Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose says growing opposition to the Energy East pipeline project from local politicians risks igniting a national unity crisis similar to the one surrounding the National Energy Program in the 1980s.
Ambrose made the comments during a press conference in Ottawa on Monday morning, telling reporters that vocal criticisms of the project from people like Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and Montreal mayor Denis Coderre are a slap in the face to western Canadians struggling through tough economic times.
“When I say this is affecting national unity, what I’ll tell you is that I’m hearing from Albertans and from people in Saskatchewan, that this is just like the (National Energy Program),” Ambrose said. “That’s what they say. That this is just like back in the 80s when the last government … put strict measures in place that deflated the Alberta and Saskatchewan and British Columbia economy, that affected the resources sector.”
The NEP was created under the Liberal government of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. In the face of skyrocketing oil prices, the government used the program to attempt to establish Canada’s oil self-sufficiency, and to redistribute wealth towards the federal government and consumers.
The program included grants to encourage oil drilling in remote areas, grants to consumers to convert to gas or electric heating, new taxes on the oil industry, an expanded role for Petro Canada, and a 25 per cent government share of all oil and gas discoveries offshore and in the North. The program was cancelled in the mid-1980s, but left a lasting legacy of distrust between Western provinces and Ottawa.
That distrust will only resurface and fester if Ottawa doesn’t step in and bring critics on board with the Energy East project, Ambrose said. The pipeline could help boost the economies of Saskatchewan and Alberta in particular, she noted, and the sense of betrayal is being further amplified by the fact that the once-rich provinces have been “generous” with the rest of Canada via equalization payments.
“What I’m saying is that Western Canadians are suffering,” Ambrose said. “People feel they have no hope. On top of that they’ve always felt generously toward other parts of the country. And other parts of the country are now telling them that one of the very things that could help their future … is not something they would support.”
WATCH: Ambrose urges Trudeau to step in on Energy East debate
On Monday and during an appearance on The West Block over the weekend, Ambrose encouraged people like Montreal’s mayor to visit Alberta and see what the situation is like on the ground in a province that has lost tens of thousands of jobs in recent months as the price of oil plummets.
“I don’t think some people realize how dire the situation is in western Canada. I really don’t think they do,” she said. “I hope our country is bigger and better than that that … that politicians would never seek to deny another Canadian their livelihood.”
Ambrose also accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of insulting Canadians who work in the resources sector during his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“These are very good jobs. People are highly educated who work in this sector.”
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