Political goodwill could be in short supply when the first ministers gather in Montreal on Friday.
Much has changed — mostly for the worst for federal-provincial harmony — since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last presided over the same gathering a bit more than a year ago.
Over the 14-month interval between the two conferences, voters forced three of Trudeau’s staunchest Liberal allies in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick into retirement.
Some of the provincial leadership changes – starting with the advent in Ontario of a Tory government hostile to Trudeau’s plan to put a price on carbon pollution – have resulted in a major realignment in the federal-provincial climate-change debate.
The Conservative governments of Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick have joined what started off as a rearguard Saskatchewan legal battle against a federal carbon tax.
And Alberta’s NDP government – once a solid Trudeau ally – has withdrawn its support for the plan in protest over the stalled pipeline agenda.
From a fight mostly taking place in the Prairies, the battle over the federal climate-change framework is now being fought on a variety of regional fronts. Trudeau’s gamble that more carbon pricing would make new pipelines more palatable and vice versa is not panning out.
As the result of irreconcilable political differences over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion between Canada’s two NDP governments, a war of words, assorted with threats of trade retaliation, has erupted between Alberta and British Columbia.
The Alberta/B.C. bad blood over pipelines could yet spill over to central Canada as a result of a joint effort on the part of Conservative leaders and premiers to resuscitate the Energy East pipeline.
The defunct TransCanada project was very unpopular in Quebec and the province’s previous Liberal government was not sorry to see the company abandon it.
Champions of the plan to link the Alberta oilfields to the Atlantic Coast believe it could yet be executed if only incoming Quebec Premier Francois Legault would get on board.
But it is hard to think of a move that could do more to poison the well of the rookie Coalition Avenir Quebec government than the premier jumping on the pipeline bandwagon.
The theme of Friday’s meeting is the economy, with the just-signed United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement on the agenda. But inasmuch as the provincial and federal forces aligned against Trudeau’s climate-change policy are determined to fight carbon pricing on economic grounds, the issue is bound to overshadow the discussion.
It probably won’t help that a majority of Friday’s participants – starting with some of the remaining Trudeau-friendly premiers – are in delicate political positions.
Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta will all go to the polls over the next 12 months. The premiers of B.C. and New Brunswick both lead fragile minority governments whose life expectancy is uncertain.
Trudeau himself is in the last year of his first term. It is a time in the cycle when the reserve of political capital of a prime minister tends to be in dire need of an electoral refill. The hand he brings to his fifth first ministers gathering is weak, especially by comparison to the freshly elected premiers of Quebec and Ontario.
On that score, the prime minister is fortunate Legault and Ontario Premier Doug Ford are not on the same page on carbon pricing.
Or the relationship between the two got off to a rocky start as a result of Ford’s treatment of the Franco-Ontarian community.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.