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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks with the media in Ottawa on Nov. 6, 2013.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

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The NDP had to pick a target for a debate Thursday, and it chose Justin Trudeau, and a bid to make Keystone XL a pipeline to downtown Toronto votes.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to run from the Alberta oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico. But politically, it runs through a by-election in Toronto Centre. And the NDP is trying to capitalize on Mr. Trudeau's declaration of "steadfast" support for the Keystone XL to boost its campaign.

That's why NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair picked a motion on the pipeline for the party's opposition-day debate on Thursday, instead of the Senate scandal he's been using to hammer Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Question Period. The NDP is trying to pin Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals to the Keystone pipeline by making them vote for it, and in the process, hoping to link the Liberal climate-change position to Mr. Harper's.

Opposition-day motions usually only make noise in the echo chamber of Parliament, but this one is aimed at Toronto Centre. The NDP feels its by-election campaign there was boosted when Mr. Trudeau went to Washington last week and declared himself a supporter of the Keystone pipeline. That position, on a pipeline that has become a touchstone for debate about climate change in the U.S., surprised some of Toronto Centre's environmentally conscious voters.

There are three other by-election campaigns under way, with the votes on Nov. 25, but this one is a high-profile battle of the left. Two of the others are in Conservative ridings in Manitoba, and the NDP isn't really in those races. The Liberals are, according to one poll, ahead of the NDP in a third: the Montreal riding of Bourassa, where neither party really sees the environment as a major vote-moving issue.

But Toronto Centre is a high-profile contest in a riding with a number of environmentalists and green-minded voters. The race to replace Bob Rae is between former journalists Chrystia Freeland, a onetime senior editor at The Globe and Mail and the Liberal front-runner, and the NDP's Linda McQuaig, a high-profile challenger. The NDP hopes its turning some voters by telling them the Liberals now side with Mr. Harper's Conservatives on climate change.

It's an exercise in wedge politics. Mr. Trudeau has tried to walk a middle line on Keystone. He's criticized Mr. Harper, saying that the Conservatives' failure to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions has jeopardized approval of the pipeline, so that U.S. environmentalists have made it the "poster child" for climate change. He's said he would put a price on carbon emissions, though he hasn't specified how.

But the Commons vote on the NDP's Keystone motion will be held the week before the by-elections – and it opens the prospect the Liberals and Conservatives will vote for Keystone, and the NDP against.

The wording of the NDP motion, proposed by B.C. MP Peter Julian, focuses mostly on the fact that the Keystone pipeline would be a conduit for raw bitumen, to be refined in the United States rather than Canada, and therefore, "export more than 40,000 well-paying jobs." But it will force MPs to vote yea or nay on Keystone.

Mr. Julian said it's also about the government's position on climate change and that of Mr. Trudeau – whom he called a "key ally" of Mr. Harper on Keystone: "When you have Liberals endorsing the Conservative approach on this, I think it's fair to say it puts them in a weak position on climate change."

His motion raises a little chill in the spines of some of the greener Liberals, including MPs, who worry it sends the wrong message, and it might even sow some dissension within the party. But NDP strategists said it's really aimed at the voters of Toronto Centre; Liberal strategists, too, see that as the motive.

Liberal environment critic John McKay said the NDP's trying to get them to fight a "myth" – that they take the same approach to climate change as the Conservatives – with a position that won't sell on the national stage. No government, of any party, would leave the resource of the oil sands "locked in the ground," he said, so "the question now is how you get it out with minimal environmental damage." But Keystone has become an issue in a Toronto race, and the NDP is trying to tie Mr. Trudeau to the pipeline.

Campbell Clark is a columnist in the Globe's Ottawa bureau.