Canadians witnessed something extraordinary this week: The premier-designate of Alberta delivered a large chunk of his election victory speech in French, and in a clear enough accent that did not require subtitles for francophones to understand.
Jason Kenney’s appeal to Quebeckers to help his hard-pressed province develop its resources was largely spun in the English-language media as a sign the premier-designate would favour diplomacy over confrontation as he seeks to revive the Energy East pipeline project. Yet, after spending the past two years vilifying Quebec in stump speeches across Alberta, portraying the province as the Canadian federation’s most ungrateful and hypocritical freeloader, it will take more than a few words of flattery from Mr. Kenney to erase the ill will he helped create.
Most Quebeckers get that Albertans are frustrated. But Mr. Kenney’s ugly characterization of their province, and his threat to hold a referendum to remove equalization from the Canadian Constitution, has only generated even greater antipathy toward the oil sands. Quebec’s political class is almost unanimous in condemning them as a planetary scourge.
Even Quebec Premier François Legault – a populist, right-leaning politician who has a lot more in common with Mr. Kenney than he would ever admit – has been forced into pandering to his province’s media-savvy environmentalists.
In opposition, Mr. Legault was willing to approve Energy East provided Quebec received royalties on the pipeline that would have transported Alberta oil to the New Brunswick coast. But the backlash generated by his appointment of a lightweight environment minister after his October election forced a course correction on his part. The minister was replaced and, making his national debut at a December first ministers conference, Mr. Legault swiftly proceeded to insult Albertans by telling them that Quebeckers didn’t want their “dirty energy.”
Just as Mr. Kenney has stirred up resentment toward Quebec for his own political gain, Mr. Legault’s December comments were similarly transparent; the Quebec Premier aimed to build political capital at home. The danger is that each creates a monster he cannot control.
Mr. Legault has an uncanny knack for pouring salt on Albertans’ wounds. His summary dismissal of Mr. Kenney’s election-night overtures – insisting there was “no social licence” for a new oil pipeline through Quebec – only served to confirm the narrative that Mr. Kenney has constructed: It is selfish and hypocritical of Quebeckers to deny Albertans the ability to develop their resources all while collecting federal equalization payments that are disproportionately financed by tax revenues generated in Alberta; it must and will not stand.
“We will begin with the path of diplomacy,” Mr. Kenney said on Wednesday. “We hope that we don’t need to use more forceful measures to assert Alberta’s vital economic interests.”
Those, of course, are the fighting words Albertans had been waiting to hear. But it is never a good idea for a newly elected leader to create expectations he knows he cannot fulfill. Mr. Kenney could no doubt win a provincial referendum to end equalization. But the results of such a consultation would be rejected by the five equalization-receiving provinces (six, if you include Ontario, whose have-not status fluctuates) and Ottawa, making any reform of the program a non-starter. The whole exercise would also drive a wedge through the federal Conservative Party that Mr. Kenney perhaps hopes one day to lead. And it would expose Mr. Kenney’s own hypocrisy, since he was a key member of the previous federal government that devised the equalization formula, in part to win votes in Quebec.
If Mr. Kenney seems unclear about his own endgame, Mr. Legault is fuzzier still about his. A former sovereigntist who claims to have made his peace with Canada, the Quebec Premier has an entirely utilitarian notion of federalism. He knows francophone Quebeckers don’t want to relive the referendum traumas of yesteryear. He also knows they might some day change their minds. If Mr. Kenney continues to provoke them, that day may come sooner rather than later.
Pressed this week to explain the “advantages of remaining within Canada,” Mr. Legault replied that “$13-billion in equalization payments [was] a good start.” He padded the list with “social programs” and “good hockey teams.” None of which sounded very patriotic, which is exactly how Mr. Legault wanted it to sound to the soft and hard nationalists in his base.
All this Quebec-bashing in Alberta and Alberta-bashing in Quebec is putting the country on a risky path. Alberta and British Columbia are too close and similar to one another to let any bad feelings between them fester. But the physical and cultural distances between Alberta and Quebec have the opposite effect; Mr. Kenney and Mr. Legault need to watch their steps.