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Politics Jim Carr is the man in the middle on Canada’s energy file

Jim Carr is no fool. The Natural Resources Minister knows that the political mission he's been handed, to bridge energy development with environmental and indigenous concerns, will end up with people on either end of the issue hopping mad.

One way or another, Mr. Carr will be the man in the middle. Either he'll get squeezed, or he'll build up the middle ground.

As it happens, that's a skill on his CV – including on this issue. As a business-lobby leader in Manitoba, he started wonkish talks about a national energy strategy back in 2009. And even then, his approach was to get a wide array of interests into talks, then push them to the middle.

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Now, Mr. Carr has the task of delivering the finished article, a Canadian energy strategy.

"I'll say there's a 100-per-cent chance there won't be unanimity," Mr. Carr said in an interview. Some people won't accept any pipeline, and some want them all built now, he noted. "I do have faith in a good process leading to a good result."

Now he must turn faith into details. The Liberals have promised their policy will reflect environmental and indigenous concerns without blocking all major energy projects. But now they must take it beyond vague campaign rhetoric, amid oil-sector job losses and under political pressure from all sides.

At 64, the slim, smiling Manitoban minister has confidence in the public eye. In Question Period, where most of Justin Trudeau's rookie ministers deliver nervous, scripted replies, Mr. Carr has appeared quick-witted and serious-minded.

He has performed before, first playing oboe in the Winnipeg Symphony, and later in four years as a Liberal MLA in Manitoba's Legislature. He was a Winnipeg Free Press journalist and Manitoba's business spokesman for 15 years as president of the Business Council of Manitoba.

Local CEOs created the council after the Winnipeg Jets left town in 1996, deciding they needed a voice, and that Mr. Carr could work with both left and right, said Sanford (Sandy) Riley, then president of Investors Group and now managing director of Richardson Capital. The council became an atypical business lobby, campaigning to increase the flow of immigrants to the province and improve aboriginal education, working with Tory and NDP governments. "We play in the middle in this province, politically," Mr. Riley said.

When Mr. Carr started working on a Canadian energy strategy, he saw Manitoba as the middle-ground base, Western but not Alberta, said Roger Gibbins, then president of the Canada West Foundation. Mr. Carr and Mr. Gibbins invited nine think tanks to talks, forming the grandly named Winnipeg Consensus, and then held conferences with participants from business, NGOs, environmentalist groups. Eventually, the idea was taken up by Canada's premiers.

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That work remains too vague to be a real national strategy. But it illustrates Mr. Carr's approach.

One test was whether the idea of a Canadian energy strategy evoked the hated National Energy Program among Albertans, but it didn't, Mr. Gibbins said. Canada West helped give it Western credibility, but they didn't want it to be too linked to Alberta's oil patch. People of different political affiliations were invited, including Gerald Butts, now Mr. Trudeau's key adviser, and Marlo Raynalds, then with the environmentalist Pembina Institute, now Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's chief of staff.

They deliberately worked to draw in Ontario and Quebec interests, with talks on hydro power, clean technology and a national energy grid, to nudge jurisdictions to shared interests. One fear, Mr. Gibbins said, was that the Liberals might adopt the initiative – making it anathema to the Conservative government. Stephen Harper's Tories never warmed to it, anyway.

But the process says much about Mr. Carr's approach. "You start with a high level, where agreement is easier, then you continue to dig down until it becomes a little tougher, to get continuing agreement. And then you start working at the edges of that," Mr. Carr said. "Now we'll see where we can take it when we re-engage with the provinces."

But process only goes so far. A key point to a national strategy, Mr. Gibbins noted, is to articulate the national interest, so a project that's good for the country isn't consumed by many points of local opposition. Eventually, the government must take a position. That's when faith in the middle ground will be tested.

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