On the eve of the so-called pipeline summit on Parliament Hill, its host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stood at podium in Peru and calmly deflected every attempt to tease out of him what he plans do at this summit.
It’s a bit of a last-minute affair.
On Tuesday, two days before Trudeau left Ottawa, his aides were insisting he was not going to change his travel plans to meet with the premiers, that he had just traveled to both Vancouver and Fort McMurray, didn’t we all know, and, in any event, the PM had been on the phone more than once with both premiers. No, the PM was resolute in continuing to travel here to Lima for the Summit of the Americas, then onto Paris, France and finally to London, England for the Commonwealth Summit next week.
But then, literally as were taxiing down the runway in Ottawa Thursday afternoon, Trudeau’s aides came to the back of the plane and told reporters travelling with him that he would come back to Ottawa Sunday, en route to Paris, for this morning meeting.
I wanted to know what changed his mind.
“I think it became very clear that the level of polarization around this debate required significant measures. I wanted to be able to sit down with the premier of British Columbia, the premier of Alberta together and discuss issues of the national interest and demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to getting this project built. I think there is a need for action,” Trudeau said.
“We had an excellent cabinet meeting this week, in which there was a clear and important reflection on the path forward. I think it was appropriate and important that we have an opportunity to discuss it with the premiers.”
WATCH: Despite B.C. pipeline woes, PM says Canada is open for business
And so, here we are.
After an eight-hour overnight flight from Lima to Canada’s frozen national capital, Trudeau will gather BC Premier John Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in his office on the third floor of Parliament’s Centre Block. The meeting begins at 10 a.m. and no one’s quite sure — least of all the reporters who quizzed him about it Saturday — what success will look like when the meeting breaks around lunchtime.
“I think it’s important to highlight that this is not about punishing British Columbians. This is not about hurting Canadians,” Trudeau offered at one point.
That’s reasonably helpful. It would seem to suggest that Trudeau has ruled out calls some have made that federal funding be withheld from B.C. until Horgan gives in.
“And although there are folks on all sides of this debate who look to polarize and raise the temperature on this debate, the federal government has a responsibility to bring Canadians together and to do things that are in our national interest.”
Yes, yes, but just how does he do that?
“We’ll do it in such a way that doesn’t seek to further polarize or raise the temperature in this debate. We’re looking to bring people together and we will continue to do things that are responsible to get this pipeline.”
At this point, perhaps it’s helpful to review just how monumental a task this will be for a prime minister who wants to get a pipeline built and wants to bring Canadians together in that act of building a pipeline. One of those might be done. Doing both is going to be tough. Canadians are deeply divided on this pipeline thing, and building it is going to require a whole mess of broken eggs.
There are two polls that many following this debate refer to with interest on this point.
First, there are the findings of the Angus Reid Institute, polling 2,501 people from coast to coast in an online survey done between February 15-19, that as a country, we are perfectly split on the issue of tripling the capacity of an existing pipeline that takes Alberta crude to Pacific tidewater at Burnaby, BC. Half the country takes BC’s side in this dispute, believing the pipeline should be delayed for environmental reasons. Half are with the Notley crew who think construction should not be delayed because it’s the economy, stupid!
But get this: The strongest opposition to this pipeline is not in BC, Angus Reid found, but in Quebec. Don’t worry about your BC MPs getting re-elected, prime minister, worry about your Quebec caucus!
Angus Reid then broke out the numbers based on how people voted in the 2015 general election. More trouble for Trudeau here: 54 per cent of those who voted for Trudeau think BC is wrong and 46 per cent of those Liberals think BC is right. A solid 81 per cent of Conservative voters think BC is wrong while 58 per cent of those who voted NDP think BC is right.
Nonetheless, there’s the prime minister, running the risk of alienating at least some of his own supporters, possibly so much so that he’ll make them vote NDP in 2019 — great news not just for the NDP but also for the Conservatives, who have to have some vote splits break their way in some ridings to have much hope of toppling Trudeau.
WATCH: Prime Minister Trudeau sets stage for pipeline meeting with premiers
Abacus Data took a slightly different approach, asking 900 Canadians a series of questions in an online survey done between February 26 and March 6, intended to gauge just how pig-headed and stubborn proponents and opponents of the pipeline might be.
The bottom line finding from Abacus? Of those surveyed, 45 per cent were firm in their feelings — 23 per cent were hard in favour and 22 per cent hardcore opposed. But there was a group in there who said they were “leaners” in favour and 13 per cent leaning against. Presumably, it’s this group that Trudeau must “bring together” to make more “leaners” firm in their conviction to support.
But even if he does that, there’s going to be a big group — likely bigger in BC than anywhere else — which just won’t be satisfied. At some point, it seems inevitable that he’s just going to have to reconcile himself to the fact there is not going to be one big, national group hug at the end of of all this. Is he prepared to make a hard choice that a lot of people really, really, really won’t like?
“I am steadfast in my desire to serve Canadians and bring Canadians together,” Trudeau said earnestly when I asked him that question here. “There will always be debates in a country that is not just diverse, but is a country that celebrates its diversity. My responsibility as prime minister is to ensure that I’m listening to all those voices and creating the path forward that is in the best interest of all Canadians.”
Yes, that’s true. But sometimes you’re going to have drag some parts of the country kicking and screaming along that path.
Not if he can help it, Trudeau said.
“There are a lot of folks out there who are trying to raise the intensity of this conversation and create crisis and conflict. My job is to serve Canadians and move forward in a way that both protects the environment and grows the economy together. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”