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Opinion As Trudeau courts Quebec, the alienation of the West only deepens

On returning to the Liberal helm for the 1980 federal election, Pierre Trudeau promised to make easing Western alienation a top priority as he sought to win back his old job as prime minister.

“In my decision to lead the Liberal Party once more, I very much want Western Canadians not only to feel, but to be involved in the continuing nation-building of Canada,” Mr. Trudeau said after rescinding his resignation as Liberal leader in the wake of his party’s 1979 electoral defeat.

Only weeks later, Mr. Trudeau was again prime minister, having beat Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives in a race focused on oil prices. Despite claiming to hear Western Canada’s pain, Mr. Trudeau vowed to hold the domestic price of oil below global levels. The promise led the Liberals to a majority win, but the party won only two seats west of Ontario. Pitting east against west paved the Liberal path to victory.

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Mr. Trudeau’s promise took shape in the post-election National Energy Program, which was beyond unpopular in Alberta. It was seen to have been the creation of a central Canadian political and bureaucratic elite for whom Western interests came second.

Once again, the Liberals have plotted a path to victory that involves sweeping Quebec and winning the urban vote in Ontario. With a carbon-tax plan that has most Prairie politicians up in arms, and in no apparent hurry to build a pipeline, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has managed to make himself as unpopular as his father in the West.

While Mr. Trudeau may not be entirely shut out of British Columbia, as his father was in 1980, the Liberals appear set to be reduced to a rump elsewhere in the West. Mr. Trudeau’s policies have helped foster a renewed sense of alienation in Western Canada that will only grow deeper if the Liberals are re-elected thanks to Quebec.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister this week gave voice to Western frustration in decrying what he deemed the resurgence of “the old style of brokerage politics" under Mr. Trudeau. His comment followed Mr. Trudeau’s meeting last week with Premier François Legault, in which the latter presented a list of demands he wants Ottawa to address.

In its heyday, the Canadian tradition of brokerage politics was aimed at accommodating the demands of every region, religion and linguistic group to ensure a disparate country stuck together. It was practically seen as a noble exercise.

There’s nothing noble about the Liberals’ current play for Quebec votes. It’s shameless.

A few of Quebec’s demands – including reducing the number of immigrants Ottawa admits to Quebec under federally controlled family-reunification and refugee programs – should be categorical non-starters for Mr. Trudeau. After all, the Prime Minister has made diversity the Liberal brand and vowed to increase, not cut, immigration levels.

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Minister of Justice David Lametti has also played down the suggestion that Ottawa would challenge legislation that Mr. Legault’s government intends to table to ban judges, police officers and teachers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job. The Liberals are hoping to avoid facing such a decision before the Oct. 19 election.

It’s disingenuous of Mr. Trudeau to suggest he would be “open" to Mr. Legault’s demands when he’s really just seeking to punt the rejection of those demands until after the election. But you can hardly blame Mr. Trudeau for seeming so solicitous of Quebec now. Picking up seats in the province is the key to his own political survival.

The Liberals won 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats in 2015 and, based on recent polls, could win more than 60 in the next election. Mr. Trudeau’s father won 74 of Quebec’s then 75 seats in the 1980 election, and Quebec MPs accounted for half of the Liberal caucus. Pierre Trudeau promised Quebeckers “renewed federalism.” He then patriated the Constitution – adding the Charter of Rights – without Quebec’s consent.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has outbid Mr. Trudeau in pandering for Quebec votes. But his own father wasn’t the Father of the Charter of Rights. So, promising to find “common ground” with Mr. Legault’s government on religious symbols and Quebec’s proposed values test for new immigrants doesn’t sound quite so heretical.

Upon winning the Liberal Party leadership in 2013, Mr. Trudeau declared, “We are fed up with leaders who pit Canadians against Canadians. West against East, rich against poor, Quebec against the rest of the country, urban against rural.”

Really? Because that sure looks to be the Liberal game plan in 2019.

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