Skip to main content

Canada’s premiers have been meeting annually without the Prime Minister since 1960. In 2003, while they were at war with Ottawa over health-care funding, they named themselves the Council of the Federation. That council is at war again, with Justin Trudeau.

An Ipsos poll released Tuesday revealed that 33 per cent of people in Alberta and 27 per cent in Saskatchewan agreed with the statement “my province would be better off if it separated from Canada.” (The online poll of 1,516 adults was conducted between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1, with a reported margin of error at the national level of plus or minus two percentage points. The margin of error at the provincial level is higher.)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has offered to play host to a meeting of the council that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has asked for to address growing Western alienation. With the federal Conservatives distracted by leadership issues, the premiers have become the real opposition to the Trudeau government.

Mr. Trudeau believes that Ottawa can and should act in the national interest, even if it means coercing provincial governments. This is nothing new.

Prime ministers, most of them Liberal, have been interfering in areas of provincial jurisdiction since the days of Lester Pearson. We have a universal public health-care system, among other things, to show for it. The price has been constant strife between Ottawa and provincial governments, two referendums on separation in Quebec, and now growing separatist sentiment in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

In contrast, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper believed that the federal government should stick to its constitutional knitting, which resulted in the first prolonged period of peace in federal-provincial relations – apart from a few minor spats – since Pearson.

But Mr. Trudeau learned his federalism at his father’s knee, and interfered early and often during his first term in provincial affairs, especially in health care and the environment. The predictable outcome was the revival of the Bloc Québécois, the first serious stirrings of Western separatism – confirmed by the Ipsos poll – and a party returned to power with the support of only one Canadian in three.

The Globe and Mail reports that the second Trudeau administration will focus heavily on transitioning to a green economy and fighting climate change. This will only deepen the conviction of people in Alberta and Saskatchewan that arrogant Laurentian elites are indifferent to the oil and gas sector and to their future.

The Globe also reports that Mr. Trudeau may seek to douse this Prairie fire by making Chrystia Freeland intergovernmental affairs minister. Ms. Freeland is a skillful negotiator – as foreign affairs minister, she led the Canadian team that secured a renewed North American free-trade agreement with the United States and Mexico – but Intergovernmental Affairs is a toothless beast, housed within the Privy Council Office and usually considered a second (or third)-tier portfolio. On major issues, provincial first ministers prefer to deal with their federal counterpart directly.

There have been exceptions. Back in the 1990s, Stéphane Dion helped shape the federal response to separatism in Quebec, resulting in the Clarity Act. And during the Charlottetown Accord negotiations, premiers knew that talking to Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark was the same as talking to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

If she is appointed to Intergovernmental Affairs, Ms. Freeland’s task will be to establish the same level of authority. But what will she be able to offer the premiers? Will Ottawa withdraw the hated carbon tax? How can an intergovernmental affairs minister ensure the Trans Mountain pipeline gets built? How much control over immigration and culture is she prepared to offer the Government of Quebec? How could the Liberals rebalance the equalization formula in a way that satisfies both Quebec (which receives) and Alberta (which gives)?

Ms. Freeland made major concessions to the Americans to secure the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. What is she prepared to concede to the premiers?

There is one way in which Ms. Freeland could earn provincial goodwill if she is sent to Intergovernmental Affairs. She could publicly declare that in areas of shared or exclusively provincial jurisdiction, the federal government would encourage, co-ordinate and support provincial initiatives, including efforts to combat global warming, but would never coerce or punish a province to reach its goals.

Unless Ms. Freeland is prepared to affirm this principle, a good minister will be wasted, and federal-provincial relations during the minority government will go from bad to worse.