A broad perception is that the change of governance has taken us, to borrow from Dickens, from Bleak House to Great Expectations. But on the matter of Canadian unity, the condition was hardly bleak in the past decade while prospects for the future, if Justin Trudeau doesn't act wisely, could indeed be grim.
It is one of the positive and somewhat ironic features of Stephen Harper's decade in power that unity prevailed. No matter that he was one of the most rigidly partisan of leaders, that he tried to undermine Ottawa's institutions, that he employed low-grade tactics to bring down adversaries, that he refused to hold first ministers' conferences and had only paltry support in Quebec.
What counted was that the circumstances for unity were right. The West held the reins of power, and what a welcome change that was from previous decades. The region was largely content throughout the Harper stewardship. In Quebec, meanwhile, sovereigntists lacked an issue to rally around. They were the quietest they'd been in half a century.
But now, we have returned to the pre-Harper template. Western Conservatives are on the opposition benches, a Quebecker is in power in Ottawa, a Trudeau no less. And there's a highly divisive issue, oil and pipelines, to stoke fires.
The issue of the proposed $15-billion Energy East pipeline that would run from Alberta through Quebec to New Brunswick took on thorny edges last week, with Montreal and surrounding municipalities coming out in strong opposition. The pipeline is opposed also by Quebec separatists and assorted environmental interests.
Sensitivities are acute; east versus west, right versus left, green versus brown, populists versus elites. On the flatlands, there's a chance of a return of the bitterness toward Central Canada that characterized the years when the elder Trudeau was at large, warring with Alberta over the National Energy Program.
With that precedent in mind – and Justin Trudeau is certainly aware of it – it would be absolutely foolhardy for the Prime Minister to put up any major roadblocks to Energy East.
Alberta needs this pipeline. Keystone XL is dead, the Northern Gateway pipeline plan is on life support, the expansion of Kinder Morgan unlikely. What is Ottawa to do? Leave the province to a future with no new means of getting its oil to market?
A strong argument against Keystone and the building of other pipelines was that Alberta had not addressed the dirty-oil environmental concerns. But now it is doing that. Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government, elected last May, has brought in major reforms, including a carbon tax. That was a tall order in that province, one that should be recognized. It is noted by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is signalling more openness to the pipeline, but not by grandstanders such as Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. Mr. Coderre, formerly a cabinet minister in Jean Chrétien's government, was blunt and at times insulting in staking out an uncompromising stance against the pipeline, prompting rebukes from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Montreal forms Mr. Trudeau's home base and political base. The opposition to the pipeline there and in the rest of the province is something he has to bear in mind. So, too, is the prospect that the Parti Québécois will try to use the issue, should it be approved, to its advantage. But Mr. Trudeau has to cast aside such political considerations – they are complicating but not crippling – and act in the broader interests of the country.
Given that the great majority of the premiers are of Liberal persuasion and Alberta has a like-minded New Democrat at the helm, Mr. Trudeau has a wonderful opportunity to fashion consensus in the country on a broad range of issues.
To stymie Energy East would be to negate such possibilities. Environmental considerations need to be addressed, but on balance going ahead with a trans-Canada pipeline is critical for Alberta, good for the economy and absolutely necessary for Canadian unity to prevail.