Next few weeks a test for Alberta-Ottawa relations, Jason Kenney says

OTTAWA — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney left a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Tuesday with no firm commitments on the five demands he put on the table but with an air of accomplishment nonetheless, saying he felt their long-awaited face-to-face meeting was frank and realistic.

Kenney said the next few weeks will be a critical time for Trudeau to prove the Liberals are serious about addressing critical issues for the province.

Next week, federal and provincial finance ministers are to meet. On the table are proposed reforms to a federal “fiscal stabilization” program that tops up provincial revenues in the face of sudden shocks, a program all the premiers say needs to be amended.

Kenney said he wants action on that and a decision from the federal cabinet on the development of a proposed oilsands mine in northern Alberta known as the Frontier project. The deadline for a decision on whether it can proceed is the end February. Kenney said it would bring thousands of jobs and billions in revenue if it gets a green light.

“The next few weeks will be critical in determining the seriousness of this federal government to respond to the deep and legitimate concerns in Western Canada,” he said after a nearly hour long meeting in Trudeau’s Parliament Hill office.

Trudeau’s special representative for the Prairies, Winnipeg Liberal MP Jim Carr, also sat in on the meeting, which he described as warm and an obvious effort on the part of both sides to find some common ground.

Carr said the government is open to addressing Alberta’s concerns, including how new environmental laws will be implemented. Among the changes Kenney wants is amendments to the list of projects that would be covered by what’s known as Bill C-69.

Carr stopped short of promising that, only that the Liberals are keeping an open mind.

“An open mind means let’s have a conversation,” he said.

The tone of both Kenney and Carr’s remarks was markedly different than the aftermath of a meeting nearly a month ago between the premier of Saskatchewan and Trudeau.

Scott Moe and Trudeau met just a few weeks after a federal election that saw the Liberals shut out of both Alberta and Saskatchewan, and much talk and debate over Western alienation as a result.

Moe strode out of his meeting frustrated, saying he saw no evidence the Liberals were prepared to do anything different in the wake of the election. His ire prompted an unusually lengthy statement on the meeting from the Trudeau’s office, as it sought to push back against the idea they were deaf to Western concerns.

But since, Trudeau has appointed Carr to a new position of Western ambassador, and also revived the long-dormant position of deputy prime minister, handing it to his trusted lieutenant, Chrystia Freeland, Alberta-born and also now tasked with easing tensions.

Meanwhile, all the premiers have also met to find some consensus on how to drive the federal-provincial relationship forward. All will sit down with Trudeau in the new year.

Kenney said Tuesday that the consensus which emerged at the premiers meeting is something Trudeau must harness, and the ball is now back in the federal court to make the changes the province are demanding.

Kenney had walked into the meeting with Trudeau with five specific requests: changes to the fiscal-stabilization program, reforms to environmental protection laws, an agreement that Alberta’s methane regulations were good enough to meet federal standards, an expansion of financial instruments to help investment, and a firm deadline to get the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion functioning.

He’d said before the meeting he didn’t expect firm written commitments on any, just a sense the government would act on all fronts.

On the pipeline deadline demand, however, they aren’t.

Carr said discussions on the pipeline took up a significant part of the meeting, and Kenney was given assurances the government remains fully committed to getting it up and running.

But he said giving a fixed date for its completion was folly, given the enormity of the construction project.

“The commitment is the commitment that I’m making now: this is what the government believes to be good for Alberta and for Canada. We invested $4.5 billion in the pipeline, we’ll see the pipeline through because we understand the importance of expanding our export markets.”

Kenney is nearly the last of the premiers to meet with Trudeau since the federal election.

Trudeau also met Premier Stephen McNeil of Nova Scotia on Tuesday and is expected to sit down with the premier of Quebec soon.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2019.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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