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Alberta-B.C. dust-up forces Harper to rethink ideology

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Ideologues always get tripped up by their ideology. Just look at Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Now that B.C. and Alberta are on the warpath, are you still on the side of provincial rights and the dubious doctrine of federal-provincial watertight compartments, Mr. Prime Minister?

The man who wanted to build a firewall around Alberta and won't meet with the premiers because he's bought the bogus provincial rights theory of Canadian Confederation for ideological reasons now finds himself in a political bind.

Not only are B.C. and Alberta at each other's throats, their standoff is over his chief preoccupation -- oil.

In the May 2011 federal election, Harper's party captured 21 of B.C.'s 36 seats and 27 of Alberta's 28 for a grand total of 48 of his 166 seats -- in other words, his 14-seat majority more than three times over.

So what are you going to do, Prime Minister? You can't avoid this Alberta-B.C. dust-up but neither can you pick sides without political consequences.

If you choose Alberta, what will happen to your 21 MPs in B.C., particularly now that polls show 59 per cent of British Columbians don't support Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline? If you pick B.C., well, that's probably unimaginable for you, right, prime minister?

More challenging, having made a point of treating the premiers as bothersome children to be ignored, you are now going to have to become prime minister in the real meaning of that term. Telling the provinces to mind their shop while you mind yours just won't cut it this time.

The moment of truth has arrived. Canada is one country, not a knockoff of Jefferson Davis's states' rights Southern Confederacy during the American Civil War. And you, prime minister, are the prime minister of all Canadians.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has a point. Why should B.C. accept most of the pipeline risk with virtually none of the benefits? Alberta Premier Alison Redford also has a point about royalties and the precedent that would be set.

But no Canadian should forget that the land -- Rupert's Land -- that now comprises Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta was purchased by the Government of Canada in 1869 from the Hudson's Bay Company by the taxpayers of Canada.

Unlike the original four provinces, therefore, the western provinces did not enter Confederation as pre-existing self-governing entities. They were created by acts of Parliament and their boundaries were drawn by federal cartographers.

This is not to say they don't have the same rights to their land and resources as Confederation's first four. But it is to say that provinces -- all provinces -- are sub-national entities. They are not independent states. They don't run national, let alone foreign, policy. Above all, none are above the nation. They have to work together. They have to compromise, respecting each other's position.

If they refuse, if they can't agree, then it is the national government's obligation to step in and find a solution.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has already suggested a compromise. He rejects B.C.'s request for a cut of Alberta's oil royalties from the pipeline because of the precedent it sets, but he agrees B.C. should be compensated, perhaps by the oil companies, for the risks and costs to B.C.'s land, water, environment and people.

The ball is in this authoritarian but strangely risk-averse prime minister's court. It's time for him to spend a little of his prime ministerial capital, show the same toughness he relishes dealing out to his political adversaries and get his hands a bit dirty. Who knows? It might improve his dismal polling numbers.


Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2012 A11

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