The dark arts of extortion of the agenda and the strikes of the premiers are back.
For a time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presided over the meetings of prime ministers, who were mostly sweet and light, even agreeing to a climate change agenda at a first upbeat summit in 2015.
Now it's a cranky Confederacy.
Almost every prime minister is asking for something, upset about something or blaming Mr. Trudeau for not acting on the problems of his province.
Four provinces now stand against Mr. Trudeau's carbon tax. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley wants Ottawa to raise billions to pay for the 7,000 cars she plans to buy to put more oil on the market. She and Scott Moe of Saskatchewan demanded that the oil sector in distress and damage to its economies be specifically counted on the agenda. Everyone wants money. And Doug Ford of Ontario does not want Trudeau to set the agenda.
So on Thursday morning, when the premiers went to Montreal to open their negotiations at a dinner party that night, Ford's office made it clear that the Ontario Premier could leave on Friday if Ottawa did not put his items in the schedule. for example, the cost provinces cover asylum seekers and the imminent closure of the GM plant. Mr. Ford did not want to be lectured by federal ministers, his staff snorted.
And so the political theater of the meetings of the prime ministers is back.
When Jean Chrétien was prime minister, Alberta's then prime minister, Ralph Klein, used to leave early, often expressing some frustration. The prime ministers of Quebec, Parti Québécois, invariably had a beef. Many prime ministers regularly demanded that Ottawa put its priorities on the agenda.
This prime minister is not accustomed to this. Stephen Harper did not hold many meetings of prime ministers, and Trudeau campaigned to make them a regular thing again. Now he has to face a premiers room that are as much against him as for him, for a variety of reasons.
Notley is usually one of Trudeau's closest allies, but this is not good for her with a provincial election in May, nor with a bubble of excess oil and bitumen causing economic ruin in Alberta. She has to demand that Ottawa do more. So she and Mr. Moe filed a lawsuit asking oil industry questions to get their own place on the meeting's agenda.
Ford, Moe, and New Brunswick's progressive conservative Blaine Higgs all joined in the same lawsuit against the Trudeau carbon tax. All three acted as allies when they arrived.
But the Ontario premier was trying to do more than that-in a general rebuke of Trudeau.
It's not about the agenda. It's a bleacher's piece to send a simple sign that they do not agree with Mr. Trudeau's priorities.
The first ones, of course, do not have to sit and listen if they want to talk. Ford complained to federal ministers giving talks because three – Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc – should speak up. But the 10-minute PowerPoint presentations were not going to dominate the seven-hour meeting.
The formal agenda has two hours and 45 minutes devoted to economic issues – even if Ottawa calls it "commercial diversification, clean growth and economic competitiveness." One hour of the agenda was set aside for a roundtable where leaders could lift whatever they wanted.
Forget it. The formal agenda was not the point. The point was to choose a public scuffle with Mr. Trudeau over priorities.
Ford would never find a troop of premiers behind him if he attempted a boycott – although the Premier team of Ontario insisted on Thursday night that he still could.
Mr. Moe was not going to fly to Montreal and turn around because of the writing of the agenda. "I do not think it matters at the moment," he said. He said that he would make his point, no matter what. "I have a voice," he said. "I'm going to use it."
Mr. Ford also has a voice. But that was not about being heard behind closed doors. It was about being seen in public, against Mr. Trudeau. In general, Mr. Trudeau now faces a group of premiers who do not want to let him set the tone.