You’re not likely to find many Albertans in a charitable mood these days as far as the prime minister is concerned, but allow me to be one: I don’t believe that Justin Trudeau is deliberately trying to harm or alienate Alberta or Western Canada.
However, the obvious implication then is that he has no idea how things got this way and therefore has no idea what to do about it. I think Trudeau is someone who genuinely wants to be liked by everyone, but is also oblivious about how he contributes directly to producing the exact opposite effect for some.
A lot of what transpires in the months ahead could come to define Trudeau’s legacy, and this is his opportunity to show that he can be a unifier. Even if one has no vested interest in the political fortunes of the Liberal Party of Canada or its current leader, we do all have a vested interest in maintaining a certain level of national unity.
So if Trudeau is serious about addressing what is a very real sense of frustration, we should be prepared to offer whatever kind of helpful suggestions we can.
When it comes to the sort of economic anxiety being felt in the west, there are limits on governments’ ability to make a significant difference. To some extent, we’re at the mercy of circumstances. Higher commodity prices and the completion of the Keystone XL and Line 3 pipelines on the U.S. side of the border would go a very long way, but there’s little we can do about that.
But there are steps that the prime minister can take.
Firstly, Trudeau needs to stop sounding like he’s ashamed of Canada’s oil and gas industry. It’s all well and good to talk about being leaders when it comes to climate change, but it’s not a conflict to also promote Canada as an energy superpower.
Undoubtedly the Liberals would point to their approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) and the LNG Canada project as proof of their support for this industry, and they do indeed deserve praise for that.
But think for a moment how the Liberals have framed the federal Conservative leader and various premiers as “not caring” about climate change or “not doing anything” about it. They all have, or have proposed, emissions-reduction policies. But when they seem so half-hearted about it, when they fail to articulate the need to tackle climate change, they lack credibility. They don’t really seem like they care all that much.
That’s precisely the Liberals’ problem here.
So it’s not just about steering TMX and LNG Canada through to completion — which is crucial, obviously — it’s also about demonstrating the same sort of urgency for these projects that Trudeau has shown himself capable of demonstrating on other issues. As a politician who values symbolism and the ability to show that certain issues matter deeply to him, he should understand better than anyone the sorts of messages he’s conveyed to Western Canada in recent years.
Economic stagnation is politically damaging on its own, but perceived indifference to those struggles is what contributes to much deeper feelings of resentment and alienation. Why, for example, was Trudeau so silent on Encana’s planned departure from Canada? Isn’t he the one who vowed to “always stand up for Canadian jobs?” Folks in Western Canada wouldn’t mind some of that sort of attention.
That doesn’t have to mean ignoring the climate change issue or abandoning policies aimed at enhancing environmental protection. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute this past week released an important paper on how we can unleash Canada’s LNG potential and by factoring in the environmental impact of displacing coal in certain parts of Asia, such a strategy can fit in nicely to the government’s agenda.
Confederation hasn’t been a barrier to the west thriving in the past, but there’s a real danger if the perception starts to take hold that the economic prospects of the west are completely at the mercy of the east and that confederation is broken. In other words, don’t be a part of the problem.
There are probably all sorts of other conversations to be had with regard to strengthening confederation. Internal trade remains a problem, and there’s an argument to be made for reviewing whether western provinces are underrepresented in the House of Commons.
But there are meaningful ways in which the prime minister can alleviate some of the alienation and frustration in the west without having to dramatically alter course. He has to first decide it’s a priority, though.