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Premiers Kathleen Wynne, Pauline Marois, David Alward, Christy Clark, Brad Wall and other premiers at the Council of the Federation summer meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Friday, July 26, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Lynett

Aaron Lynett/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A united demand from Canada's 13 premiers that their provinces be allowed to opt out of a major new national job-training program is a misguided way to lead off an important federal-provincial negotiation.

As expected, the premiers have dug in their heels against the Canada Job Grant, a forthcoming program devised by Ottawa to match federal and provincial funds with dollars from employers who want to train workers for specific, available jobs. Provincial leaders, including Alberta's Alison Redford, have complained that the new grant will sap $300-million from existing provincial programs and take control over training away from the provinces.

But the federal government's attempt to tie job training to employers with specific needs is worthwhile, if complicated, as Canada strives to better address labour shortages. Critics have said some existing provincial training programs were proving ineffective.

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The premiers are also calling for flexibility in the way the Job Grant would work, and Jason Kenney, the new Employment Minister, has signalled he is willing to discuss adjusting the way the grant is deployed when he meets with provincial ministers this fall. That is encouraging, and there should be some give-and-take in settling the fine details.

There is concern, for example, about whether small businesses will apply for the grant. The program asks them to chip in up to $5,000 toward training each worker – one of several issues that no doubt need addressing at the negotiating table.

Training is generally regarded as a provincial jurisdiction, and the premiers clearly believe in their right to opt out. But rather than bracing for a turf war, provincial leaders should make more of an effort to help craft a workable Job Grant. Bargaining with one hand on the escape hatch won't make for much of a negotiation.

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