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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith as Canada's premiers meet in Ottawa on Feb. 7.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

While Justin Trudeau’s three Liberal governments can list major accomplishments - concluding trade agreements, increasing immigration, fighting the pandemic, supporting Ukraine – every prime minister’s highest priority should be to leave the federation stronger, or at least not weaker, than they found it.

By that measure, Mr. Trudeau’s tenure has been a failure.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, whose United Conservative Party was elected on a platform of challenging Ottawa, is threatening to pull the province out of the Canada Pension Plan. While we can debate whether the LifeWorks assessment of how much of the CPP’s assets Alberta would be entitled to is appropriate – or that of University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, or some other formula – the fact remains that the pension plan in particular, and Canadian unity in general, would be weakened were the province to leave.

It’s not surprising, then, that Mr. Trudeau would come to the defence of the CPP. What is surprising is the depth of his hostility.

“I have instructed my cabinet and officials to take all necessary steps to ensure Albertans – and Canadians – are fully aware of the risks of your plan, and to do everything possible to ensure CPP remains intact,” Mr. Trudeau wrote Ms. Smith last week. “We will not stand by as anyone seeks to weaken pensions and reduce the retirement income of Canadians.” Ms. Smith, in turn, dismissed the Prime Minister’s warning as “overwrought.”

Employment Minister and Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault further manifested Ottawa’s get-tough approach Sunday, when he warned on CTV’s Question Period that if Albertans leave the CPP, “it’s a one-way ticket.”

There is no need yet to panic. We are a long way from Alberta pulling out of the CPP. The province’s former treasurer, Jim Dinning, is leading public consultations, which may or may not lead Ms. Smith to call a referendum on the issue. Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has urged Albertans not to leave the plan, while sympathizing with their frustration.

But it’s worth pausing to reflect on the damage Mr. Trudeau has inflicted on Canadian unity after eight years in power.

Progressive centralizers in Laurentian Canada tell each other that Ottawa must act on this or that “in the national interest.” But the national interest is emphatically not served if their actions anger large swaths of the country.

When the Liberals won their majority government in October, 2015, they had a golden opportunity to reverse decades of Liberal unpopularity in the West. The Grits had taken 17 seats in British Columbia, seven in Manitoba, four in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan. They were well placed to grow that vote with policies that consulted rather than dictated, that recognized the importance of the resource-based Western economy and that respected the distinct societies of the Prairies and B.C.

Mr. Trudeau inherited a federation at peace. In Quebec, the Parti Québécois was out of government and in decline, and the federal Bloc Québécois was decimated, having taken only 10 seats in the 2015 election. Things were quieter on the federal-provincial front than at any time since the 1950s. Surely this was a time to strengthen national bonds – between English and French, between the Heartland and the West.

Eight years later, the Bloc is resurgent, with 32 of Quebec’s 78 seats. Coalition Avenir Québec Premier François Legault is stoking French-English tensions, most recently by almost doubling out-of-province tuition for students attending English universities.

And Alberta is perhaps even more estranged. If the government did hold a referendum on withdrawing from the CPP, it would in reality be a referendum on increased sovereignty for the province.

Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, polls suggest the Conservatives would trounce the Liberals if an election were held today.

What went wrong? In a word: bossiness. The Liberals imposed conditions on the provinces before granting health funding. They imposed a carbon tax on provinces that didn’t meet federal carbon-reduction targets. Bill C-69 imposed such intrusive conditions on resource development that the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

The Liberals decided that national priorities justified using the federal spending power to dictate terms to the provinces. They were willing to let the Prairie oil-and-gas sector suffer in order to meet carbon-reduction targets. The result: increasing resentment toward Ottawa across the country.

This is Canada today, on Justin Trudeau’s watch.

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