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Health care, Asian trade top premiers' Vancouver talks

Ontario looking to protect its interests against Quebec, West.

There's a jam-packed agenda as Canada's premiers open talks in Vancouver -- and Asian trade tops the list for BC and Alberta.

But health care is up for debate too.

Canadian Press has the story:

VANCOUVER -- The country's premiers and territorial leaders will meet in Vancouver starting Wednesday and there is no shortage of agendas for the three-day gathering.

The Council of the Federation meeting will begin with talks between the premiers and First Nations officials, but there are almost as many issues being brought to the national gathering as there are leaders.

Already, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he wants the premiers to discuss a new national health-care accord, especially one that is committed to reform and provides secure funding.

But British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and her Alberta counterpart Ed Stelmach said the importance of building stronger economic ties with Asia will top their agenda.

"Our priority from British Columbia's perspective is to talk about the Asia-Pacific, the importance of Asia-Pacific to Canada and harnessing that opportunity for the entire country,'' Clark said Tuesday.

The B.C. premier said the provinces need to discuss how they can expand and improve trade with countries like China and India because "that's the future.''

"It's the fastest growing middle class in the history of humanity ... across the Pacific. The biggest urbanization in the history of humanity is happening across the Pacific,'' Clark told reporters.

"A new city the size of Toronto is being built every month in China alone.''

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach agrees.

A statement from the government of Alberta said leaders will discuss a unified policy that recognizes the importance of strong relations with Asia. The Alberta government has already made Asian markets a priority by passing its Asia Advisory Council Act.

Atlantic provinces will be pushing for a united front on federal transfer payments.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said the premiers are unanimous in what they want from the national meeting.

"We think that there ought to be, to the extent that it's possible, a national position with respect to those upcoming negotiations and we are going to be advancing that,'' Dexter said in a teleconference call from San Jose, Calif.

But McGuinty said he also wants to make sure his province's voice is not lost.

He said the majority federal Conservative government is dominated by the West and the official Opposition is dominated by Quebec.

"So we will continue to flex our elbows and assert ourselves,'' said McGuinty.

"We want to make sure that nothing happens -- either at the Council of the Federation or in Ottawa -- that takes Ontario off track.''

McGuinty said, for example, he would oppose any efforts that would reduce transfer payments to Ontario or increase equalization payments to all provinces.

"Both of those things would come at a cost to Ontarians,'' he said.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced last month that he won't be able to attend the annual gathering of the council because he will be attending his daughter's wedding in France.

The agendas being brought to the table aren't limited to just leaders. The Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association announced they want the premiers to put together a national reform package for the health-care system focused on patients, quality of care, health promotion and illness prevention.

The associations said the system must also be equitable, sustainable and accountable.

The associations want the premiers to focus on a national reform plan and to bring health care to a full-fledged first ministers' meeting by the spring.

"A health-care system that is universal, sustainable and truly centred on the needs of patients demands pan-Canadian standards for which all levels of government share responsibility,'' said Dr. Jeff Turnbull, president of the CMA.

"No matter where they live, Canadians deserve a system that provides a seamless continuum of care. To achieve this, governments must be guided by a common set of principles.''

The federal-provincial health-care accord expires in 2014 and the federal, provincial and territorial governments are all looking at ways to improve the system without increasing costs.

Clark, the host of the meeting, did appear to rule out a few issues ahead of the meetings. She said Tuesday that senate reform is not a priority for discussions this week because Canadians are more concerned with job creation, strong families and sustainable communities.

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