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Tories forge ahead on job grant, vow to enforce it with, without provincial laggards

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OTTAWA - The Conservative government's insistence Tuesday that it will enforce the contentious Canada Job Grant in just six weeks — with or without the co-operation of any stragglers among the provinces and territories — has ruffled feathers beyond the nation's capital.

"In jurisdictions where agreements are not secured," the feds said in their economic blueprint, the government will deliver its signature national job training program starting April 1 through Service Canada.

That's to ensure "employers and Canadians in all jurisdictions have the opportunity to benefit from the grant."

The feds and the provinces are still actively discussing the Job Grant — and hopeful that a deal can be worked out soon. But several provincial ministers did not take well to the government's firm stance.

"You can't do it alone," said B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong. "It won't work unless the provinces, territories and the federal government are working together. In the past, we have been successful as a country when we work together."

Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau said no provinces are happy with the federal Job Grant proposals so far, adding he'd prefer an opting-out clause. He didn't see the provisions contained in the budget as offering any solution to the impasse.

"This is basically a threat," he said at a late-afternoon news conference. "We'll see what happens now."

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Ken Krawetz was equally unimpressed, saying the budget "basically put a bit of an ultimatum" in place.

"That is of concern to Saskatchewan," he said in Regina. "And I think it'll be of concern to all of the other provinces who have agreed that we submitted a counter-proposal and so far no reaction to it."

The federal Tories also pledged in Tuesday's budget to renegotiate the $1.95 billion-a-year Labour Market Development Agreements, as previously promised, so that job training is matched to the demands of labour markets. The funds are specifically designed to support workers across Canada who qualify for employment insurance.

The proposed Canada Job Grant aims to provide $15,000 per eligible worker, divided equally among Ottawa, the provinces and employers. In the face of a hue and cry from the provinces, Employment Minister Jason Kenney recently offered to cover the provincial portion of grant, upping the feds' share to $10,000.

But Kenney's provincial and territorial counterparts argue they'd still be forced to remove $300 million in federal money from existing provincially run programs for youth, aboriginals and disabled citizens.

The provinces and territories have presented a united front to the government on the job grant, recently sending a counter-offer to Kenney that proposed more flexibility in how they would pay their share as well as less onerous requirements for corporate participation.

Kenney, who frequently laments the country's supposed shortage of skilled workers, has yet to respond to their offer, though Tuesday's budget was another signal the federal government plans to press ahead unilaterally if needed.

Connecting Canadians with available jobs — from aging citizens to new immigrants and those with disabilities — while addressing the skills shortage via beefed-up training programs was a key theme of Tuesday's budget.

Among the new tools in the Conservatives' skills-training arsenal is the creation of the Canada Apprentice Loan, an expansion of the Canada Student Loans Program.

The fund will provide apprentices in so-called Red Seal trades with access to more than $100 million in interest-free loans every year to help them pay for their training.

"At least 26,000 apprentices per year are expected to apply," the budget document states.

The government starkly lays out the argument in its economic blueprint that a serious skills shortage is vexing Canadian employers, citing a litany of reports — from organizations ranging from Engineers Canada to a professional recruitment agency — to make its case.

To that end, the Tories announced a further $75 million over three years to assist unemployed older workers by renewing its so-called Targeted Initiative for Older Workers program. The initiative will also be expanded to communities "experiencing unfulfilled employer demand and-or skills mismatches," says the document.

Other multimillion-dollar new investments on the jobs and skills front include:

— $40 million toward supporting up to 3,000 internships for young graduates in high-demand fields;

— $11.8 million over two years, and $3.3 million a year, to launch an enhanced job-matching service to help connect Canadians with jobs;

— $11 million over two years, and $3.5 million a year, to reform the contentious Temporary Foreign Worker Program to ensure that Canadians are first in line for available jobs;

— $14 million over two years, and $4.7 million a year, to implement the so-called Expression of Interest economic immigration system. The program allows the federal and provincial governments to actively target highly skilled would-be immigrants to Canada;

The Conservatives also pointed to the announcement last year of $222 million annually for a new generation of so-called labour market agreements for people with disabilities, estimating there are approximately 800,000 working-age Canadians with disabilities "who are not working even though their disability does not prevent them from doing so."

The money is matched by provinces and territories.

Further to those initiatives, this year's budget pledges $15 million over three years to the so-called Ready, Willing and Able program of the Canadian Association for Community Living. The Tories also announced $11.4 million over four years to support the expansion of vocational training programs for people with autism.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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