Frustrated Ontario Set for labour war with Quebec

Deadline tonight: Retaliatory Moves Lock Quebecers Out Of Construction Jobs

Luiza Chwialkowska

National Post

Wednesday, March 31, 1999

At one minute past midnight tonight, barring any last-minute capitulations, the Ontario government will launch a trade war against Quebec construction companies doing business in Ontario. The retaliatory measures, intended to "mirror" the treatment of Ontario construction workers by Quebec, will include locking Quebec companies out of Ontario government construction contracts, and stepped-up enforcement of existing regulations that will make business difficult for Quebec companies in Ontario. "There will be limits on government contracts available to Quebec companies, increased enforcement of health, safety, and worker's compensation regulations, and of retail sales tax laws," said an Ontario government source yesterday. Mike Harris, the Ontario premier, will announce at a news conference the details of the retaliation intended to "level the playing field for Ontario construction workers".

Despite an emerging consensus that barriers to labour mobility between provinces hurt economic growth, and a growing list of interprovincial agreements aimed at liberalizing the movement of workers across Canada, the Ontario construction sector has continued to protest that it is easier for them to do business in New York state than in Quebec.

The Ontario government said yesterday that it has had enough negotiating. "The deadline is firm," said Jim Flaherty, the Ontario Labour Minister. "We are not optimistic. We have been waiting since December for the government of Quebec to move on the issue of open access to workers, but they have not budged." If the first set of measures do not persuade Quebec to change its ways, Ontario may create new laws to penalize Quebec companies, a government source said yesterday. Though the legislation would not single out Quebec companies for retaliation, it would be applied to any province which "does not treat Ontario workers fairly."

But while Ontario officials talked tough yesterday, Lucien Bouchard, the premier of Quebec, took a more optimistic tone, and signalled a willingness to reach a last-minute deal. He said he would call Mr. Harris himself to avert a crisis. "I have a couple of ideas we could explore to make sure that there wouldn't be any impasse between Ontario and Quebec,"" Mr. Bouchard said. As of yesterday afternoon, however, the two premiers had not talked.

The Quebec premier called Ontario "a friend of Quebec and an important economic partner," and said he was not surprised by the Ontario government's position. "It's a vigorous negotiation. They are defending their interests and we are defending ours."

Mr. Bouchard said he wanted to defend a 1996 agreement the two provinces reached on labour mobility in the construction sector. "It's important for us to find a way to maintain this agreement and find ways to make sure it remains operational," he said.

However, Mr. Flaherty accused Quebec of not abiding by the spirit of the agreement. "In terms of application, the Quebec government consistently tries to narrow the scope of the agreement," he said. On Monday, Mr. Flaherty rejected a call by Diane Lemieux, Quebec's Labour Minister, to extend the deadline until April 30. "I am disappointed that Quebec still refuses to guarantee full and open access, despite three months of discussion," Mr. Flaherty wrote. He said Quebec "has failed to resolve a number of key issues."

According to Ontario labour ministry, there are about seven times more Quebeckers working in Ontario than Ontarians working in Quebec construction. John DeVries, president of the Ottawa Construction Association, supported Ontario's tough stance. About a quarter of the workers in the Ottawa area come from Quebec, he said. But in Quebec, Ontario workers face a "culture clash," with Quebec's highly unionized and regulated system, he said. "In Ontario, someone who rips forms off a concrete pillar is a labourer. We give him a hammer and say, 'go to it', " Mr. DeVries said. "In Quebec, anyone who holds a hammer is a carpenter and has to be licensed."

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