Off the cuff and intemperate comments by political leaders seldom advance the greater public good.

However, last week’s media firefight between Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Alberta Premier Alison Redford may turn out to be a very positive step forward in the quest for a Canadian energy strategy.

Admittedly, participants in this pursuit, including me, initially reacted with dismay when the two premiers clashed over the oil sands, fearing that the national energy initiative would break apart on the familiar shoals of east-west conflict. But, as the week progressed, the shape of a much more positive outcome began to emerge.

The root of this optimism lies with Premier McGuinty. Of all the provincial leaders other than the premier of Alberta, he has provided the most far-reaching leadership on energy policy. His green vision, which resonates with many Canadians inside and outside Ontario, and his linkage of energy policy to broader national industrial policy, are badly needed as part of the national conversation.

Yet to this point, the government of Ontario has not been part of the growing national conversation on the need for and shape of a Canadian energy strategy. Now, through the media exchange with Premier Redford, McGuinty has signalled that he is ready to come off the bench and onto the field. This is a very important change.

Although it is difficult to imagine a pan-Canadian approach that did not include Ontario, the importance of the premier’s change of heart goes well beyond Ontario’s demographic and political weight. Ontario’s engagement will ensure that the conversation extends well beyond the role of the oil sands, that it embraces the place of renewable technologies within Canada’s innovation and global competitiveness strategies. Ironically, this broader debate is precisely what Alberta needs.

Let’s be clear—Alberta needs to embed the oil sands within a broader Canadian energy strategy, if only for the sake of political cover. The oil sands must be seen as part, but only part, of a more comprehensive national strategy that includes at the very least hydro power and a wide range of other renewables. If the discussion of a Canadian energy strategy collapses into an oil sands strategy, Alberta loses the possibility of truly national support—however qualified it might be—for the oil sands.

Hopefully, Premier McGuinty’s remarks will also provide a useful warning to Premier Redford that she is coming too close to equating a Canadian energy strategy with support for the oil sands. This, I would argue, could well doom any attempt to creating an overarching energy strategy and, in the process, would deal significant collateral damage to the oil sands. There has to be room in any such strategy for those whose vision of Canada’s energy future reaches beyond conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons.

So, in a crude sense, Alberta needs Ontario, and the exchange last week between the Alberta and Ontario premiers provides the opening Alberta needs. Rather than demanding an apology from Premier McGuinty for his perceived slight of the oil sands, Premier Redford should be extending her thanks to her Ontario counterpart for finally coming to the table.

With luck and political leadership, McGuinty’s engagement could mean a trade-off between Ontario’s lukewarm endorsement of the oil sands and Alberta’s recognition that a Canadian energy strategy must reach well beyond the oil sands. Sounds like a pretty good outcome to me.


– By Roger Gibbins, President & CEO