Ford's lack of experience was obvious at the first meeting of ministers


MONTREAL – The last prime minister conference of the current mandate of Justin Trudeau was the most bitter.

The imminence of a federal and Alberta election certainly contributed to the tensions. But these tensions will last longer than next year's federal and provincial votes.

Not all the lines that split the first on Friday are drawn on the relatively shallow terrain of the election sand.

Whoever is prime minister within a year will find the same irreconcilable provincial differences in prices and carbon pipelines.

Some of these differences point to Doug Ford of Ontario and François Legault of Quebec on different sides.

The first two of Canada made simultaneous appearances on the stage of the prime ministers on Friday in Montreal.

Here are some initial remarks on how they fit into the current federal-provincial dynamics and what their presence at the table might bode well for a tumultuous future.

Among the participants of the meeting, Ford brought the least experience in provincial politics and showed.

By threatening to abandon the agenda differences with the prime minister, he may have hoped to lead a major boycott of the event.

But he found little support for a strike between his colleagues.

Manitoba Prime Minister Brian Pallister – a colleague Tory – spoke for the others when he said on his way that he had not come to Montreal to save at the first opportunity.

It is not that prime ministers have not left or boycotted the conferences of prime ministers in the past. But it was almost always to underline a complaint that had its province in arms.

After the Meech Lake agreement failed in 1990, Quebec stayed away from federal-provincial meetings, including the first ministerial conferences for most of two years.

In 2004, Newfoundland and Labrador Prime Minister Danny Williams left the table, then chaired by Paul Martin, during a discussion on the equalization formula.

By comparison, Ford had no substantial motive – other than partisan petulance – to justify his threat.

There is a reason why most prime ministers have not considered over the years that the evasion option was attractive and why no Ontario government leader had threatened a boycott in the past.

Day after day, the prime minister, by the pure virtue of his position, commands the national stage. In comparison, it is not often that a premier has the opportunity to confront the federal government in front of a pan-Canadian audience.

Former Newfoundland and Labrador Prime Minister Clyde Wells, who emerged as a major player in mobilizing public opinion against Meech Lake's constitutional agreement in the late 1980s, certainly made the most of the national exposure these conferences provided him .

As she looks ahead to her next re-election campaign, Alberta premier Rachel Notley is putting her time in the limelight for maximum use these days.

At these meetings, Ontario is in a league of its own in terms of its influence on national affairs.

Based on this, Ford's predecessors rightly thought that it was immensely more productive to throw their weight on the table than to throw a tantrum at the cameras outside the room. But then they did not merge their role as leader of Canada's most populous province with that of the federal opposition leader.

As he looks over the next three years of his current term, Ford may want to consider the risks of negotiating Ontario's historic role as a major provincial anchor and the leadership it used to attend for the role of the loose cannon.

After all, there is a possibility that Trudeau is out there for more or more time than when he heads the Ontario government.

Quebec's Legault, on the other hand, will probably never find Trudeau more receptive to their demands than in the period between now and next year's federal elections. Federal liberals hope to make up for any loss of seats elsewhere in Canada, with gains in Quebec next fall.

They are not spoiling for a fight with the new premier.

When Legault crossed into the federalist camp, he brought in a significant number of sovereign sympathizers. If only to avoid breathing a new life in Parti Québécois, he has to demonstrate that he can make the CAQ's relationship with the work of the federal government for the benefit of Quebec.

The prime minister and prime minister have an interest in finding common ground.

For the time being, Legault is content to let his colleague from Ontario take on the usual role of boss-busting in his province.

That may change if Andrew Scheer comes to power next year. The CAQ's prime minister made it clear on Friday that the resumption of the project of linking Quebec's tar sands to the Atlantic coast is no news to his government. It is likely that these words were not lost on TransCanada, the controlling company of the late Energy East pipeline.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert


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