Politics can be a four-letter word, last week’s was ugly

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Political disputes between Alberta and British Columbia and the opening salvos of the Ontario election left most spectators wondering how low politics could go.


First published on Monday, April 23, 2018 in The Hill Times.


OTTAWA—Politics can be a four-letter word. Last week that word was ugly.

Political disputes between Alberta and British Columbia and the opening salvos of the Ontario election left most spectators wondering how low politics could go.

The Western oil fight is particularly ugly because it involves two provinces whose leaders ostensibly share the same political values.

Both Alberta and British Columbia have rarely had a New Democratic premier at the helm, so one would think that the leaders would make a special effort at reconciliation.

But British Columbia Premier John Horgan didn’t even give his Alberta counterpart a head’s up when he yanked the rug out from under the Trans Mountain Pipeline, effectively dooming thousands of jobs and potential future investments in oil exploration in Canada.

His government hangs by a sliver, and that sliver is being supported by the Green Party, which believes the best way to wean the country off oil is to stop delivering it.

Well, they may get their wish.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, pictured on the Hill on April 15, 2018, after meeting with B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Rachel Notley, embroiled in her own strongman battle with United Conservative provincial leader Jason Kenney, has signalled her intention to use all the tools at her disposal to pressure British Columbia. That includes legislation curtailing the shipment of fuel and oil to her neighbours on the West Coast.

The Canadian government is vowing not to pick fights but the energy minister has signalled introduction of new legislation to guarantee federal primacy over the project.

That proposed law, yet to be tabled, has caught the attention of the Quebec government, with Horgan ready to make common cause with Philippe Couillard in opposition to federal authority.

Horgan has qualified the legal proposal as “trampling on provincial rights” but says in the same breath that provinces are trying to establish those rights. That statement itself undermines his claim that British Columbia has wide-ranging authority over pipeline permitting.

And he is intent on bringing Quebec into the dispute, to buttress his view that provincial jurisdiction takes precedence in any discussion about pipelines.

Meanwhile, the company behind the Trans Mountain Pipeline, has given the politicians until May 31 to come to an agreement that will permit the $7.4-billion expansion to go ahead.

That deadline is literally one week before two other political events take centre stage. Ontario goes to the polls on June 7 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosts the G-7 nations in the heart of Quebec on June 8 and 9.

Kinder Morgan had to know their deadline would put ultimate pressure for a solution on the national government.

Prime Minister Trudeau will be hosting leaders from key economic partners around the world, and sustainable development will be central to the economic discussion.

How to move away from a non-renewable fuel dependence in a country that is one of the top world producers of oil and gas is no mean feat.

It is one thing for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to heed the strong Green Party presence in her country.

She is not reaping royalties from oil and gas.

But the German economy is dependent on the success of Volkswagen and other key industrial partners, who have had problems with overstating environmental emission standards in automobiles.

No one is coming to the table with totally clean hands. But there is a lot more pressure on Trudeau to keep his environmental message on target while still supporting safe carriage of oil and gas products.

Pipelines are still the safest way to move product, and unless British Columbia wants to stop tourists from visiting its beautiful province, people will need gas to get there and oil to fuel business.

By the time the Charlevoix G-7 gathering takes place, the government may have already met the test of certainty sought by Kinder Morgan.

But the interprovincial tinderbox lit in the past week is not going to be snuffed out any time soon.

Meanwhile, Canada’s most populous province does not need to fight with anyone else. That slugfest is internal, with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Conservative leader Doug Ford mincing no words in their mutual mistrust.

According to Ford, most Liberals should be in jail, and according to Wynne, her opponent is in this race only for himself.

Both came out of their respective corners itching for a fight last week. The formal election call has not even been launched and already the tone is down and dirty. More dirty than down.

The only certainty in interprovincial relations is it will get worse before it gets better.

Uglier than last week.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.