You needed only watch Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard’s face as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to push through the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to understand that, however this crisis ends, the nature of federal power will never be the same.
The two leaders were on the same stage Monday to announce an extension to Montreal’s Métro. But all the national reporters who attended their press conference wanted to know was what the Prime Minister is going to do about the Kinder Morgan ultimatum on Trans Mountain that is throwing a wrench into his sunny ways.
The Quebec Premier, who is often accused by his provincial adversaries of not standing up to Ottawa enough, stood stone-faced behind the Prime Minister as Mr. Trudeau said, in French: “I can reassure all Canadians from one end of the country to the other that this project in the national interest will be accomplished.”
The crisis that has pitted British Columbia’s New Democratic government against its Alberta NDP counterpart is unfolding in the two provinces furthest from Quebec. But make no mistake: Quebec has as much at stake in this dispute as Kinder Morgan, Alberta’s oil industry, the environmental movement and the federal government. Sovereigntists would love to see Ottawa play hard ball on Trans Mountain.
Indeed, if Ottawa, the courts or a bout of intellectual honesty force the B.C. government to stand down in its opposition to the pipeline’s construction, the consequences for the federation will be just as far-reaching as if the federal government refuses to invoke its prerogatives despite B.C.‘s direct challenge to its authority. The Prime Minister needs to think long and hard on this one.
TransCanada did Mr. Trudeau a tremendous favour by abandoning its proposed Energy East pipeline before the Prime Minister had to make a decision on its fate. The Alberta-to-New Brunswick pipeline, which would have had to pass through Quebec, was doomed by the National Energy Board’s move to impose an upstream emissions test on the project. TransCanada saw where that was heading and cut its losses.
Western politicians and commentators accused Mr. Trudeau of sabotaging Energy East by failing to confront the Quebec politicians and environmentalists who were on a mission to kill the project. With the fate of the federal Liberals so closely tied to their ability to hang on to, if not gain, seats in Quebec in 2019, Mr. Trudeau indeed faced a political Hobson’s choice on Energy East. Luckily for him, he never had to make it.
Beyond the politics, however, the underlying constitutional dilemma he risked facing on Energy East was identical to the one he now faces on Trans Mountain. Whatever the Prime Minister does on the Kinder Morgan project will have deep repercussions in Quebec.
If preserving the federal-provincial peace is Mr. Trudeau’s goal, the best outcome on Trans Mountain would involve the B.C. government withdrawing its threats to block the project. If that does not happen, the federation is headed into risky territory.
If Ottawa is forced to exercise its authority, before or after the Supreme Court weighs in in its favour, it will introduce an entirely new dynamic into federal-provincial relations. The spectre of future federal governments overriding provincial environmental legislation to impose interprovincial projects deemed in the national interest would energize Quebec sovereigntists. If anything risks reviving their moribund movement, this would be it.
Yes, you can call Quebec hypocritical for raking in equalization payments from Ottawa – $11.7-billion this year and set to rise by 13 per cent next year – all while proclaiming its environmental superiority to oil-dependent Alberta, the province whose taxpayers foot a disproportionate share of the federal equalization tab. But the Trump-worthy attempts of some western politicians to feed resentment toward Quebec for short-term political gain could take us down a dangerous path even they would regret. Jason Kenney, a former federal cabinet minister, should know better.
It’s true that former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, who also previously served in the federal cabinet, stirred the pot by calling Energy East’s cancellation “an enormous victory” while Albertans and New Brunswickers mourned its death. But that was just cheap politics, too.
Mr. Trudeau is facing the kind of leadership test that could not only doom his own political career but could feed the kind of regional resentment that once brought the country close to the brink of disintegration. Is he up to the task?