EDMONTON — Alberta and Saskatchewan have a date for a meeting to discuss their trade issues, but Alberta says it will come too late to resolve a standoff over licence plates.
Alberta Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous says Saskatchewan has agreed to meet on Jan. 31 — more than a week after a Jan. 22 deadline for Saskatchewan to reverse its ban on Alberta licence plates at its job sites.
If not, Bilous said, a panel under the New West trade partnership takes over the dispute and can’t be stopped until it makes a ruling that could cost Saskatchewan up to $5 million in penalties.
Alberta filed the legal challenge under the partnership last month. The province argued the plate ban clearly violates free-trade rules agreed to by the four western provinces.
“We can discuss the licence-plate issue (on Jan. 31), but the process will have already moved to the next level,” Bilous told The Canadian Press on Monday.
“So there will be binding arbitration, there will be penalties imposed, and Saskatchewan will be paying.”
Bilous said Saskatchewan also wants the meeting’s location changed from the previously agreed-upon boundary city of Lloydminster to Medicine Hat in southern Alberta, which is closer to Regina.
Bilous said Alberta is insisting on Lloydminster so that politicians can hear from workers in that region directly affected by the higher costs of transferring over to Saskatchewan plates and registration.
“Companies have told us that they’re not bidding on Saskatchewan contracts, so it is definitely having an impact,” he said.
The Saskatchewan government, responding in a statement, said: “Three Saskatchewan ministers involved in trade and construction are planning to meet with their Alberta counterparts on Jan. 31.
“At this time, the location has yet to be determined, but that is still being discussed with Alberta to ensure the location works for all travelling parties.”
In early December, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s government announced a ban on Alberta plates on future Saskatchewan government road and building construction sites.
Saskatchewan says it’s a retaliatory measure and cites reports that Saskatchewan workers were being denied work in Alberta.
Alberta denies that.
Saskatchewan Economy Minister Steven Bonk has not provided evidence backing up the claim. He said the government is concerned the complainants could face retribution if they go public.
Wall has gone further. He said last month that the plate ban is in retaliation for a number of initiatives by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s government, including a subsidy for Alberta brewers that Wall says is hurting business in Saskatchewan.
Bilous said there is no point addressing Saskatchewan’s beer concern right now because Alberta is appealing a ruling made against it under Canada’s Agreement on Internal Trade.
“It’s completely out of our hands,” he said. “Should the initial ruling stand, then Alberta will have to make changes to our beer program.”
Politics are in flux in Saskatchewan. Wall is stepping down and Saskatchewan party members are to pick a new leader — and premier — on Jan. 27.
Bilous said Alberta will make an earlier meeting happen if Saskatchewan wants to end the ban. He said there is precedent for Wall to walk back decisions.
Last March, Wall sent letters to oil companies in Calgary. They offered incentives such as relocation costs and help finding office space if firms would move to Saskatchewan.
After Notley threatened to take the issue to arbitration as a violation of free-trade rules — and hinted at retaliatory measures — Wall’s government sent followup letters to the oil companies stressing the province couldn’t violate trade agreements.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press