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Quebec and Ontario want increase in federal infrastructure funds

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QUEBEC - Ontario and Quebec are calling on the federal government to increase infrastructure funding because of the slower rate of economic recovery and job creation in Eastern Canada.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec's Philippe Couillard said Thursday they are looking for improved and stable funding that allows provinces to determine their own infrastructure investment priorities.

"Infrastructure in Canada has to be modernized from one ocean to another but I would say it's particularly important in Eastern Canada because the economic recovery and job creation is weaker in the East than in the West," Couillard told a news conference after their meeting in Quebec City.

"We both agree that the Canadian contribution to infrastructure investments should be increased.

"In Quebec, we spend about three per cent of our gross domestic product on infrastructure, which is also the case for the Ontario government. Historically it's around five per cent . . . so there's room for additional investment."

The premiers covered a variety of topics during their meeting and acknowledged that bringing Quebec into the Canadian Constitution had briefly come up.

The then-Parti Quebecois government of Rene Levesque refused to sign the 1982 Constitution when negotiations broke down and the issue has been a thorn in federal-Quebec relations for years.

Couillard mused during the last provincial election campaign that he would like to see the matter resolved but then quickly said the hot-button issue would not be a priority.

While Wynne said she and Couillard had discussed the matter, she noted "it was not a detailed conversation."

She allowed that another round of constitutional talks is always possible but said she believes Canadians are currently more concerned with issues such as jobs, the economic recovery, climate change and education.

"I believe these are the preoccupations of the people of the country," she said.

Clearly, money and the distribution of federal funds such as transfer payments preoccupied most of the discussion. Wynne said fiscal arrangements in general — and their inequities — would be discussed at the next meeting of the Council of the Federation.

The communications director for Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel defended Ottawa's infrastructure investments in recent years.

"Our government has introduced the largest federal infrastructure plan in Canada's history," said Michele-Jamali Paquette.

"The $70B over 10 years New Building Canada Plan provides provinces, territories and municipalities with significant, long-term and predictable funding."

Wynne told reporters she would like to see Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet with premiers to discuss various topics.

"If I could wish for a future scenario, I would wish for much more collaboration among the premiers and the prime minister and his government," she said.

"Do I see that happening? Hope springs eternal. I will remain optimistic."

Couillard and Wynne said their meeting signalled that their provinces "are back as a very important bloc of influence in this country and that by acting together, we'll be more efficient."

Asked if he would be as aggressive as pushing Quebec's demands as Jean Charest, his predecessor as provincial Liberal leader, Couillard did not rule out pressing provincial issues in the next federal election campaign

"It's my duty to do this," Couillard said.

"When the time of the federal election comes, you may hear from us on certain issues but I am a Quebecer who believes that the future of Quebec is much better guaranteed by belonging to the Canadian federation than the other option.

"I want Canada to be a success but I want to be part of that success," Couillard added. "I will still voice our rightful demands and concerns while accepting our share of the responsibility."

Wynne said she won't change her message from what she's been saying all along.

"For me, it's not a political exercise that there is a federal election in the offing," she said. "It may change the tone in some ways but the statements that I will be making, the issues that I will be raising are exactly the same ones that I have been raising for months.

"Where Quebec and Ontario can find common cause as we have historically, those are very important issues to bring to the country."

Wynne and Couillard also discussed climate change as well as trade between the two provinces.

They agreed to hold a joint cabinet meeting in Toronto by the end of the year.

Wynne said such a get-together would be the fourth of its kind between the two provincial cabinets.

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