EDMONTON — The licence plate fight between Alberta and Saskatchewan threatened Thursday to escalate into a much bigger trade conflict.
Alberta's economic development minister hinted that the province will invoke retaliatory measures on Saskatchewan's plate ban, and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall vowed that he's ready to go toe to toe.
"We won't be backing off on it," Wall said in Regina. "We think it doesn't necessarily violate trade agreements."
He said Alberta has to look in the mirror on free trade, noting that it recently changed rules on craft beer taxes to help its own industry and has lobbied against open borders on procurement.
"If you're going to live by the protectionist sword, you're also going to have to face other provinces that will stand up and defend the interests of their economy and their sectors," said Wall.
On Wednesday, Saskatchewan announced it was banning Alberta licence plates on trucks belonging to anyone working on future government road and infrastructure projects.
Saskatchewan Infrastructure Minister David Marit initially said the reason for the ban was because Alberta had similar rules for Saskatchewan workers.
Marit later added that it was also because Alberta doesn't have a provincial sales tax, and making Alberta workers buy Saskatchewan plates puts workers in both provinces on a level playing field.
He said his advisers told him the ban "could be" a violation of the free trade New West Partnership, but he proceeded anyway, saying "I felt very strongly in protecting Saskatchewan companies."
Marit said Alberta workers still will be allowed to bid on Saskatchewan projects, so long as they get Saskatchewan plates.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said Thursday she had spoken to Wall a day before the ban and Wall did not raise the issue. She said Saskatchewan's reasons for the ban keep shifting, and said none of them hold water.
"I look forward to what the next explanation will be. I'm sure it will become increasingly entertaining," Notley said following a speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.
"In either event, it doesn't align with trade rules, it doesn't align with good public policy, and it's not good for job creation for anybody."
Earlier Thursday, Alberta Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous said that not only will Alberta sue Saskatchewan under free trade rules, the province is also looking at other measures outside of court to fight back.
"If they don't walk this back in six days then there will be consequences," Bilous said.
Bilous would not say what the consequences would be, but said a major stumbling block to getting the issue resolved is getting the Saskatchewan government to call him back.
"They still haven't responded or picked up the phone," said Bilous.
Bilous said there are no rules or restrictions in place on Saskatchewan workers on Alberta sites.
Service Alberta, the department that handles licences, says a non-resident needs to register a vehicle if the vehicle is in Alberta for six months or more. However, commercial vehicles and semis and trucks are not included in this requirement.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press