Justin Trudeau’s brand is empathy, so the Liberals were out to tell ailing Alberta that they feel their pain.
“We feel that pain,” Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault said at a news conference announcing a $1.6-billion assistance package for the province’s oil and gas industry. “We understand the frustration,” Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said.
But neither the money nor the sympathy are really going to assuage Albertans’ anger, driven by a long slump in oil prices and a damaging local glut exacerbated by a lack of pipeline capacity. Frustrated that no one is fixing it fast enough, that anger is directed, in large part, at Mr. Trudeau’s federal Liberals.
It doesn’t help Mr. Trudeau that Quebec Premier François Legault is stirring the pot, calling Alberta oil “dirty” and expressing little sympathy for its energy woes. He may be a new target for Albertans’ ire, but most of it bounces back on Mr. Trudeau.
He was the Liberal leader who promised to bring co-operative federalism back to Ottawa with sunny ways and a listening ear. The Liberals argued that former prime minister Stephen Harper failed to convene the provinces to make the federation function. Now Mr. Trudeau presides over a federation that sounds more fractious every day.
Most of it revolves around that nexus of energy-development and environmental issues that he was supposed to balance. He promised he’d find a middle ground. Now there’s a lot of shouting.
Mr. Legault’s dirty oil comments amounted to kicking Alberta when it is down. Many Albertans were already venting at Ottawa. Mr. Legault’s remarks brought a renewed, seething backlash on social media and elsewhere. When Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke French at a rally on Monday – in an apparent plea to Quebeckers for support – he was booed.
Then the Quebec Premier shrugged it off anew. The context, he said, is that Alberta is heading into a provincial election campaign, “so it might look good to make hay at Quebec’s expense.”
Remember that the year began with British Columbia promising to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to Burnaby, B.C. Ontario Premier Doug Ford joined Saskatchewan’s court challenge against Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax – but more recently complained that Ottawa wants his province to cut greenhouse-gas emissions more than oil-producing provinces such as Alberta.
The premiers of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick talked up a revival of the now-cancelled Energy East project to build a pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick, passing through Quebec, but at a first ministers meeting on Dec. 7, Mr. Legault said no way. That didn’t help Mr. Trudeau, either: He said this weekend there’s no support for a pipeline through Quebec, then took criticism for siding with Quebec over Alberta.
Amid all that, Ottawa’s $1.6-billion oil-industry package wasn’t much of a salve for the wounds. It was mostly ($1.5-billion) a package of loans to tide over struggling oil companies – a payday loan, basically.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, once an ally of Mr. Trudeau’s in arguing that oil pipelines and climate-change action go hand in hand, is now nearing an election turning more and more sharply on Ottawa and treated the new federal package as slightly better than nothing, “but not any kind of long-term solution.”
The long-term solution to Alberta’s problems is a new pipeline. Right now, that’s not in Mr. Trudeau’s gift, because even though his government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for a cool $4.5-billion, the expansion project is blocked by a court ruling that forces Ottawa to redo consultations with First Nations along the route. In the meantime, Ms. Notley wants Mr. Trudeau to chip in for new rail cars to transport oil, but you can imagine that the Liberals aren’t keen on expanding oil-by-rail transport five years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster.
It probably didn’t help much in Alberta that Mr. Sohi blamed the former Conservative government for failing to build pipelines. The anger is too high for that. It probably won’t do much to tell Albertans that the federal government feels their pain, either. That $1.6-billion won’t heal the wounds. Mr. Trudeau promised to find a middle ground on those critical oil and environment issues, but right now, it’s looking more divided.