Skip to main content

Ottawa's planned Just Transition legislation is stoking concerns about the potential for large job losses.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is stoking fears of massive layoffs in the oil-and-gas sector through a twisted reading of a federal briefing document. That so many believe her speaks to real fears of job losses, and to the chasm of mistrust between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa and the West.

The furor is over a set of briefing notes prepared last June for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson for his appearance at a committee to explain the principles behind his upcoming Just Transition legislation.

The 81-page document is filled with bureaucratese – “the mandate of the Just Transition Advisory Body would need to complement that of the Net-Zero Advisory Body” – that Ms. Smith torqued into a secret government agenda to destroy the oil-and-gas sector. “When I saw the memo I felt sick to my stomach,” she said in a video. Stuff and nonsense.

But the document, which has been available on the Natural Resources website for months, does confirm an uncomfortable, if obvious, truth: “The transition to a low-carbon economy will have an uneven impact across sectors, occupations, and regions, and create significant labour market disruptions.”

Cryderman: Dispute over Ottawa’s Just Transition to become the top issue in Alberta election

The Just Transition legislation – you can already hear Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre calling it Justin Transition – will be part of an effort by the federal government to cushion the impact of its plan to reduce carbon emissions to 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

That is a very steep slope that, if met, would disrupt both the energy sector and the broader Canadian economy.

We need federal-provincial co-operation in realistically reducing carbon emissions through carbon capture and other technologies while acknowledging that Canada will continue to export oil and gas for many years to come.

Instead, everybody just shouts.

People in Alberta and Saskatchewan have good reason to fear the Liberals’ plans. Many still remember the economic devastation that Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government wrought in 1980 with the National Energy Program, which caused massive job losses through its efforts to nationalize and subsidize the oil-and-gas sector.

The NEP destroyed for generations trust in the federal government among Westerners, especially when Liberals are in charge. Mr. Trudeau appears to be uninterested in increasing trust. On Monday, the Prime Minister toured a rare earth elements processing plant in Saskatoon without bothering to inform or invite Premier Scott Moe. Mr. Moe objected and the Prime Minister’s Office issued an apology, but the damage was done.

The Liberals have solid arguments in support of the Just Transition legislation, which Mr. Wilkinson says he plans to introduce sooner rather than later this year. Canada must work with other developed nations in substantially reducing carbon emissions. This will put the jobs of workers in the oil-and-gas sector at risk. Now is the time to identify which jobs can transition from oil-and-gas to clean energy, and to train those workers for that transition.

Imagine how much better things would have been, environmentally and economically, if the federal government had decided in the 1980s to gradually reduce the annual cod harvest off Newfoundland and Labrador to preserve stocks while retraining those who would lose their jobs before those jobs were lost?

Something like that is going to have to happen in the energy sector in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The provincial governments should be working with the federal government to smooth that transition.

Instead, Alberta and Saskatchewan are passing sovereignty acts and Mr. Trudeau ignores even the concerns of Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who last Friday criticized the 2030 emission-reduction target and the even more severe reductions that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is calling for.

“Both are wrong,” she said on CBC, vowing to fight the targets “with every tool and tactic that I can muster,” should she become premier, “because it’s not practical.”

Environmentalists should take note that even their closest political ally in Alberta thinks that Ottawa is going too far, too fast.

There is a provincial election in Alberta May 29. Expect the rhetoric to become even more heated, especially if Mr. Wilkinson decides to roll out the Just Transition legislation between now and then. That legislation is not a new NEP. But a lot of people are going to act like it is.