Cross-border construction conflict: a primer

MPP pushes to ban Quebec firms from Ontario public works projects

Ottawa construction contractors’ frustration over accessing work in Quebec is once again in the spotlight, thanks to a new push by an area politician.

Progressive Conservative MPP Jack MacLaren, who represents the local riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills, wants to prevent workers and companies based in Quebec from working on provincial and municipal construction projects in Ontario such as the City of Ottawa’s $2.1-billion light-rail project.

He has the support of the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association, which shut down the Champlain Bridge in a protest last month to raise awareness of what it believes is unfair treatment of Ontario construction contractors in Quebec.

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With the dispute still unresolved, OBJ prepared a primer putting the conflict in context and looking at where it’s headed.


What’s the problem?

Red tape. The two provinces have a labour mobility agreement in place, but that hasn’t eliminated the frustration Ontario firms experience while trying to register in Quebec. Companies are required to spend thousands of dollars and asked to send details – such as a photo of the firm’s president – to the government. Walter Pamic, the vice-president of Kanata-based Power-Tek Electrical Services, said his firm spent 25 hours trying to get through the necessary paperwork before eventually giving up.


Why is a conservative politician pushing for more regulations?

Leverage. Despite the fact that the bill would increase barriers to trade between the two provinces, Mr. MacLaren said he is no protectionist. He hopes that, when faced with the prospect of its residents losing out on construction work, the Quebec government will take a second look at the regulations that make it difficult for Ontario construction companies to do business there.


Won’t this increase project costs?

Backers of the bill insist it won’t. Ron Barr, the general manager of the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association, points to the City of Ottawa’s snow removal model as an example. The city sets its price for snow removal ahead of time so, if the cost is going to be the same, why not give the work to local companies? Mr. MacLaren said there are plenty of Ontario companies – and plenty of Ontarians out of work – so there should still be lots of competition.


Are local firms all on board?

Not exactly. The bill would prevent Ontario firms from hiring Quebec-based subcontractors or even using workers who live on the other side of the Ottawa River for government projects. Members of the Ottawa Construction Association employ thousands of people from Quebec, according to John DeVries, the organization’s president, so the bill would force them to find new workers. He said that’s just one example of why the solution to this issue is not as simple as Mr. MacLaren is making it out to be.


Will Mr. MacLaren’s bill pass?

It’s unlikely. Private member’s bills rarely get very far without the blessing of the government, a fact Mr. MacLaren readily acknowledges. However, he said he has spoken with at least one Liberal (he won’t say which one) who agrees with the bill’s contents. A tidal wave of support seems unlikely, though, given the Liberals actually repealed a similar law after Dalton McGuinty became premier in 2003.

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