“Eastsplaining” is a new word (at least for me) that refers to commentators in Ottawa and Toronto telling people in Western Canada what they should think. Your correspondent took this neologism to heart in a conversation with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who is in Ottawa seeking, as he put it, “to get some action that will show Albertans the government gives a damn about the province that has been the engine of modern Canadian prosperity.”
Whether he succeeds or fails, Mr. Kenney made it perfectly clear that Alberta’s position within the federation has changed and will never change back. The province aims to become as autonomous within its borders as Quebec. This is a new fact of life that the rest of country will have to learn to live with.
"Alberta will be taking a more long-term posture of assertiveness within the federation,” Mr. Kenney predicted. Moves to withdraw Alberta from the Canada Pension Plan and to directly collect provincial income tax will likely go ahead, although it’s uncertain whether the province will establish its own police force.
"Our situation in Alberta today is not exactly analogous to Quebec” during the height of the sovereignty movement, Mr. Kenney said, “but it’s not completely dissimilar, either.”
In the good years of the oil boom, hundreds of billions of dollars flowed out of the province in equalization and other transfers that helped pay for roads in Ontario, daycare in Quebec, hospital beds in Nova Scotia and so on.
Now, five years into an economic downturn, with unemployment above the national average – 18,000 jobs disappeared in November alone, according to Statistics Canada – the Liberal government appears determined to throttle what’s left of Alberta’s oil and gas sector, as part of its effort to combat global warming.
In last week’s Throne Speech, Governor-General Julie Payette read many urgent paragraphs about climate change. The words “Alberta", “oil", and “pipeline” appeared not once, which Mr. Kenney found “regrettable.” Global oil and gas consumption will remain high until mid-century, whatever happens on the climate-change front. Why should Alberta not produce its share?
In his meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday, Mr. Kenney will ask for changes to the fiscal stabilization fund and special tax treatment for green-technology companies. Alberta seeks an easier path for environmental approvals of natural resource projects, an end to a partial moratorium on oil tanker traffic and much more.
But what matters above all else is completing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The federal government bought the project from Kinder Morgan, rather than see it flounder because of court challenges and environmental and Indigenous protests. A completed pipeline "is our single greatest imperative,” Mr. Kenney said.
In that context, it doesn’t matter who promises what in Tuesday’s meeting. What matters is what happens in May, when the weather warms and the protesters come out. If Ottawa throws its hands in the air and goes on about social licence, then expect Albertan anger to explode. But if the federal government acts firmly to protect the construction schedule by arresting and dispersing protesters, that will prove that Mr. Trudeau meant what he said when he promised “the pipeline will get built.”
Both the Alberta and federal governments are hoping that Indigenous groups will acquire at least partial ownership of Trans Mountain, which could improve economic conditions on reserves and lessen opposition to the pipeline.
Anyone who studies Canadian history knows that Central Canada has always viewed the natural resources of the Prairie provinces as national rather than provincial assets. Wilfrid Laurier deprived Alberta and Saskatchewan of control over resources when his government granted them provincial status in 1905. Pierre Trudeau tried, but failed to nationalize the Alberta oil industry to reduce energy costs for Ontario in the 1970s and ’80s. This Trudeau government’s ham-fisted approach to fighting climate change through carbon taxes has given birth to an Albertan separatist movement.
Mr. Kenney is not part of that movement. But he warns that Alberta’s anger is real, and he shares that anger. He has received reassurances by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland that the Liberal government understands Alberta’s concerns. But “deeds matter, not words.”
Think of that as a bit of friendly Westsplaining from the Premier of Alberta to anyone in Ottawa or Toronto who still hasn’t gotten the message.
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