When John Horgan looks eastward from his legislative office in Victoria, the B.C. Premier doesn’t see a country divided as much as he sees a neighbour in genuine pain.
While he believes that some of the anger and talk of separatism emanating from Alberta these days has been fuelled by partisan rhetoric, he accepts there is legitimate frustration over the grim circumstances that have beset that province’s oil and gas industry.
In other words, he understands why Alberta is so occupied with getting a new pipeline built.
“Look, I get it,” Mr. Horgan said in an interview this week in his office. “But we also need to do what we can to ensure it’s sustainable. We need to address the challenges of our time and the fact is climate change is real. It’s not something being conjured up in the basement of environmental organizations.”
There are a couple of things that struck me about my conversation with the B.C. Premier. The first is his apparent resignation that the Trans Mountain expansion will go ahead. While his government certainly poked sticks in the wheels of the project in an effort to thwart its progress, his words now suggest it’s too far along to stop.
“[Federal NDP Leader] Jagmeet Singh has said the same thing,” Mr. Horgan said. “He recognizes that the Liberals and Conservative members of Parliament far outnumber those opposed to the pipeline. He talks about the inevitability of it also.”
While Mr. Horgan is no doubt correct, his acceptance of Trans Mountain’s inexorableness will surprise some and certainly disappoint others.
“I’ve never said at any time that I wanted to alienate Albertans from their livelihoods,” the Premier said. “We’ve issued permits [for Trans Mountain’s construction] as they’ve been asked for. I highlighted where I thought policies were deficient.”
Which certainly soft-pedals the NDP’s opposition to the project while in Opposition, and also during the B.C. election two years ago when Mr. Horgan vowed on the campaign trail to “use every tool in the toolbox” to prevent the project from going ahead.
Mr. Horgan also seems to be in favour of a pipeline to the east coast – a distinct surprise to me – and shares Alberta’s annoyance with Quebec over its intransigence to facilitate the undertaking. Specifically, he’s referring to Quebec Premier François Legault’s claim that the Energy East project could never go ahead because there isn’t “social acceptability” in his province for it to proceed.
And, indeed, the Liberals have not tried to foist the project on Quebec in the same way they did with B.C. and the Trans Mountain expansion.
“For British Columbians who have been standing on protest lines and speaking out about this project, since before I became Premier, and then to have another Premier say it’s not socially acceptable and Ottawa says ‘Okay, fine,’ and then close their books and go home. Well that’s a grievance for British Columbians.”
In response to the suggestion that Quebec had effectively been given a veto over pipeline projects, Mr. Horgan said: “Pretty much, yeah.”
The Premier said opposition to Energy East is especially perplexing when New Brunswick is saying it has underutilized refinery capacity and we’re buying oil from Saudi Arabia, a pitch that could have come from the mouth of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. It sounds like a pipeline fight with Quebec may be looming.
All of which is to say, Mr. Horgan is sounding like a different person after a couple of years in power, more pragmatist than idealist. And on that front, he believes premiers can’t let partisan considerations blind them to developments and offers that are in their province’s best interests.
He doesn’t see how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be doing more to get the Trans Mountain expansion built. “He bought the damn thing,” he said. And he’s prepared to spend anywhere from “four to $13-billion” to get it constructed. And yet he’s “hated” in Alberta, Mr. Horgan said.
“And he did it [bought the pipeline] against the wishes of not only a number of British Columbians but many Canadians as well,” Mr. Horgan said.
In other words, Mr. Trudeau gave up something, too: a ton of political capital.
The B.C. Premier believes that as a bruising federal election campaign fades further into our memory, some of the bitter feelings it caused will begin to dissipate, too. But he says what we’re witnessing in Alberta is different.
“I hope it’s just temporary anger, but I don’t dismiss it at all,” Mr. Horgan said. “We dismiss it at our peril when we say it’s just Alberta making noise. That would be a mistake.”
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