OTTAWA - The Conservative government says people are already starting to ask about the new Canada Jobs Grant it began heavily promoting with TV ads last week.
Kellie Leitch, the parliamentary secretary for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, is defending the pricey advertising campaign amid opposition criticisms that the Harper government is promoting a program that doesn't yet exist.
Leitch says the government is making sure workers and employers are aware of what she says are grants that are available for skills training.
However the grant program, at this point, is nothing more than a concept that still has to be negotiated with provincial governments and business groups.
And several provinces have expressed concerns — even outright hostility — about the three-way sharing proposal for funding individual skills training, which isn't likely to even get approved by parliament until late this year.
New Democrats are demanding to know why the Harper government is buying air time for the ads during the NHL playoffs, which it says can cost up to $190,000 a minute.
"We are making sure Canadians know about the skills opportunities that are available to them," Leitch told the House of Commons on Tuesday. "We are making sure employers know that this grant is available to them as well."
She also told the House that during recent consultations in British Columbia on the skills grant, "they were talking about how people were walking in asking for this opportunity, because we want to link Canadians with jobs."
However the government department confirmed no such grants exist. If all goes according to plan and the provinces agree, the grants could be available sometime next year.
An email from a spokeswoman said the grants "will be introduced as part of the renewal of the Labour Market Agreements with the provinces and territories in 2014–15," adding that the "final design will be negotiated with provinces and territories over the next year, in consultation with stakeholder groups."
Peter Van Loan, the Conservative government House leader, described the proposal last week as "a concept of how it could work" and as a "proposal that needs to be fleshed out and developed fully.''
The Quebec government has already rejected the three-way sharing program, saying the money on the table represents a cut in federal skills funding while at the same time giving Ottawa more control over provincial jurisdiction.
Ontario, Alberta and the Atlantic premiers have all expressed varying reservations about the proposed program.
"Why are they spending $190,000 a minute on Hockey Night in Canada ads for a program that does not even exist?" NDP critic Mathieu Ravignat asked Tuesday during the daily question period.
In an interview, Ravignat said the government is wasting money raising expectations for a program that simply is not available.
"There's very little public money to go around these days for programs such as this," said Ravignat.
"Until the provinces are on board, the government needs to stop advertising this program."
Leitch however attacked the opposition for failing to support the measure, which was announced in the March federal budget.
"I encourage the opposition to get on board, make sure Canadians receive the skills they need so they can fill those jobs and we can grow our economy, because if they do not get on board I guess we will just have to do it ourselves," the Conservative MP told the Commons.
It was not clear how Leitch expects the opposition to support the granting program. It is not going to be included in the first budget implementation bill this spring, so will not likely be subject to a parliamentary vote until next fall at the earliest.