan doubled their chances of landing jobs and keeping them.
But Kenney has often been dismissive of the Labour Market Agreement, calling it ineffective "training for training's sake." His office has also suggested it plays a part in a supposed Canadawide "skills shortage," a state of affairs described in a recent TD Economics report as being over-stated.
"They're planning on funding this Canada Job Grant on the backs of our most vulnerable workers," Duguid said.
"That would be very harmful to those programs and to those vulnerable, marginalized workers if the federal government was to follow through."
Duguid said he hasn't seen any evidence from the federal government that it's open to rethinking the job grant program, despite Kenney's recent insistence that he's willing to be flexible on some aspects of the plan — in particular the cost to businesses that participate.
As proposed in the budget, the Canada Job Grant would provide up to $15,000 to any business offering a training program. A third of that money would come each from the federal government, the provincial or territorial government and the business itself.
Kenney recently suggested the cost could be chopped for small businesses, saying they could pay less if bigger firms agreed to pay more. Ottawa has also proposed to the provinces that the program could be phased in, with only a required 10 per cent implementation in its first year, beginning on April 1, 2014.
Kenney's office lauded the program this week and said he looked forward to Friday's meetings.
"Throughout recent months, productive discussions have already taken place with the provinces to explore flexibility with the program, ensuring unemployed and underemployed Canadians have access to training that is directly linked to a guaranteed job," his office said in a statement.
"The Canada Job Grant will put a stop to training for the sake of training, and ensure that investments in training are actually linked to employers and available jobs."
Duguid disputed the notion that Kenney has been consultative or particularly open to changing course. He said he'd personally only spoken to the minister once, briefly.
"We've seen the federal government show a little bit of flexibility, but they've yet to move away from their intention to cut these programs, and the provinces and territories are standing up to them and saying that we cannot and will not contemplate doing that," Duguid said.
"The minister has talked about flexibility and they've taken some very minor measures, but nothing that's close yet to where the provinces would want them to go."
Rodger Cuzner, Kenney's Liberal critic in the House of Commons, said there's been no consultation with the provinces on the Canada Job Grant.
"They're just getting around to meeting with the provinces now," he said.
"They've spent millions of dollars advertising this Edsel, and it's being thrashed by the provinces. Had there been new money allocated with the program, it may have stood a chance."
Kenney is reading the writing on the wall for the prospects of success for the program, Cuzner suggested.
"I am sure he's bailing like hell because this ship has many holes," he said. "He'll work to try to save this thing, but it's going to take a significant shift by the government that we haven't heard anything about yet."
Duguid insisted the provinces aren't spoiling for a fight.
"We're now meeting to determine where we go from here. The objective of the provinces and territories is not to strike a fight here, it's to ensure we're providing the best possible training programs that meet the diverse needs of our entire population, from vulnerable workers right through to skilled workers."
— With files from Maria Babbage in Toronto.