Alberta’s minister of economic development has an ultimatum for the government of Saskatchewan. And a deadline.
“Brad Wall needs to smarten up,” Deron Bilous told reporters Wednesday. “We’re giving him one week to kill this ridiculous restriction or we’ll be taking him to court.”
Them’s fighting words. But then, it was Saskatchewan that fired the first shot in this latest trade war between the two rival provinces.
Wednesday morning, you see, Saskatchewan’s ministry of highways and infrastructure banned all vehicles with Alberta licence plates from any new Saskatchewan public infrastructure projects.
“New contracts awarded by the ministry will require suppliers to ensure that no vehicles displaying Alberta licence plates are present on ministry-funded work sites,” said the release from the Wall government. “This will include contractors, sub-contractors, consultants and workers. Ministry staff will enforce the contract provision through job-site monitoring.”
Vehicles driven by workers from Manitoba, British Columbia or any other province will be quite welcome.
“Saskatchewan contractors tell us that vehicles with Saskatchewan plates are not welcome on Government of Alberta job sites,” David Marit, the province’s minister of highways and infrastructure, said in the release. “Saskatchewan operators feel forced to register their vehicles in Alberta if they want to do business there.”
Later, Marit went further, telling reporters that Saskatchewan contractors who work in Alberta are forced to “buy permits” to do so.
Nobody in Alberta seems to know what Marit is talking about.
Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason insisted no such rules or policies exist.
Paul Cashman, who speaks for the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association, said it has never heard of such a practice.
Terry Parker, executive director of Buildings Trades of Alberta (and the former business manager for the Saskatchewan Building Trades), has never heard of such a rule.
“And being from Saskatchewan, I’ve never heard that a person from Saskatchewan couldn’t drive onto an Alberta worksite,” Parker said.
He was incredulous that Saskatchewan could announce such a rule.
“After we’ve given them so many employment opportunities here, they’re saying Albertans can’t go to work in Saskatchewan? Are we sure it’s not a hoax? It seems too far-fetched.”
But Wednesday afternoon, Marit made plain that this licence plate ban is straight-up protectionism, explicitly designed to help local construction companies obtain a larger share of the Saskatchewan construction marketplace.
“This is an action we took to support Saskatchewan contractors,” Marit told Regina reporters. “We are here to protect the business community of Saskatchewan and the contractors of the province of Saskatchewan.”
Alberta-based companies, Marit insisted, have an unfair advantage, because Alberta has no provincial sales tax.
“Alberta companies aren’t paying six per cent on their vehicles. This is to level the playing field.”
Saskatchewan isn’t even pretending to honour the New West Partnership trade agreement that links British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Under that deal, the western provinces have non-discriminatory procurement for all provincial construction contracts worth more than $100,000. Protecting local companies simply isn’t allowed.
Eric Adams, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Alberta, believes the measures also violate Section 6.2 of the Charter of Rights, the mobility rights provision, which has been held by the Supreme Court to the protect the rights of individual Canadians to be employed outside their home province.
“I think it’s clear the Saskatchewan government is trying to limit workers from Alberta from gaining an livelihood as part of the Saskatchewan economy,” he said.
As an Alberta columnist, I’m happy to offer a full-throated defence of the the rights of Alberta workers and Alberta businesses. But Saskatchewan taxpayers are also being hosed by this cockamamie ban.
The whole point of free trade and free markets is that competition helps moderate prices. If Alberta companies are handicapped in bidding for work in Saskatchewan, if Alberta workers are de facto prevented from accessing Saskatchewan job sites, prices go up and labour efficiency goes down. And it’s Saskatchewan that will pay for that.
All Canada suffers when we indulge in these kinds of childish protectionist spats, this literal provincialism. How can we hope to negotiate workable free trade deals with the United States or China, when we can’t grasp the concept of free trade within our own national borders?
Meantime, Wall has served up a delicious opportunity for Alberta’s NDP government to position itself as a defender of free markets, Alberta business and Alberta’s tax regime.
Who would have imagined Saskatchewan’s premier had such a thoughtful Christmas gift in mind for Rachel Notley?