Alberta is seething about a lack of pipelines. The Bloc Québécois has been revived and is now up to 32 MPs pledging to back up an autonomist Premier in Quebec City.
But there is another potential development that would give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pause: Whispers that Alberta and Quebec might join forces to try to put limits on his power to expand federal programs.
The two provinces have quietly discussed the idea of setting rules for Ottawa’s use of the federal spending power in provincial jurisdictions. The idea would be to put some restrictions on Ottawa’s ability to set up federal-provincial programs, such as national pharmacare.
It’s still just early talk. Some other provinces won’t be keen on the idea. And at the moment, both Alberta and Quebec have so many differences over matters of jurisdiction, and the future of oil pipelines, that it makes an alliance seem unlikely. But both are expressing autonomist sentiments.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has talked about learning from Quebec’s example in dealing with the federal government. Quebec Premier François Legault responded to the regional divisions underlined by the results of the Oct. 21 election by arguing that provinces want more autonomy. Will they develop a province-power agenda?
That would certainly complicate life for Mr. Trudeau, now a minority PM. Big parts of his 2019 election platform count on spending federal money to push provinces to do things, such as spending $6-billion to encourage the hiring of doctors, the expansion of mental-health services, and steps toward national pharmacare.
There are probably provinces, notably in Atlantic Canada, that wouldn’t be keen to handcuff Ottawa’s spending power. But even without other provinces, an alliance between Mr. Legault and Mr. Kenney on provincial autonomy would be formidable – and Mr. Trudeau would cross it at his own risk. It’s particularly dangerous given the regional divisions laid bare in the Oct. 21 election.
Despite their differences now – Mr. Legault is opposed to any new oil pipelines crossing Quebec, and Mr. Kenney is making political hay out of equalization payments to Quebec – both provinces have traditionally been Canada’s autonomists.
Quebec governments have for decades taken the position that there should be restrictions on the use of the federal spending power, and it is accepted political orthodoxy among many Quebeckers.
In Alberta, then-premier Peter Lougheed argued for restricting federal spending powers during the constitutional talks of the early-1980s with Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre. Autonomist sentiments wax and wane in Alberta, and seem to rise when the Liberals are in power in Ottawa. In 2001, after Jean Chrétien was elected to a third term, Stephen Harper was one of a half-dozen Albertans who penned a manifesto calling for the province to erect a “firewall” to protect itself.
And in some ways, Mr. Legault and Mr. Kenney have similar autonomist views now. But then, their priorities are so different, they will be major obstacles for any alliance.
Mr. Legault wants to use his political leverage to wrest power from Ottawa, in particular over immigration, notably so Quebec can set up a different system for temporary foreign workers. Mr. Kenney has a province where anger is running high over the struggles of the resource economy, and especially pipelines. He is demanding that Ottawa ensure the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion goes ahead, and asking for the removal of the cap on the financial-stabilization program that is supposed help wealthier provinces like Alberta weather economic shocks.
On Mr. Kenney’s biggest priority, pipelines, Mr. Legault isn’t an ally. He has opposed the idea of any new oil pipeline across Quebec, and although that doesn’t affect any actual pipeline project right now, it raises ire in Alberta. When it comes to interprovincial pipelines, Alberta defends the federal government’s sole jurisdiction, while Quebec argues each province has a say. The premiers, and their citizens, are essentially on opposite side of climate-change issues.
Yet there is still enough similarity to make for an unusual alliance. Mr. Legault is preaching for provincial autonomy across Canada. Mr. Kenney is looking at Quebec’s example. Both lead right-of-centre governments that aren’t big on expanding spending and programs, anyway. Perhaps they could find some allies among other premiers. Even if they didn’t, an autonomist alliance between premiers in Quebec and Alberta would be a big headache for Mr. Trudeau.