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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Neil Reynolds

Fleur-de-lis and wild rose - together at last? Add to ...

Montreal lawyer and think-tank CEO Michel Kelly-Gagnon says Quebec needs allies in its historic struggle for more provincial autonomy - and nominates Alberta as the best (and perhaps only) candidate: "It is in Alberta," he says, "that an autonomist position closest to Quebec's own position can be found."

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Last month, in an assessment of this premise (A Plea for a Quebec-Alberta Dialogue), Mr. Kelly-Gagnon's Montreal Economics Institute explored the improbable notion that a political alliance of the fleur-de-lis and the wild rose represents Quebec's best bet to end federal meddling in its jurisdictional rights. At the same time, he commissioned a public opinion poll in Quebec, with intriguing results.

First, based on a February/March survey of 1,000 people, Léger Marketing reported that 61 per cent of Quebeckers have a positive image of Alberta and that 68 per cent of them think Quebec should strengthen its political and economic ties with the western province. Second, although Quebeckers are often regarded as intransigently hostile to Alberta's oil sands, 71 per cent of them think further development is desirable, provided the industry "makes a consistent effort to limit the environmental impact."

"Contrary to what some would have us believe, Quebeckers and Albertans are not bitter rivals," Mr. Kelly-Gagnon says. "In reality, they share common challenges like the search for provincial autonomy and the development of their respective energy potentials."

This survey suggests that Quebeckers hold far more pragmatic environmental views than Liberal Premier Jean Charest and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe think. Mr. Charest has rebuked the federal and Alberta governments as environmentally irresponsible (most memorably at the Copenhagen climate-change summit); Mr. Duceppe has argued that the oil sands have "de-industrialized" Quebec (by pushing up the value of the Canadian dollar) - without noting that Alberta's oil industry generates most of the $7.8-billion that Quebec will get this year in equalization payments, more than any other province.

But times are changing. The Léger survey inadvertently coincided with a Quebec trade mission to Edmonton - designed (and subsidized) by Mr. Charest to help Quebec entrepreneurs establish closer relationships with leaders of Alberta's oil industry. However proud Quebeckers feel, based on Quebec's status as North America's No. 1 producer of green-energy hydroelectricity, they've apparently come to the conclusion than green energy alone is not the answer: The Léger poll showed that 56 per cent of Quebeckers think the province will still be importing oil in 2030 - presumably at a cost (based on 2010) of $14-billion a year.

Or will it?

First, there's the Old Harry oil and gas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: a fossil-fuel deposit that could give Quebec a resource twice the size of Hibernia, two billion barrels of oil, 5,000 billion cubic feet of natural gas. In an agreement announced in March, the federal government recognized Quebec's right to 100 per cent of the royalties derived from this resource. (Newfoundland has a claim on part of Old Harry, too.)

Second, there's the shale gas in the St. Lawrence Valley - a resource that (according to the Quebec Department of Natural Resources) could justify the drilling of 250 horizontal wells a year (requiring oil-industry capital investment of $1-billion a year), creating 10,000 jobs in the process.

Writing in A Plea for a Quebec-Alberta Dialogue, Montreal economists Germain Belzile and Youri Chassin note that Quebeckers are faced with the same issues that have existed in Alberta for decades: "the economic, social and environmental impacts of fossil-fuel extraction." This means, they argue, that Quebec must abandon "simplistic" judgments - that the oil sands, for example, hurt Quebec's economy; or that green energy will replace fossil fuels any time soon. More fundamentally, Quebec must accommodate its emerging status as a Canadian energy superpower, closely allied with Alberta "in a partnership that unites two of the planet's foremost energy powerhouses."

In this case, as Mr. Kelly-Gagnon says, the economic consequences reinforce the political consequences. Alberta, he says, is the only other province with a clear desire for provincial autonomy. "Quebec has every reason to ally itself with Alberta," he says, "to thwart the centralizing, interventionist vision that has held sway in Ottawa for decades."

Mr. Kelly-Gagnon is right. Together, as energy powerhouses, Quebec and Alberta could do more than resist federal meddling. They could reverse it.

 

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