Foes, allies and cautious tour-guides await Thomas Mulcair on his Alberta visit – just after the release of a report supporting the views that landed the NDP leader in hot water.
Mr. Mulcair has long been an outspoken critic of the oil sands, but triggered a war of words with three Western premiers this month by saying Canada's energy sector has driven up the dollar, overheated the economy and hurt the manufacturing sector.
Academics are split on the issue, but the premiers – none of them New Democrats – nonetheless fired back at Mr. Mulcair, whose trip was announced shortly after.
The first item in his whirlwind schedule was a meeting late Wednesday with Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason. Early on Thursday, Mr. Mulcair and three other New Democrat MPs will tour Suncor Energy's open-pit mine, one of the first major projects in the oil sands, dating back four decades. Later on Thursday, he'll meet with the local mayor before returning to Edmonton to visit the Legislature – where he was called "Alberta's number one enemy" this week.
It will be Mr. Mulcair's first visit to what he has derided as the "tar sands" and called "dirty oil." Suncor declined to comment on its tour.
The mayor of the region, for one, doesn't like what the NDP leader has said, but agreed to meet with him anyway.
"I think it was more of a disappointment for me, because it's a national leader making some pretty aggressive comments about something I'm not sure he has the best understanding of," Mayor Melissa Blake said.
Mr. Mulcair said he never sought to attack the West, calling the notion a "straw man" set up by his political foes.
"This whole discussion is about breaking the boom-and-bust cycle, having sustainable development, looking at the environmental, economic and social aspects of the equation, coming up with a pan-Canadian vision. There are people in the West who believe in that as well," he said.
Among those he won't meet is Alberta Premier Alison Redford. She'll be at the secretive, invitation-only Bilderberg conference in Virginia. Her deputy premier will host Mr. Mulcair, and Ms. Redford is under fire for skipping out.
"Where are this Premier's priorities? Is it to stand here, in Alberta, and defend our most important industry from bullies like Thomas Mulcair? Or is it to attend secret cocktail parties on the taxpayer dime and let the bully have open season," provincial Opposition Leader Danielle Smith said after calling Mr. Mulcair "Alberta's number one enemy."
Mr. Mason said he agrees with most of what his federal counterpart has said about the energy sector's effect on the broader economy. "It's a difference in emphasis rather than substance," the provincial NDP leader said.
A report on Wednesday by the Calgary-based Pembina Institute backed Mr. Mulcair, saying Canada's economy has "oil sands fever." Another report, by the right-wing Macdonald-Laurier Institute think tank, dismissed fears.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said this week he hopes the trip is a learning experience for Mr. Mulcair, but added: "I have my doubts, frankly." Ms. Redford has said Mr. Mulcair needs to "inform himself." Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said he hopes Mr. Mulcair is "mugged by reality" during his visit.
Such comments amount to conservatives "taking advantage of the controversy in order to try and damage the NDP," Mr. Mason said. But he hopes this is all just the beginning. "I'm hoping he'll come back to Alberta again."
With reports from Shawn McCarthy and The Canadian Press