When it comes to trying to figure out a way to address Western alienation after a highly-divisive federal election, “nothing is off the table.”
That’s according to current Liberal Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, who suggested that includes the potential for changes to the equalization formula.
In an interview with the West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, Qualtrough was asked about what options the Liberals could explore as they plan out how to make their minority government work, and whether equalization changes — something often demanded by Alberta and Saskatchewan — could be considered.
“My understanding is nothing is off the table,” she said.
“We want to make sure everyone is being treated equally and fairly, and if people aren’t feeling like they’re being treated that way, then of course we are going to have to have these really important conversations.”
The equalization system refers to financial transfers from the federal government to the provinces aimed at ensuring citizens in all provinces have access to the same level of services, and it is allocated based on whether a province is considered a “have” or “have not.”
Those are determined by a formula based on factors like the province’s ability to exploit natural resources and the income and property taxes of their residents.
But despite the economic downturn Alberta has been grappling with since the oil price tanked in 2014, the province is considered a “have,” meaning it pays into the system through tax dollars but doesn’t receive money back through that particular program — although it still receives billions in other federal transfers.
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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has demanded the federal government change the equalization system to allow provinces to receive money when they suffer an economic hit, like has been the case in Alberta.
And while equalization has long been a source of frustration for many in Alberta and Saskatchewan, both considered “have” provinces, those sentiments have swelled in the wake of a divisive federal election campaign that saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals given a minority government.
They now must work with at least one other party in order to pass any legislation and maintain the confidence of the House of Commons.
But the Liberals now have no MPs in Alberta or Saskatchewan, which has raised the question of how they will ensure voices from those provinces are heard around the cabinet table given the mounting anger felt by many in the region that their economic difficulties aren’t being taken seriously in Ottawa.
Trudeau addressed the question last week during his first press conference with reporters since winning re-election and said he has been reaching out to Western leaders, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi to hear their perspectives.
He didn’t commit to having a minister from either or both of those provinces in his cabinet though, adding that not all cabinets have had representation from every region.
Qualtrough, who represents the B.C. riding of Delta, said she considers it her role as an MP from the West to advocate not just for her province but for all westerners around the cabinet table, but that she had not had any indication yet whether she would be asked to stay on in cabinet.
“I think we’re well aware of the challenge this faces even if it’s just a perception that they don’t have a voice,” she said of Canadians from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“From my perspective, as a Western MP and cabinet minister, I’ve always considered myself responsible to make sure that not only my city and region is reflected but the entire Western Canadian demographic is reflected in my perspectives.”
She also said, while she believes the sentiment behind calls by some for Western separatism is real, she isn’t convinced the movement itself will take root.
“I think the frustration is real. I’m not sure the movement itself will take any real hold but clearly the message underlining it is people in Alberta and Saskatchewan didn’t see themselves in our vision for Canada,” she said.
“We definitely need to make sure everyone’s included.”