Canada’s premiers will face a number of divisive issues, including equalization, pipelines and growing regional alienation later this year as they gather ahead of their first meeting with the new federal Liberal minority government.
Uncertainty surrounds Ottawa’s legislative priorities, since it will need opposition support to govern. With that in mind, premiers with otherwise clashing political positions say their goal is to present a united front when they meet Justin Trudeau early next year. The date and location of both meetings has yet to be determined.
The premiers agreed on Friday during a conference call to hold a face-to-face meeting after the Prime Minister unveils his new cabinet on Nov. 20. The gathering comes at the instigation of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has called on the Prime Minister to do more in the face of growing Western alienation and a stumbling energy sector.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said the premiers discussed a new national dynamic since the federal election on Oct. 21, when Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals lost 20 seats and their majority government. The party was wiped out across most of Western Canada. Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives won every riding in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with the exception of one NDP seat in Edmonton.
“We have a nation divided, so how do we best approach moving that together?” Mr. Higgs said of the conference call. The Progressive-Conservative Premier added that much of the discord is due to an economic policy advocated by Mr. Trudeau that he argued “has shut down the economy in some provinces.”
The federal Liberals overhauled Canada’s environmental-review process, creating rules that some critics say make the building of new pipelines and oil facilities almost impossible. Mr. Trudeau’s supporters counter that much of the slowdown in the country’s energy-producing provinces is due to a global drop in oil prices. They also point to the Liberal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and its commitment to expand it.
Mr. Higgs said he told Mr. Trudeau in their first discussion after the election that the “greatest opportunity you have right now is pulling our country back together, because this election has shown some significant divisions.”
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball said there was consensus among premiers on the call that coming out of the federal election, there are different issues affecting each province. But the Liberal Premier said he stressed on the call that the premiers “have a greater responsibility now to work towards nation-building” and finding areas of unity rather than talking about the differences between the regions.
B.C. Premier John Horgan told reporters after the call that the first ministers, which includes premiers and territorial leaders, will also be discussing the future of equalization when they meet.
“I think there's an awareness, even in those provinces that have been beneficiaries of equalization, that there needs to be a reassessment of how we do this in a modern Confederation,” said Mr. Horgan, a New Democrat.
Alberta’s Mr. Kenney has committed to holding a referendum in 2021 on stripping the federal program from the Constitution. His office said he was not available to speak about the call on Friday.
Mr. Kenney has offered to drop the referendum in exchange for a number of demands, including the construction of a new pipeline, the end of a tanker ban off parts of the Pacific Coast and the rescinding of the new federal environmental-assessment rules.
Some Albertans have also argued that Quebec should drop its opposition to new pipelines in exchange for equalization funds that the province receives under the federal program. Equalization is funded from federal income taxes and is designed to ensure that all provinces can offer their citizens comparable levels of public services.
Mr. Horgan said there was no direct sparring during the call about pipelines – B.C. and Alberta, in particular, are at odds over the expansion of Trans Mountain pipeline. “The consensus was, ‘Let’s sit down and get together on what issues we want to bring to the federal government,’ ” he said.
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