May 31, 2020

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Pallister could become PM's unlikely western ally


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has found a Prairie premier he can talk to, which could be useful in an era when western separatists are holding rallies in Calgary and blaming the federal government for killing Alberta’s oil economy.

Mr. Trudeau’s interlocutor turns out to be Manitoba’s own Brian Pallister. A year ago the two men could not say a good word about each other. The wheel has turned, however, and now — like it or not — they need each other.

Mr. Trudeau picked Winnipeg for this year’s cabinet retreat. His ministers were assured of a better reception here than they would find in cities in Saskatchewan or Alberta. Winnipeg elected four Liberal candidates to Parliament last October, while the grasslands west of here elected none.

In Regina or Edmonton, the retreating federal ministers might find angry western separatists picketing their gathering. No such thing was seen in Winnipeg. Mr. Trudeau’s meeting with Mr. Pallister seemed at least polite and perhaps even productive. The premier emerged saying he might try again to design a carbon tax that would meet Ottawa’s expectations and, in that way, get the federal carbon tax lifted from consumers in this province.

Winning friends in Manitoba is not directly a way of appeasing the anger in Saskatchewan and Alberta, but may be a way of ensuring the anger does not spread. Western separatism is an emotional expression, not a practical program. Its futility must become apparent to all in due course, but in the meantime separatist talk may drown out more useful plans.

The cabinet retreat provided a platform for useful plans. The cabinet heard presentations from Winnipeg movers and shakers who are developing businesses that have nothing to do with fossil fuels. Reasoning along these lines may help persuade alienated westerners that regional prosperity is possible and worth pursuing, even when the oil industry is in decline.

The Prime Minister's interlocutor turns out to be Manitoba’s own Brian Pallister. (Mike Sudoma / The Canadian Press)

The Prime Minister's interlocutor turns out to be Manitoba’s own Brian Pallister. (Mike Sudoma / The Canadian Press)

Talk about these plans had to be sandwiched in among wider discussions about where Mr. Trudeau’s government goes from here. The Liberals are likely to have a fairly smooth ride through the winter and spring while the opposition Conservatives are pre-occupied with stabbing each other in the back in their leadership race. Come fall, however, the Conservatives will have a new leader and most of today’s problems will still be with us.

Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou will still, in all likelihood, be resisting extradition. U.S. President Donald Trump will still be tearing apart the structure of military alliances and trade arrangements in which Canada has learned to prosper. People who used to enjoy lucrative jobs in the Canadian oil industry will still be recalling the old days and blaming Mr. Trudeau for ruining them.

In those conditions, Mr. Pallister may have a precious role to play. Canada will need calm and reasonable voices that are neither subservient to Toronto and Montreal nor subservient to the oil industry, but that are trying to make Canada work better. At the moment, Mr. Pallister is narrowly focused on Manitoba projects and what Canada can do for him, but events may be turning him into something else — a regional spokesman with a large understanding of how Canada has to work for all its people.

Mr. Pallister described Ottawa’s outreach to the west as noble in its intention, which is a charitable interpretation. It may also be drawing the Manitoba premier into a role he never planned to play.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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