Opinion: Alberta, Quebec in each other’s faces over pipeline

Keeping track of Quebec and Alberta’s premiers these days is like watching two runaway trains on a pipeline-driven collision course.

Neither Jason Kenney nor François Legault seems inclined to put his foot on the brake. It is not clear that either of them can alter course without derailing his agenda.

By all indications, Canada’s next government – whether it is led by Justin Trudeau or Andrew Scheer (or, for that matter, Jagmeet Singh) – could have to manage a major unity crisis.

None of the federal leaders seem particularly well equipped to bring about a resolution of the conflict.

But first, the latest development in what is becoming an increasingly acrimonious war of words between the premiers of two of Canada’s larger provinces.

On Saturday, Kenney restated his government’s intention to hold a referendum in October 2021 if it doesn’t get changes to the equalization formula and permission to build more oil pipelines

The Alberta premier’s contention is that inasmuch as the taxes paid by Albertans contribute to the equalization payments Quebec receives from Ottawa, that province should facilitate the development of new pipelines through its territory.

From the convention of his party’s youth wing, Legault shot back that the principle that the federal government redistributes its revenues so as to level the offering of social programs between affluent and less affluent provinces was part of the original deal that led to the creation of the federation.

In his words, Quebec is “entitled” to equalization payments.

On Monday, Kenney alleged that Legault misunderstood the history of the equalization policy. It did not become a full-fledged federal program until 1957.

On his Facebook page, the Alberta premier summed up his central assertion in blunt terms: “If you want to benefit from our oil and gas wealth, stop blocking oil and gas pipelines.”

Kenney was elected on the promise that he would do better than his NDP predecessor in securing access to tidewater for the province’s oil industry.

Before and since become premier, he has been on a mission to bring about a resurrection of the Energy East pipeline, the defunct TransCanada project designed to link the oilfields to the Atlantic coast.

For better or for worse, that resurrection is becoming a litmus test of Kenney’s capacity to get things done.

Legault has been just as adamant in his opposition to a resumption of the pipeline bid, arguing it has no social acceptability among Quebecers.

Like Kenney, Legault is playing to an appreciative home crowd.

But even if he wanted to, the Quebec premier could not change his tune without courting a backlash that could turn his Coalition Avenir Québec government in a one-term wonder.

Moreover, he could not embrace Energy East without giving the kiss of death to other fossil fuel developments his government is supporting, starting with a new 750-kilometre natural gas pipeline.

Whoever wins this fall’s federal election will find the pipeline war that has opposed B.C. to Alberta over the past few years expanded to include an increasingly active Quebec front.

But in contrast with B.C., where the provincial Liberals are not openly hostile to projects such as the Trans Mountain expansion, Quebec is home to no pipeline-friendly alternative to the CAQ government.

Short of a dramatic change in dynamics, Alberta could either be all in or all out of the next federal government.

Polls suggest the Conservative party could paint the province and most of the Prairies blue on Oct. 21, leaving the region with little or no representation within the caucuses of the other parties.

But a Scheer government determined to implement Kenney’s pipeline agenda would soon find itself in a major fight with Quebec, one that could wreck his party’s brand in the province and lead to a resurgence in sovereigntist sentiment.

Trudeau’s re-election (or a more improbable NDP victory) would almost certainly add fuel to the fire already raging in the Prairies.

Former Reform MP Jay Hill recently predicted that in the event the Liberals are re-elected in October, a majority of Albertans would turn to secession.

It is not the first time a province’s political class has warned voters elsewhere in Canada that mayhem on the unity front will break out if a given party forms the federal government. In the past, such warnings have tended to fall on deaf ears.

In the early 1990s, Quebec’s chattering class was virtually unanimous in cautioning against the negative impact for federalist fortunes of the election of a federal government led by Jean Chrétien.

Not only did he secure a majority government, but he was re-elected after having almost lost the 1995 referendum.

In this case, every passing week that showcases Kenney and Legault at each other’s throat over pipelines and equalization diminishes the chances that Scheer’s Conservatives will do well in Quebec. It has already become hard for Legault to wish them well.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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