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Premiers say Ottawa must ensure carbon pricing measures are fair to all Canadians

B.C. Premier David Eby said Monday's discussion was "grounded in our shared concerns around affordability … and fairness."
B.C. Premier David Eby, second from left, speaks to media during the closing news conference at the Council of the Federation Canadian premiers meeting at The Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. The impact of carbon taxes on mounting cost-of-living pressures across Canada is slated to take centre stage at this week's meeting of the country's 13 premiers and territorial leaders in Halifax.THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

HALIFAX — Canada's premiers presented a rare unified front Monday as they took turns saying Ottawa's recent changes to its carbon pricing measures were unfairly applied across the country.

They released a statement after a meeting in Halifax, calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ensure federal policies, such as carbon pricing, are delivered in an equitable way, "particularly in light of the affordability challenges being faced across the country."

Though Quebec Premier François Legault did not attend the meeting, he was represented by the province's minister responsible for Canadian relations, Jean-François Roberge.

Last week, Trudeau announced his government would pause for three years the carbon price on home heating oil to make it easier for users of that particularly expensive form of fuel to switch to electric heat pumps.

When Trudeau made the announcement, he said the measure would be welcomed in Atlantic Canada, where a disproportionately large number of homes and businesses use heating oil in the colder months. At the time, he was flanked by MPs from the region.

But the move immediately drew criticism from premiers in Western Canada, where most residents use natural gas to heat their homes and businesses.

On Monday, the premiers rallied around the idea that Ottawa's move treated Canadians differently at a time when the entire country is struggling with an affordability crisis.

Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew said carbon pricing is "not a silver bullet when it comes to climate change," and he stressed that the pause for heating oil users should be extended to other fuels to make life more affordable for more Canadians.

"During this inflationary moment right now, people are suffering," said Kinew, whose NDP government was elected in Manitoba just over a month ago.

"The temperatures are getting colder ... We do think there should be similar consideration given to the people of Manitoba to get us through this period of economic pain."

In Ottawa, federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the federal government would "continue to apply programs in an equitable way across the country," but he said nothing about changing the carbon pricing program.

When asked about the premiers' statement, LeBlanc pivoted to talk about heat pumps.

"We are anxious to work with all provinces to enlarge the federal program to give access to families to heat pumps that will help them reduce their heating costs," he said. "As intergovernmental affairs minister, I am happy and ready to enlarge accessibility to all Canadians to this important program."

In Halifax, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the carbon pricing program was unfair to the 85 per cent of Saskatchewan residents who use natural gas. "They deserve to be treated fairly with respect to the carbon tax policy," he said. "The issue isn't the policy. The issue is how the policy is being applied."

Moe repeated his recent pledge to direct Saskatchewan's Crown-owned natural gas supplier to stop collecting the federal carbon tax in the new year.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said natural gas should be treated like a cleaner fuel, especially when compared with coal, wood and dung.

"We should be exporting more of our cleaner fuel to reduce global emissions and not punishing our customers here at home," she said. "It's not our customers' fault that the alternatives are not available to them."

Newfoundland and Labrador's Liberal premier, Andrew Furey, drew attention to his province's heavy reliance on heating oil, but he then added, "I'm very sensitive to the current Canadian dynamic and not inflaming a unity issue."

David Eby, British Columbia's NDP premier, said the discussion on Monday was "grounded in our shared concerns around affordability … and fairness."

Eby, however, made a point of highlighting the impact of climate change by drawing attention to the fact his province has spent $1 billion on fighting forest fires so far this year. Another $1 billion has been devoted to flood prevention. And he reminded the closing news conference that a "heat dome" had killed hundreds of people in the province in the summer of 2021, when temperatures soared over 40 C.

"It's just devastating in British Columbia, climate-change wise," he said. "For us, the (provincial) carbon tax has been an effective mechanism to reduce carbon pollution since 2017, and our emissions have gone down despite a dramatic increase in population."

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said the carbon pricing pause should be extended to all types of heating fuel and he repeated his opposition to carbon pricing in general.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston agreed. "There are much more effective ways to protect the planet," he said. "I think they should get rid of the carbon tax and move on to working with us on other initiatives."

Meanwhile, the premiers also called on Trudeau to convene an in-person first ministers meeting, something that hasn't happened since 2018 despite repeated requests from the provinces.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2023.

Michael MacDonald and Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press