REGINA - Canada's premiers are talking tough about the "Buy American" policy in the United States.
At their meeting in Regina, Quebec's Jean Charest said U.S. President Barack Obama faces a test as to whether his country is ready to live up to its talk on free trade.
"I certainly feel that the American administration has not been up to the rhetoric that they have held," Charest said Thursday. "President Obama made a commitment that they would live up to world trade rules, and they haven't."
"If they cannot, on this issue, come to an agreement with their major trading partner, their ally, their friend, their neighbour, then what does that say about the Americans' attitude on trade worldwide? I think this a test for them and hopefully they will respond to what is a very reasonable request on behalf of Canada."
The Canadian government has been lobbying to get the U.S. Congress to halt "Buy American" provisions from being tacked onto about US$290 billion earmarked for infrastructure projects. Canadian companies complain they have been shut out of bidding for water treatment and school renovation projects.
Ottawa believes U.S. lawmakers are using the reluctance of provinces to sign on to international guidelines for free trade in government procurement bids as an excuse.
Federal Trade Minister Stockwell Day has said that once the provinces agree to an open procurement process, he'll take the agreement to Washington and seek reciprocal fair trade treatment.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said it's a matter of reciprocity - if American businesses want access to Canada, the United States must offer the same access to Canadian firms. He said the premiers can send a strong message to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is to meet this weekend with Obama and Mexico President Felipe Calderon.
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said the premiers must speak and act with one voice. But he cautioned that Canada must break down some of its own trade barriers to speak more strongly to its southern neighbour.
"We can't say to Americans ... make an exception for Canada, make sure we have free, open access to their markets if they don't have free, open access to our markets," he said.
"We now have to take down barriers in Canada. We have to open up our procurement strategies in Canada and as we do that we will speak with a much stronger voice than saying to the Americans 'You do this and we'll get to it later.' We need to get to it now."
The "Buy American" policy wasn't the only issue on the agenda as the provincial and territorial leaders gathered in the Saskatchewan capital. The economy and swine flu are also on the agenda.
McGuinty said he has another priority - the number of Canadians facing retirement without adequate income. A recent study has shown that by 2030, two-thirds of Canadians will not have enough retirement income to pay for their necessary living expenses, he said.
McGuinty headed into the meeting Thursday by calling for a summit on pensions, saying it's a national challenge that warrants a national conversation.
"This is an issue that is in some ways independent of this global recession, but the recession has exacerbated or has highlighted some of the challenges associated with folks who don't have an adequate level of retirement income," he said.
"We don't impose ourselves on our kids, who turned to our generation and say ... 'Why didn't you ensure that you had enough money to retire on?' "
McGuinty said governments may have to create more incentives to persuade people to sock away money.
Other premiers have discussed setting up provincial public pension plans, which would top up the Canada Pension Plan for people without workplace pensions.
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