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Premiers agree in principle to trade deal, try to ease alcohol sales across Canada

Canada's Premiers are seen during the closing news conference following a meeting of Premiers in Whitehorse, Yukon, Friday, July, 22, 2016. .
Canada's Premiers are seen during the closing news conference following a meeting of Premiers in Whitehorse, Yukon, Friday, July, 22, 2016. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

WHITEHORSE – Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders have agreed in principle on an internal trade deal they say will help create jobs and improve the economy.

Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, speaking at the end of a two-day premiers meeting in Whitehorse, called it a “historic day.”

He said there are still some technical issues to work on before the deal is submitted to the federal government and First Nations.

Pasloski said the deal also establishes a working group to study how to improve trade in beer, wine and spirits across the country.

READ MORE: BC reaches wine purchase pact with two other provinces

Earlier in the day, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec agreed to allow online purchases of wine from each other’s provinces.

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“We haven’t freed the grapes entirely, but they’re a little bit freer,” said B.C. Premier Christy Clark in making the announcement.

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A deal to allow consumers to purchase wine online through each province’s government-controlled liquor monopoly may seem like small beer in the context of the overall agreement on free interprovincial trade the premiers were seeking at their Whitehorse meeting this week.

But Quebec’s Philippe Couillard said it was just the start.

“More will come,” he said. “We didn’t want to tie us down and wait until we work on the whole gamut of issues around our state-sponsored agencies.”

Couillard said that could take another two or three years. He added Nova Scotia, another wine-producing province, is interested in signing on to the deal.

The water-in-their-wine announcement was an indication of just how tough it’s proving to be to achieve a deal to allow Canadians to trade freely with their fellow citizens.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley acknowledged that several provinces, including hers, are seeking exemptions for economic development initiatives.

READ MORE: Notley focuses on carbon pricing, health care funding, free trade as premiers meeting winds down

“It’s really important that we open up trade across the country,” she said. “But it’s also important to ensure that where there’s a need for provincial governments to engage intentionally in economic stimulus or regional development that they’re able to do that.”

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Alberta is planning to spend billions on infrastructure to energize an economy damaged by low oil prices and the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Clark said she still hopes an internal trade deal can be reached, especially after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement during his speech Thursday night.

“If there was ever a time when Canadians need to come together and have free trade in our own country, it must be now when Americans are making noises like that,” she said.

READ MORE: Free trade deal front and centre as Canada’s premiers meet in Whitehorse

The premiers were also debating how many strings they’re willing to accept on new federal money for health care. They have been asking the federal Liberals to increase their share of the funding to 25 per cent from an average of about 20 per cent.

Ottawa has suggested it’s willing to provide more money, but wants much of it spent on federal priorities such as mental health.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he’s willing to listen.

“What the premiers are saying is let’s deal with the funding situation first,” he said. “Then we discuss federal government priorities. If their priorities are long-term care and seniors care, that will be the priority of almost every province and territory.”

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READ MORE: Provinces poised to agree on plan to open up interprovincial trade: Ontario minister

Couillard repeated his opposition to any strings at all.

“We are totally opposed to targeted funding,” he said. “This is a concept we will never let go. We will decide how to use the funds.”

Kathleen Wynne of Ontario acknowledged there is a way to go before the premiers present a united front.

“There’s an acceptance that there needs to be accountability for those dollars and there’s a range of issues that we have to tackle as provinces and territories,” she said.

“But there’s definitely a discussion about how much targeting and how much specific allocation would be acceptable.”