Chamber head thrilled with interprovincial trade rule changes, while economist predicts ‘modest’ impact

By Catherine Griwkowsky July 17, 2021

Alberta Chambers of Commerce president and CEO Ken Kolby told AB Today he hopes other provinces follow Alberta’s free trade example, after Premier Jason Kenney unilaterally slashed 13 of its 27 exceptions — including all of those related to procurement — to the Canada Free Trade Agreement.

Kenney made the announcement last week during the Council of the Federation meeting with Canada’s premiers, where he challenged his fellow first ministers to follow suit.

“A unilateral move is a heck of a lot more than we’ve had in the past,” Kolby said. “It’s a pretty bold move by the premier.”

Removing barriers to interprovincial trade was a pillar of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce’s “Vote Prosperity” spring election platform. Canada’s Chambers of Commerce has launched a similar campaign ahead of the October federal election.

“Commonly you hear the story that sometimes it’s easier to trade north-south than it is to trade east-west across Canada,” said Kolby, who hopes Kenney’s unilateral move will show goodwill and stimulate other provinces to act similarly.

“In this country, we probably waited too long for the federal government to try to bring all the provinces together, and I think it will take a series of these unilateral actions to actually get that job accomplished,” Kolby said.

For his part, University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe says the impact of wiping out procurement exemptions should not be overstated.

“These exemptions are somewhat narrow in scope,” Tombe told AB Today. “Ideally, it will result in lower cost projects if we award a contract to an out-of-province bidder below what an Alberta contractor provides.”

Awarding contracts to a more competitive out-of-province firm means businesses in Alberta could free up investment and workers for other sectors, ultimately leading to higher economic productivity, while saving money for taxpayers.

However, Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Kenney’s announcement came without consultation and could shrink the number of jobs for Albertans who rely on public sector contracts.

“While Premier Jason Kenney talks a big game about supporting the economy, his actions belie his words. His move ties the province’s hands in terms of tools to provide Alberta’s workers jobs through public-sector investment. This will hurt local and regional economies,” McGowan said in a statement last week.

At the premiers’ meeting, Kenney also signalled he intends to lead the country in revamping how jurisdictions recognize professional credentials, which Tombe says could provide a bigger boost to the economy than changing procurement rules.

“That could take a big bite out of internal trade costs in Canada and increase the amount of labour mobility that is a problem for many types of professionals in the country,” Tombe said.

Speaking on July 10 in Saskatoon, Kenney said it shouldn’t be easier for professionals to move between the 28 sovereign states of the European Union than the 10 provinces and three territories of Canada.

“We in Alberta are committed to allowing people to move from coast to coast to practice in their professions,” said the premier, who has directed staff to look into improving how Alberta recognizes professional credentials from other provinces.

“We’ll work with our partners across the country, but that’s not good enough,” Kenney said. “We’re prepared to act unilaterally. For too long, there’s been too much talk about free trade in Canada. It’s time for action.”

Kolby called the move overdue, noting the chamber of commerce called for mutual recognition during the province’s last labour shortage.

“That fact that it’s even being talked about openly is a real shift in the rhetoric, but it’s too early to say,” Tombe said.

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