Building a level playing field

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While Ontario contractors and tradesmen may no longer be confronted with overt discrimination when trying to work in Quebec, cross-border construction labour mobility is far from a level playing field, say several Ottawa contractors.

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"It's not very convenient for an Ontario contractor to flow into the Quebec marketplace. But it's very convenient for a Quebec contractor to flow into the Ontario market," said Glenn Carr, an electrical contractor with Campbell and Kennedy Electric.

While Quebec's penchant for regulation may burden contractors on both sides of the river equally, some say provincial rules are enforced more stringently in Quebec, where there are also union membership requirements.

"I think the real problem lies in the ability of an Ontario contractor to go into Quebec and feel secure working there," said Mr. Carr, who added it's a near guarantee that work vehicles with Ontario licence plates will be stopped in Quebec to have their paperwork inspected.

Although the situation is more equitable for larger firms in both provinces, smaller Ottawa-based operations face stiff competition from their Quebec counterparts, said Dan Brennan, the general manager of the Electrical Contractors' Association of Ottawa.

"My smaller contractors lose a lot of work to Quebec contractors. I'm not sure a lot of them just don't just come (here) and work until they are caught," he said.

John DeVries, the president and general manager of the Ottawa Construction Association, said enforcement was a hot topic earlier this summer during an annual meeting between industry representatives and Ontario Minister of Labour Brad Duguid.

"There was a lot of talk about enforcement and the free flow of workers from the Quebec side into Ontario and the lack of enforcement. That is always a big issue because the Quebec system has very high-level enforcement," he said.

Despite the unequal enforcement levels, both Mr. DeVries and Mr. Brennan credited the Ministry of Labour and the local Jobs Protection Office, which assists Ontario construction workers and contractors resolve issues related to working in Quebec, for doing a good job.

Two senior officials at the Jobs Protection Office were away last week and unable to comment. A request for data on enforcement actions submitted to the Ministry of Labour was not answered by last Friday.

Despite outstanding enforcement issues, Mr. DeVries said there have been "a ton of improvements" in construction labour mobility in the past decade, culminating with an agreement signed by the governments of Ontario and Quebec in June 2006.

Under that agreement, Ontario construction contractors became eligible to bid on contracts of more than $100,000 for certain Quebec Crown corporations. Previously the contracts had to be greater than $5 million.

Additionally, Ontario construction workers who lack the required Quebec certification were given the opportunity to qualify for trade activity cards from Ontario.

The evolution of agreements between the two provinces has all but stamped out cases of procurement preferences, such as a requirement that a company be headquartered in Quebec, said Mr. DeVries.

As for the unequal levels of regulation, Mr. DeVries said it would be a stretch to call the issue discrimination.

"There are always going to be issues because the reality is that Ontario is very freely regulated, meaning we are at the low end of regulation compared to Quebec, which is at the high end ... I'd have to say they hit the Quebec contractors with the regulations just as much as (those from) Ontario."

Hammering away

Canada's premiers and territorial leaders signed an agreement last month to remove labour mobility barriers by next year. The agreement provides that a worker who is certified by a regulatory authority in one province or territory will be recognized as qualified to practise their occupation across Canada.

It is still not clear what effect the agreement will have on the Ottawa-Gatineau construction market, given that many of the outstanding issues between the two provinces are likely to fall outside the agreement. For example, the Supreme Court of Canada had previously upheld a Quebec law that effectively requires all construction workers in Quebec to belong to a union.

Organizations: Ministry of Labour, Jobs Protection Office, Ottawa Construction Association Supreme Court of Canada

Geographic location: Quebec, Ontario, Ottawa Canada

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