TORONTO - There may not have been much love in the room, but it appears the Harper Conservatives are opening diplomatic ties with the provinces and territories over a contentious federal job training program.
Canada's employment ministers didn't reach an agreement on the Canada Job Grant when they met Friday in Toronto, but they agreed to keep talking.
While Quebec insists it wants no part of the program, other provinces said they're seeing more willingness from federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney to listen to their concerns.
It's the first time the ministers have met in four years — which is progress in itself, said Manitoba's Theresa Oswald.
"Minister Kenney was here and he knew there wasn't necessarily love around the room about the Canada Job Grant," she said.
"But he came, he was open and he used the word 'flexibility,' I believe, with sincerity."
The federal Conservatives want to divert about $300 million — or 60 per cent — of what they currently give the provinces and territories to the Canada Job Grant.
It would provide a grant of $15,000 per worker, with the federal government, provinces and territories and employers each kicking in $5,000.
But the provinces and territories oppose it, saying it won't give them enough flexibility to direct the money where it's needed most and could jeopardize existing provincially-run programs that help disadvantaged groups.
They say they'd have to come up with more than $600 million to maintain their current programs as well as match the cost of the Canada Job Grant.
Ottawa needs to satisfy the provinces' concerns if it wants to launch the program, said Ontario minister Brad Duguid.
"The fact of the matter is, the provinces and territories are very united on this," said Ontario minister Brad Duguid.
"We will not fund or support any program that funds a new federal program on the backs of our vulnerable workers. We've been very clear on that."
Kenney said the federal government already spends billions of dollars on job and skills training programs for groups that are "under-represented" in the labour force, like aboriginals, youth, the disabled and older Canadians.
The Canada Job Grant could be used to provide training and jobs for some of those workers, he said.
"I hear the provinces in that respect," Kenney said. "I don't dismiss their concern, but my response is that there are other ways in which we address precisely those Canadians."
Kenney said he's willing to listen to their concerns about shaving $300 million from the existing Labour Market Agreement that expires at the end of March. But he wouldn't say whether he would budge on the figure.
He said he's also willing to be flexible on the contribution ratios of the program, which the provinces complained would exclude small businesses who couldn't afford it.
So long as a business puts in at least 15 per cent, the provinces could have more say in how to spread out the costs so small businesses won't be left out, Kenney said.
It was a "full and frank" talk that will continue in the coming months to hammer out a deal before the end of March, he said.
New Brunswick minister Jody Carr said it was encouraging to finally have a face-to-face discussion with Kenney.
"We certainly feel that there is a new openness to continue discussions and to continue to look at flexible options so that we — provinces and the federal government — can jointly work together to meet the needs of our labour force," he added.
But Quebec minister Agnes Maltais said there was no progress made at the table.
"We want a renewal of the Labour Market Agreement, the way it is now," she said in French.
"We're prepared to revisit the objectives with Mr. Kenney ... but the money has to flow to Quebec and Quebec will run the programs."