OTTAWA — Premier Brian Pallister says he will not be intimidated by the federal government into signing a health-care deal he feels is fundamentally bad for Manitoba, regardless of any threats Ottawa makes.
"We will stand up for ourselves and we will be heard," he said during question period Wednesday.
His remarks followed a Free Press report earlier in the day about Ottawa's threat to end $60 million in promised funding for the Winnipeg's new Factory of the Future research facility unless Manitoba capitulates and agrees to the health-care deal the other provinces and territories have all signed.
"That’s not something you bring into a negotiation, if you have strength of character," Pallister said.
The threat is referenced in a letter sent Monday to Richard Maksymetz, chief of staff to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, by Michael Richards, Manitoba's deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs.
Richards rejected the demands outright and said they are "completely unacceptable to my government."
He wants Ottawa to confirm its commitment to Factory of the Future and lift the hold placed on the ongoing site selection process.
The letter indicates Ottawa also made demands for Manitoba to finally agree to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national climate-change framework.
Factory of the Future is a project of the previous Conservative government to build a new $60-million National Research Council facility in Winnipeg focused on aerospace, automotive and agricultural equipment-manufacturing research.
Progress on the project has been slow as the NRC struggles to find an appropriate parcel of land.
The $60 million was in this year’s budget but it will lapse at the end of this month unless Morneau and Trudeau agree to extend it into the next budget, which Morneau will table next Wednesday.
A senior federal official said Ottawa has not given a firm deadline for Manitoba to have a health deal in place and said the mention of Factory of the Future wasn't — specifically — a threat.
"We just pointed out it is going to lapse in three weeks," he said, referring to the funding commitment.
He agreed he could see how Manitoba would take that as a threat.
"It's also factually correct. It is going to lapse in three weeks," he said.
He said there are a several outstanding issues between Manitoba and Ottawa and the federal government is just trying to "wrap them all up at the same time."
He also said Pallister is the one who first linked the health-care deal to the climate-change framework when he refused to support the latter at the first ministers' meeting in December. Pallister said his support for the framework would depend on Trudeau agreeing to a first ministers' meeting on health care and to putting a better deal on the table for health-care funding.
Pallister had hoped other premiers would stand with him on that, but none did. The premiers initially joined forces in an effort to get a better health deal, but the unity was short-lived; Manitoba stands alone without a health agreement.
Pallister acknowledged Wednesday he made a link between Manitoba’s support for the climate-change pact and his desire to see the prime minister improve the health-care deal, but said it was a "request."
"I never threatened Ottawa," he said.
The health agreement signed in the rest of the country raises the Canada Health Transfer by at least three per cent a year for a decade, and splits $11.5 billion over 10 years for home care and mental-health programs.
In addition to the money already on offer, Manitoba wants another $60 million over a decade to deal with chronic kidney disease. Richards’ letter indicates Manitoba is also seeking $5 million to address the opioid overdose crisis.
Both British Columbia and Alberta secured some additional funding for the drug battle in their deals.
Ottawa has not yet said whether Manitoba’s share of home care and mental-health money for 2017-18 will be taken off the table if the province doesn’t sign on before Wednesday's budget.
Ottawa told the unsigned final four that it wanted everyone on board by March 10. Ontario, Alberta and Quebec agreed last Friday.
However the federal government does not have the same level of political influence over Manitoba as it did with other premiers such as B.C.’s Christy Clark, who is facing re-election this spring, or Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, whose poll numbers are the lowest in the country and has to seek re-election no later than June 2018.
Pallister, on the other hand, was elected less than a year ago with a huge majority, and with opposition parties in Manitoba struggling to rebuild, he is enjoying an extended honeymoon period and has political capital to spare.