In recent years, Nancy Southern had little good to say about the federal Liberal government.
The chief executive officer of utilities and structures giant Atco Ltd., has spoken of a “heart-breaking” decline in Canadian economic competitiveness. In May, 2019, Ms. Southern said Canadian businesses were being stymied by federal energy and environment laws. “The economic destruction — well, I’m going to be on a soapbox here, and my blood is boiling — but the economic destruction, it should be punishable,” she told shareholders.
But in an interview earlier this summer -- when Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland still held the Intergovernmental Affairs portfolio, weeks before she became the first woman to serve as a Canadian finance minister -- Ms. Southern said the government’s tone toward Alberta had shifted. The lines of communication have opened, and Ms. Southern now holds out hope that new federal energy laws will be guided by regulations that will provide certainty for companies planning big projects.
“There’s been some recognition by the federal government that we need to find a way a way to stick together, as a country.”
And much of the change, the Calgary-based executive said, is due to Ms. Freeland.
The federal Liberals are deeply unpopular in Alberta. Despite that, and perhaps in a testament to her skills as a politician, Ms. Freeland is well-regarded by many business leaders such as Ms. Southern. Equally impressive given the political animosity for Ottawa today, she has built relationships with some of the province’s most conservative-minded politicians.
The question now is where Bill Morneau’s exit and Ms. Freeland’s move to Finance takes the fraught relationship between the Prairies and Ottawa. Some Albertans have expressed concern about Ms. Freeland’s early emphasis on a “green” recovery, and what they see as her close political alignment with the Prime Minister. Others have said they believe that, as her political stock rises, she will continue to be a good listener, a pragmatist and a rare sympathetic voice for the West within the federal Liberal caucus.
Some business and political leaders in the West certainly viewed her response to a reporter’s question on whether decarbonization has to be part of the economic recovery plan as ominous for the oil and gas industry. “All Canadians understand that the restart of our economy needs to be green. It also needs to be equitable. It needs to be inclusive. And we need to focus very much on jobs and growth,” Ms. Freeland said.
But others have focused instead on her discussion around the recovery being equitable and job-focused. Ms. Freeland got the often-nebulous portfolio of Intergovernmental Affairs last fall in part because while she now represents a Toronto riding, she was born in Peace River and spent much of her childhood on her family’s northern Alberta farm. Many conservatives in the province grudgingly believe Ms. Freeland is the best chance for Prairie voices to be heard in a federal Liberal caucus that doesn’t include any MPs from Alberta or Saskatchewan, and doesn’t outwardly show much sympathy for the region’s down-in-the-dumps oil and gas sector.
There are still a long list of grievances from the provincial government and a still-significant autonomy movement. But Premier Jason Kenney’s office, more often than not up for political battles with Ottawa, has had a relatively collegial relationship with Ms. Freeland.
And former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, still quietly powerful in Conservative circles, listed her accomplishments on trade with the United States and relationship-building in the Prairie provinces in an interview with BNN Bloomberg this week. He said Ms. Freeland is of the pragmatic, moderate “Martin-Chrétien vintage” of Liberals when it comes to fiscal, economic and resource policies.
More than Mr. Morneau, who played a key role in Ottawa’s significant prepandemic deficits, Mr. Wall said be believes Ms. Freeland is likely able to act as a check on Mr. Trudeau’s “ideological” and “left-leaning” fiscal policies.
“The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour,” Mr. Wall said. “Let’s hope it’s that Chrystia Freeland that continues in this now-key Finance role.”
As stories about the internal battles Mr. Morneau lost to the Prime Minister’s office become public, there’s still frustration in the energy industry, and among provincial political leaders, that the federal government never fully delivered on Mr. Morneau’s March 25 promise that a significant credit program targeted for Canada’s oil and gas sector was “days” or “hours” away.
And with Mr. Morneau’s departure, there is concern within Alberta’s United Conservative Party government that those opposed to energy industry expansion will be emboldened to pursue an agenda that ignores or undermines what is a key Canadian export sector. That is one interpretation of what decarbonization and a green agenda mean.
But the details of what will be a massive recovery plan have yet to be laid out. A number of oil sands companies are promising -- albeit with few details -- that they can get to net-zero emissions by 2050, which is Ottawa’s climate goal.
Some of those same Alberta conservatives hope Ms. Freeland will make headway in persuading her colleagues that technology and progress might somehow allow Alberta and Saskatchewan’s industries and workers to play a role in the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic -- even a green one.
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