Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had gone through three elections, eight years of governing and endless futile efforts to reform Canada’s constitution when, for his sins, Quebec voters brought René Léveque’s sovereigntist Parti Québécois to power in 1976.
His son Justin – after seven years, three elections and endless fights over how best to combat global warming – faces a similar (though lesser) challenge with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s quasi-separatist Bill 1.
Yesterday’s Trudeau ultimately frustrated Mr. Lévesque’s dream of sovereignty and brought the constitution home. Today’s Trudeau will cross his fingers and hope that Rachel Notley’s NDP return to power in Alberta after the May 29 provincial election, making Bill 1 go away.
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But Liberals today must ask themselves an uncomfortable question: How has it come to this? How has the party so stoked regional divisions that millions of Albertans support legislation to partially withdraw Alberta from Confederation?
And Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre must be asking himself whether the new Alberta Premier’s legislation is an opportunity or a threat.
Bill 1, in essence, asserts the authority of the Alberta government to disallow federal legislation that Edmonton believes is unconstitutional or harms the province’s interests. Veteran Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid speculated that Mr. Trudeau could invoke the Constitution’s disallowance clause to strike down the bill.
Ms. Smith would like nothing more. She could then run on a “Who Governs Alberta?” platform that would increase her chances of winning the next election.
“I’m not taking everything off the table, but I’m also not looking for a fight,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters Wednesday. Sensible. His best path going forward is to say as little as possible about the legislation, hope that the courts invalidate it and cross his fingers on May 29.
To be more confrontational toward the new Alberta premier would court the question of why he permitted the Quebec government to pass legislation limiting the rights of religious (Bill 21) and linguistic (Bill 96) minorities, while taking up arms against Alberta’s Bill 1.
Alberta is not alone in its anger. Premier Scott Moe’s government has introduced the Saskatchewan First Act, which reasserts provincial control over natural resources. This much-milder legislation, which merely affirms powers that already exist, would change little, but signals Saskatchewan’s rising frustration.
Western disillusion with Liberal governments in Ottawa stretches back to the 1950s. But Mr. Trudeau made things worse by imposing restrictions on oil and gas development and by using the federal power to tax and restrict carbon emissions, rather than work co-operatively with the provinces to reduce those emissions.
The result: Western voters are so estranged from Central Canada that some of them are pushing for sovereignty, and the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan are lending an ear.
Those same voters form the core of Mr. Poilievre’s Conservative Party, along with voters in rural Ontario and the Interior of British Columbia.
“What we see in Alberta is different proposals for responding to the tensions that have been created by this prime minister,” Alberta Conservative MP Garnett Genuis told reporters, Wednesday, when asked about Bill 1.
Sure, but does that mean the federal Conservatives support Bill 1? Mr. Genuis was not prepared to say.
Mr. Poilievre will have to declare his position eventually. Most likely he will say that he will leave it to the courts to decide on Bill 1′s constitutionality, but that the Conservative Leader fully understands the frustrations the led to it.
For the federal parties, everything boils down to what the many millions of suburban voters in Ontario who decide federal elections make of Western anger. Ontario traditionally doesn’t like to see other regions at war with each other or with Ottawa. To the extent Mr. Trudeau fomented those divisions with his interventionist policies, Ontario voters will not be pleased.
But to the extent that the federal Conservatives identify with quasi-separatist sentiment in Alberta – shades of supporting the convoy protests! – Ontario voters will also not be pleased.
In that sense, Bill 1 is a national issue. It speaks to the role of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in stoking regional tensions. And it asks the question of whether Pierre Poilievre would make things better or worse.