Skip to main content

Jim Carr, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's special representative for the Prairies, speaks to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 14, 2020. Carr believes the federal Liberals can again win seats in the governing party’s political desert, Alberta and Saskatchewan.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Back in cabinet after a health ordeal, Jim Carr holds out hope for his party’s fortunes in the West. He believes the federal Liberals can again win seats in the governing party’s political desert – Alberta and Saskatchewan – with the record of Ottawa’s COVID-19 response, and finding “common ground” on other key issues.

This political confidence, which many on the Prairies will regard as wishful beyond reason, could be tested sooner rather than later as talk of an early 2021 federal election ramps up.

But perhaps Mr. Carr – continuing in his role as the Prime Minister’s “special representative for the Prairies” – has good reason for having an optimistic outlook. He was diagnosed with a serious form of blood cancer, multiple myeloma, the day after the October, 2019 federal election. Last year he underwent stem-cell transplant treatment – a difficult process that left his immune system weakened and resulted in the loss of his hair and near 35 pounds of body weight.

Over the phone, Mr. Carr, 69, said he has a full head of hair again, and his weight is coming back. Most importantly, his energy has returned.

“I’ve been blessed with tremendous support and wonderful medical care. And here I am, on the other side of it.”

And as of last week, the Winnipeg South Centre MP is also back in cabinet. He doesn’t have a portfolio or a department to oversee. But he does have a seat at the cabinet table, as well as a spot on the cabinet committee where national unity and the government’s strategic agenda is in focus. “I can add a voice, a Prairie voice, to all of those issues.”

His previous cabinet posts, pre-COVID-19 in Natural Resources and International Trade Diversification, have meant Mr. Carr had often been travelling the Western provinces.

During the pandemic, he has been Zooming across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Mr. Carr knows the region. He speaks about the role the provinces are playing in agriculture, all types of energy, and the development of artificial intelligence in one breath.

But even with good intentions relayed by Mr. Carr, there’s still the problem of the massive disconnect between the federal Liberals and vast swaths between Winnipeg and Kelowna.

Oil-focused economies in Alberta and Saskatchewan have been struggling with a drop in commodity prices and investment, and a lack of adequate pipeline access to the best markets, long before the pandemic hit. Major oil companies have been departing Calgary’s office towers in droves while Ottawa looks on with what some view as indifference.

The reason why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created the role of special representative is to rebuild some sort of political presence in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Mr. Carr was one of four Liberals elected in Manitoba in the fall, 2019 vote when his party was completely locked out of the two provinces to his west.

The Liberal government’s messaging and policy decisions around climate change, energy regulation and carbon pricing – and the rate of change – have put it at odds with some in the oil and gas industry, and premiers such as Jason Kenney and Scott Moe.

The tension between the wealth that oil has created for the country, and the fact many Liberals don’t like to think of their Canada being an oil producer in the leagues of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia or Iraq, is unresolved. Economic unrest and high unemployment have contributed to Western autonomy and separation movements that to now have limited reach – but could some day present a challenge to mainstream political leaders.

The mandate letter from the Prime Minister to Mr. Carr talks about agriculture, export promotion and the air travel sector. The $3-billion Net-Zero Accelerator fund – announced by Ottawa in December and described as a means of rapidly expediting decarbonization projects with large emitters, which is intriguing for industry-heavy Alberta – is also discussed. But there is no mention of oil, Canada’s single largest export.

But still, Mr. Carr argues there are bridges to be built “by finding common ground, and by nurturing respectful relationships that understand jurisdiction.”

The federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline and the expansion project at a multibillion-dollar cost, is supporting the building of liquefied natural gas facilities “where we can displace coal-fired electricity [in Asia] with cleaner electricity,” and has made the Prairie provinces a key part of the hydrogen strategy.

Ottawa has also been advocating for construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline with the incoming Biden administration in the U.S. According to media reports on Sunday, transition documents show that president-elect Joe Biden plans to issue an executive order on his first day in office that would cancel the American construction permit.

Mr. Carr also points to the $1.7-billion that Ottawa contributed to the cleanup of oil wells, something that during the pandemic and the resulting drop in oil demand has kept hope alive for some oilfield service companies. Others in Alberta have also pointed to the importance of the federal CERB program for laid-off workers, and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy in keeping companies afloat during COVID-19 shutdowns.

“It’s the nature of our federalism to come together when the chips are down and the chips have been down for nine months,” he said. “If it were otherwise, I don’t think the people would tolerate it.”

However, many in Alberta would say this period where Ottawa is providing the bailout is only a short snapshot in time, after decades in which tens of billions in tax dollars from the economic activity on the Prairies helped to fill federal coffers. And anyone paying even casual attention to Western politics would consider the possibility that people in Alberta and Saskatchewan elect Liberal MPs this year, or in any near-year, a long shot.

Mr. Carr insists he’s not trying to minimize the friction between the Prairies and the federal government.

“That’s a natural function of a federation, and the history of Canada is dotted with examples of that kind of tension,” he said. “But where we are successful is where we are able to overcome it.”

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.