Denis Coderre served as the foil: The Montreal mayor and former Liberal minister's opposition to the Energy East pipeline has sparked a burst of anger in the resource provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
As the Commons returned on Monday, the Conservatives used him to pin Western frustration on the Liberals.
Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose vented the regional tensions full on, suggesting the pipeline opposition is a threat to national unity.
Westerners, Ms. Ambrose said, are saying "it's just like the National Energy Program," the hated policy of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's father, Pierre. She accused Mr. Coderre of playing base local politics. Albertans feel as though they paid heavily into equalization payments, while Quebeckers took out, and now they're not feeling that support back in kind, she said at a news conference Monday.
Mr. Coderre's opposition isn't national policy, of course. He's a mayor, and 81 other Montreal-area mayors joined him in opposing Energy East. But it's not hard to see why many Albertans are frustrated. Every proposed pipeline to bring oil to tidewater seems to get blocked. Now, the Alberta economy is reeling with jobs losses. So when Mr. Coderre said last Thursday that Energy East, a proposed oil pipeline from Alberta to Saint John, was too risky for Montreal, many saw it as insult upon injury. And, the Conservatives noted, he's a former Liberal minister.
In the Commons, the Tories' game was to pin Mr. Coderre on the Liberals. Why won't Mr. Trudeau call Mr. Coderre and "fight for natural resources?" Ms. Ambrose asked.
If he won't, Conservative MP Candice Bergen then asked, "will one Liberal member of Parliament from Alberta, one of the four, stand up for Western Canadian jobs?" When Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, a Manitoban, stood up to answer, the Tories hooted. The same happened when Conservative MP Andrew Scheer asked Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the lone Liberal from Saskatchewan, to denounce Mr. Coderre.
This was sport for the Conservatives. And they were clearly having more fun than they've had in many a long day. Backbenchers heckled Liberal answers by shouting "pipeline." Mr. Scheer smiled as he motioned to Mr. Goodale to stand up and answer. The implication was clear: The Liberals won't stand up for their constituents' resource jobs. It fit a portrait the Conservatives were painting. Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Ambrose said, insulted resource workers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he said Canada should be known for resourcefulness, not resources. "He just does not care about these jobs," she said.
The Liberals are handcuffed on Energy East, at least for now. Mr. Trudeau has said it's important to get Alberta oil to tidewater, but also promised more "credible" reviews of pipelines. They can't endorse a pipeline before then. But Mr. Trudeau will meet Mr. Coderre on Tuesday, presumably to distance his position from the mayor's.
But there's danger in the Tories' sport. Ms. Ambrose's warning of renewed Western alienation was an echo of real, visceral frustration in the hard-hit West. But embracing the suggestion that Quebec owes a debt from equalization payments that must be paid in pipelines was bound to fuel rhetoric. The Bloc Québécois's interim leader, MP Rhéal Fortin, jumped on it. "They've given themselves the right to act like the owners of Quebec in the name of Canadian unity," he said.
Certainly, there's ample room to attack Mr. Coderre's objections to Energy East – which he based mostly on fears a spill would hurt Montreal's water supply – as not-in-my-backyard grandstanding. But Ms. Ambrose didn't aim the same outrage at the mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby, B.C., for opposing Kinder Morgan's proposal to twin a pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby.
And one person who didn't embrace Ms. Ambrose's warning that Mr. Coderre's opposition is a threat to national unity was the MP sitting beside her at her news conference – the Conservatives' new Quebec star, Gérard Deltell. He, too, called on the Liberals to support Energy East, but said that's because it will create 3,000 jobs in Quebec. Quebec, he said later, is not obligated because of equalization – and he denied the pipeline issue is creating any regional tensions.