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Feds miss chance to bolster apprenticeships?

OTTAWA - Stakeholders are disappointed that the Conservative government has declared its massive new federal-provincial infrastructure project open for business — with nary a mention of apprenticeships.

Ottawa kicked off its $14-billion New Building Canada Fund late last month, part of the government's 10-year, $53-billion plan to build new infrastructure across Canada.

The fund consists of $4 billion for projects of national significance, $9 billion for provincial and territorial initiatives and $1 billion for projects in small communities with populations of fewer than 100,000 people.

But amid that infrastructure bonanza, there are no provisions for apprenticeships, a key plank of this year's federal budget.

The government is so committed to bolstering Canada's apprenticeship system in an effort to develop skilled trades in Canada that Employment Minister Jason Kenney took a delegation to Germany in March to learn more about the European powerhouse's famed program.

Sarah Watts-Rynard, head of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, was on the trip and said the delegation returned to Canada believing that apprenticeships had a bright future.

That's why Watts-Rynard said she's mystified by the government's failure to seize the opportunity to kick-start the country's apprenticeship programs via its mammoth infrastructure initiative, she said.

"This is a place where the federal government has some room to support apprenticeships with its procurement dollars," she said in an interview. "So it is disappointing to not see that as part of this initiative."

Some stakeholders have expressed their befuddlement directly to the federal government.

In February's budget, the Conservative government announced the creation of the Canada Apprentice Loan, an expansion of the Canada Student Loans Program.

The fund will provide apprentices in so-called Red Seal trades with access to more than $100 million in interest-free loans every year to help them pay for their training.

A spokeswoman for Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, however, said the government's economic blueprint encourages the development of apprenticeship programs, but doesn't mandate it.

"We are working with all the provinces and territories on ways to encourage apprenticeships for infrastructure projects, while respecting their jurisdiction," Michele-Jamali Paquette said in an email.

"It's important to remember that the federal government is not the procurer under the structure of New Building Canada Plan. That is a provincial and territorial jurisdiction and we will continue to respect that."

That's a "gutless" cop-out, said Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal critic for employment and social development.

"There's a collective opinion that this is a missed opportunity on the part of the federal government," he said from Nova Scotia.

"The provinces want the same thing here — you're not asking them to sever a limb, you're asking them to develop a partnership to bring along apprenticeships together with the federal government. This was a chance for the federal government to show leadership, but they've talked the talk without walking the walk."

Watts-Rynard said she's been told the Conservatives are still "committed" to apprenticeships.

"I think that they're probably running into some road blocks; perhaps construction companies are telling them this will add to costs," she said.

"But this was one of the ways that federal and provincial governments have a real chance to support apprenticeships. Government initiatives are a place where you can say: 'We're willing to make those investments because it's the right thing for Canada.'"

Canada's mayors, along with federal opposition critics, have criticized the New Building Canada Fund, saying $14 billion isn't nearly enough to improve Canada's roads, water systems and public transit.

The government has also been accused of eliminating the deficit at the expense of infrastructure spending following a report by the budget watchdog that showed $30 billion earmarked for infrastructure has gone unspent over the past three years.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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