By Martha Hall Findlay
Published in the Globe and Mail
May 3, 2019
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney went to Ottawa this week with a message: Albertans are upset. Without significant amendments to Bill C-69 – which would overhaul the environmental assessment of major resource projects – the province won’t support it, he warned. He is even threatening a constitutional challenge.
Albertans are right to be upset. Bill C-69, as drafted, is potentially disastrous – not just for the oil and gas industry, but for all energy and energy transmission, all major mining projects and in fact, any large infrastructure projects in Canada. But it would be particularly bad for energy and energy transmission, which are hugely important to the already hurting Albertan economy. (It’s also hugely important to the entire Canadian economy. The ignorance of that fact by so many Canadians is only one more reason for frustration.)
But what really sticks in the craw of so many people from Alberta – and Saskatchewan, too – is Canada’s utter hypocrisy about energy.
To the west, B.C. Premier John Horgan came into government promising to “use every tool in the toolbox” to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – which is still awaiting a federal cabinet decision – even though he lacks the constitutional right to do so. Yet, most of the gasoline consumed in British Columbia comes from Alberta, and it comes via – wait for it – the Trans Mountain pipeline. Attempts to block the expansion are pure politics: “We’ll take the stuff we need, but heaven forbid we let you sell it beyond.”
Now that the Alberta government has proclaimed legislation that allows the province to “turn off the taps,” B.C. has (oh, the irony) filed a constitutional challenge to prevent its neighbour from cutting off its oil shipments to B.C. And if that hypocrisy weren’t enough, B.C. is asking the federal government, which now owns Trans Mountain, to pump even more gasoline through.
To the east is Quebec Premier François Legault. Mr. Kenney spent part of his victory speech offering an olive branch of sorts, making a point of speaking in French for several minutes. Mr. Legault responded – seemingly blissfully unaware of his appalling hypocrisy – that he recognizes that Alberta is by far the biggest supplier of oil to Quebec and its refineries, but there is no “social acceptability” for any pipeline to carry Western oil across his province – even though 44 per cent of Quebec’s oil comes from Western Canada. Rubbing salt in the wound, the Quebec government then passed a motion, unanimously, repeating Mr. Legault’s point.
Alberta might as well say that although many Albertans like to eat Oka cheese, and it is welcome in Alberta, it won’t let trucks carrying the cheese pass through to hungry British Columbians.
Despite the constant reminders of the virtues of Quebec’s “clean” hydroelectricity, it turns out that 41 per cent of the energy Quebeckers use actually comes from petroleum products. According to HEC in Montreal, although sales of cars have gone down, sales of SUVs, light trucks and pick-ups have soared. Quebec happily takes Western Canadian oil, uses it and it creates a whole whack of Quebec refining and other jobs – but heaven forbid Quebec let Alberta and Saskatchewan sell it to New Brunswick and beyond. Sound familiar?
Then there’s the federal government. Ottawa is relying on its constitutional rights now in instituting its carbon-price regime, but it was nowhere to be seen defending the Constitution when Alberta and Saskatchewan needed it to – for example, when former B.C. premier Christy Clark announced, first for the Northern Gateway project and then the Trans Mountain expansion, five “conditions” that needed to be “met” before B.C. would “approve” them. Neither she nor the B.C. government had the constitutional right to impose “conditions,” since both projects were clearly federal undertakings. And in Quebec, neither former premier Philippe Couillard, nor former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre had the right to reject the proposed Energy East pipeline. Mr. Legault, now, lacks the same right, despite that recent government motion that included the statement: “Quebec has full legitimacy to refuse a pipeline projects passing through its territory, including a potential relaunch of the Energy East project, regardless of pressure from the rest of Canada.”
Except that, no, it doesn’t. But with its silence, Ottawa has appeared to have acquiesced to this distortion of how our federation works.
The state of Canada these days is disheartening and its future is precarious. A lot of people are both angry and frustrated. Mr. Kenney is upset, but perhaps that righteous anger will force a more honest and balanced discussion about what’s important to the whole country, rather than individual regions – and reaffirm how this federation is supposed to work.
Martha Hall Findlay is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.