WASHINGTON - Seven Canadian premiers descend upon the U.S. capital this week for the winter meeting of the influential National Governors Association, where they'll sit down with their stateside counterparts and some key members of President Barack Obama's cabinet.
The premiers of Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are in town for the first-ever meeting of the governors association and its Canadian counterpart, the Council of the Federation.
The centrepiece of the visit is two roundtables being held Saturday to discuss energy and the environment.
Alberta's oilsands, which are unpopular among some key congressional Democrats, are certain to be a hot topic of discussion. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach isn't attending the meeting, citing a previous commitment.
A meeting Friday with Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, could prove the most fruitful for the premiers. With greenhouse gas legislation stalled in Congress following the Democrats' recent loss of their filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, the EPA is threatening to regulate carbon emissions if lawmakers won't.
That leaves Canada in a state of limbo regarding its own greenhouse gas standards, since it's been waiting to implement climate-change legislation in lockstep with American legislators. Quebec Premier Jean Charest has been engaged in a war of words with Ottawa on that approach in recent weeks, and his stance signals the premiers won't exactly be presenting a united front on climate-change legislation while they're in uncharacteristically snow-bound Washington.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who's co-hosting the Canadian contingent alongside Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, says there's no question the premiers have varied opinions on how to battle greenhouse gas emissions.
"Certainly there are differences in the country," Wall said Wednesday from Regina before heading to D.C. "But there's agreement that we have to make sure that North America is in synch here. There's general consensus around that."
The meeting with Jackson will be particularly valuable for the premiers, Wall added.
"It'll be very interesting to determine any unintended consequences of the EPA's greater involvement in the file, especially as it relates to analyzing products from our country to theirs."
The premiers will emphasize to their U.S. hosts that Canada is their "No. 1 energy partner at a time when America wants energy independence and energy security," Wall said, adding they'll also stress the country's abundant supply of hydro, uranium and other energy sources.
They'll meet with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Sunday, where lingering trade irritants are expected to dominate the discussion, particularly the U.S. country-of-origin food labelling practices.
Canada and Mexico have complained to the World Trade Organization that the Americans are violating NAFTA with the practice, and Canadian meat producers have suffered under the rules since many U.S. processors will no longer buy meat or livestock from north of the border.
In Quebec City on Wednesday, Charest said there was "no shortage of subjects" for premiers and the governors to tackle in the coming days while also taking credit for the historic meeting.
"It's our first contact. It's the first time it's being done and I'm the one who suggested it to Vermont governor, Jim Douglas, who is our neighbour and the head of the national governors' association," he said. "We want to make it a habit."
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says the meeting provides a good opportunity for premiers and governors to share ideas and embrace the importance of freer trade.
"The most important thing we want to do is strengthen our relationships and our ties," he said in Toronto.
"The fact of the matter is that we both lead sub-national governments on both sides of the border, we both find ourselves governing in a time of tremendous economic constraint, and we need to remind each other that we need to look for opportunities to support each other, particularly through trade, instead of turning inwards."