Edmonton and Ottawa feel even further apart than usual these days. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been increasingly combative and demanding with the federal government since last month’s election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has managed to appear both eager to reach out to alienated Alberta and Saskatchewan, and casually indifferent to the significant news that Calgary’s Encana Corp. will change its name and move its headquarters to Denver.
The two also represent larger tensions in Canada right now, including whether you celebrate the oil industry’s economic contributions to the country or are alarmed about the environmental costs, and whether you live in a city with new jobs and optimism about the future, or whether you are watching a parade of businesses and investment leave your town.
But at the risk of being a Pollyanna, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Kenney might be able to find some near-term areas with common ground.
For instance, they could come together to support Indigenous investment in the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
The federal government bought the existing pipeline last year for $4.4-billion, pledging to de-risk the expansion project and sell it – with the goal of reducing the country’s near-total reliance on U.S. customers. The project still faces uncertainties in the form of court challenges, and protests at construction sites.
However, if a single measure could add gravitas to the project, it would be for Indigenous communities to have a financial stake.
Mr. Kenney seems fully on board, saying earlier this year that Indigenous buy-in for the expansion project would be a “game changer." Ottawa hasn’t yet fully committed to the idea. But in August, before the election, the Liberals held a first round of consultations with Indigenous groups. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said such an investment would be possible if conditions are met, including that the Indigenous communities have “meaningful economic participation,” and if a deal can proceed in the spirit of reconciliation.
Mr. Trudeau will never be able to sell his vision of supporting (and buying) the pipeline to West Coast First Nations, including the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish. But some level of project ownership by and benefits to a large number of Indigenous groups in Western Canada — done the right way — could bring more money and economic power to those communities.
Secondly, Mr. Kenney might be able to make a strong case to Ottawa for lifting the $60 per capita limit on Ottawa’s fiscal stabilization program, which helps provinces experiencing significant declines in their revenues due to extraordinary economic downturns. Alberta is in such a position.
Mr. Kenney says the cap is out of date, and a change could provide Alberta with more than $1-billion in annual help rather than the $252-million it is hoping to receive this year. Mr. Kenney argues that if equalization payments have no cap, why should stabilization. Mr. Kenney has said any more funding could be put towards “green job creation programs” such as cleaning up old oil and natural gas wells.
Legitimate concerns will be raised about whether oil well cleanup is “green,” and where this would leave the principle of “polluter pays.” But it feels like Mr. Kenney is offering something palatable to the federal Liberals. Ottawa displayed a willingness to step up in 2017, when it contributed $30-million to Alberta’s efforts on well cleanup. And mopping up an environmental mess while paying workers in rural areas and small cities hit hard by the sharp decline in energy-sector activity might outweigh the negatives.
Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Kenney might be surprisingly close in other areas. For instance, Alberta’s new carbon pricing plan for large emitters is more robust than many expected. And the Alberta Premier is a fan of carbon capture and storage projects that are for now mostly too expensive to be viable. But the Liberal government has showed openness to projects that suck carbon out of the air as a means to get Canada to carbon neutrality by 2050.
The Prime Minister will balance anything he does with his wish to see his party win back a majority some day — an outcome that will require better results in Quebec. Mr. Trudeau also says his focus on addressing climate change is unwavering. Mr. Kenney will continue to be the most powerful force in Canada’s conservative movement, to make a career of representing western economic interests and challenging central Canadian orthodoxy on energy policies.
So, the two will be foes for as long as they are in politics. But a bit of working together on some files, or at least not to get in each other’s way, could move everyone ahead.