Good news! We are facing a crisis in national unity, but for once it’s not about Quebec.
The dispute over the Trans Mountain pipeline is a major challenge both for the country and for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But that dispute also reflects how Canada has changed. This is not about language or culture. Rather, it is about one powerful province, Alberta, in economic conflict with another, British Columbia, with the federal government trying to mediate a resolution and with Central Canada looking on as a bystander.
Some of us have been arguing for years that the shift of power from East to West is the most important fact in Canada’s political evolution. Here is further proof.
We need to remember how much things have changed. In the late 19th century, as the transcontinental railroad snaked toward B.C. and settlers arrived on the Prairies, Central Canada regarded what would become Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as colonial possessions. Toronto and Montreal would control their finances. Ottawa would control their natural resources. Imperial Ontario, especially, considered the West a vast backyard.
It didn’t turn out that way. The Prairie provinces wrested control over natural resources from Ottawa. Oil was discovered at Leduc, Alta. The West grew wealthier and more populous, even as Ottawa ignored its concerns while obsessing over preserving Quebec within the federation. Western resentment grew.
Those resentments eased with the election of Stephen Harper, who was from the West, who had many Westerners in his cabinet and who gave priority to Western concerns. And there is a healthy number of Western cabinet ministers in Justin Trudeau’s government, which is committed to completing the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Earlier this year, Canada joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a comprehensive trade agreement involving 11 Pacific nations, showing how much Canada’s economic and cultural orientation is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In 2016, according to the census, the population of the four Western provinces was a little over 11 million, only two million fewer than Ontario, and half a million more than the combined populations of Quebec and Atlantic Canada. The West is well and truly In.
But the four Western provinces are anything but homogeneous, which is why we are watching Alberta, whose economy badly needs the Trans Mountain pipeline, clashing with British Columbia, which fears the environmental consequences.
To be fair, Quebec did play a role in Trans Mountain, through its successful opposition to the Energy East pipeline alternative, which left Trans Mountain as the only viable all-Canadian alternative. But in the main, this is a dispute in and of the West.
What makes this such a shame is that, under their more conservative predecessors, Alberta and B.C. had led the way in dismantling interprovincial barriers.
Mr. Trudeau’s task is to find a path that convinces B.C. Premier John Horgan – and the Green Party that props up his minority government – to allow the pipeline to go ahead.
Unless the Liberals can navigate that path, either B.C. or Alberta will be left profoundly alienated. If the feds and the Alberta government find a way to push through the pipeline, perhaps by nationalizing it, many British Columbians will deeply resent a federal power and an adjoining province that imposes environmental risk on their land and waters with little economic benefit for them.
If Kinder Morgan abandons the project because of opposition from B.C., Albertans will rage against a federation that takes their money through equalization payments, while crippling their economy at the same time. Talk about firewalls.
One winner, if the pipeline is suspended, will be Indigenous protesters who insisted no pipeline could be built without their consent. But even here, victory would be hollow. Other Indigenous Canadians in B.C. supported, or at least accepted, Trans Mountain. Are we now to assume that (a) no infrastructure on land claimed by First Nations may be constructed without their consent and (b) any group of First Nations – even one? – may veto any proposal, regardless of the will of others?
If so, then this country will become a collection of economically autonomous regions with little or no cross-border co-operation, especially when it comes to infrastructure.
Either way, Central Canadians must accept that the West is an ever-more-powerful fact of Canadian political life. Especially when it’s at war with itself.