Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/6/2020 (346 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the aftermath of last October’s federal election, in which voters rejected Liberal candidates across a 1,800-kilometre expanse of Western Canada, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney commissioned a "fair-deal panel" to capitalize on his province’s desire to cut ties to Ottawa.
But when the report was finished last month, Kenney shelved it. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Alberta is relying heavily on federal funds to survive the economic fallout — including the subsidized staff in his own political party.
It’s a role reversal few would have predicted eight months ago, when Alberta and Saskatchewan bled Tory blue and stoked Wexit flames, and Manitobans cut their Liberal representation in half.
"All the pressures in the fall are still there — and, in fact, may have gotten significantly worse," says Jim Farney, the head of political studies at the University of Regina.
"We may just be accumulating federal-provincial tensions, and once we’re through the initial emergency phase, those will start to come to the surface."
Western alienation has been around for decades. The concept was coined in the 1980s, when former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program directed Alberta’s oil wealth to Ottawa.
Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, says the province has long felt held back by Ottawa. But his polling shows a shift, from feeling like a better province deprived of its full potential, to one quickly losing its status.
"There is now an external threat to Alberta’s economic psyche in the face of the global environmentalist moment," he says.
The surveys show that sentiment only differs by political party — the feelings don’t change much by ethnicity, age or gender.
"Even among people in the far left, there’s a feeling that Alberta is not being fairly treated, or that they’re falling behind," Wesley says.
With similar feelings in Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe has blasted federal environmental regulations and the health-transfer formula, using the motto of "standing up for Saskatchewan."
Meanwhile, Premier Brian Pallister positioned himself as a bridge between Trudeau and the simmering anger across the Prairies.
“Even among people in the far left, there’s a feeling that Alberta is not being fairly treated, or that they’re falling behind.” – Political scientist Jared Wesley
"Western Canada is hurting. The federal government’s economic, energy and environmental policies have caused today’s discord," the premier wrote in an open letter to Trudeau this past winter.
Just as the pandemic hit North America, the Supreme Court was about to hear Alberta and Saskatchewan’s objections to the federal carbon tax.
By February, anti-pipeline rail blockades were crippling Canada’s supply chains. In March, the price of oil tumbled in a dispute between Russian and Saudi Arabia.
"The feeling has always been with this government that Western Canada is kind of left in the dust; we don’t seem to be Ottawa’s No. 1 priority," says farmer Warren McCutcheon, who grows corn near Carman, 70 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.
"I don’t see anything that’s really changed or benefited Western Canada, in general."
From the first week of the pandemic, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has praised the premiers for taking "a Team Canada approach," putting aside political differences to combat the coronavirus.
Since then, there’s been virtually no public sparring between Ottawa and the premiers.
Meanwhile, the Liberals have offered support without blasting provinces for shoddy COVID data-reporting and contact tracing.
"No premier wants to pick a fight with the federal government right now," says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.
He notes Kenney’s sudden withdrawal of his "fair-deal" report, after constantly touting his plan to push back on Ottawa’s treatment of Alberta.
"I think that’s a pretty good illustration of where the national-unity battle is. In the midst of COVID, it’s been put completely on the side," says Bratt.
“This has completely changed the nature of politics, in so many ways. But the common theme is further centralization.” – Political science professor Duane Bratt
Another example is the Liberals’ response for the oil-and-gas sector. For weeks, they invited energy companies to put laid-off workers on a general wage subsidy.
Eventually, they carved out a program to pay people to remediate abandoned oil wells, and a large-company loan program that is contingent on reducing carbon emissions.
Bratt was surprised the Alberta government hardly pushed back on the program, which is intended to support oil companies.
And while provinces’ first reflex is to tell Ottawa to butt out of their jurisdictions, the Liberals’ push to get provinces to boost paid sick leave hasn’t yet prompted strong pushback.
"This has completely changed the nature of politics, in so many ways. But the common theme is further centralization," Bratt says.
Kelly Saunders, a political scientist at Brandon University, says the pandemic has revealed the importance and general function of Canadian federalism.
"Before, they were all just taking potshots; it was always doom and gloom," she says. "And let’s face it, the dialogue was horrific in intergovernmental relations. I think we’ve turned a corner on that."
Despite thousands of coronavirus deaths and Ottawa’s apparent lack of pandemic preparedness, the collaboration with provincial governments offers a stark comparison to American governors fighting with the president to obtain medical supplies.
It’s no coincidence the United States has seen more deaths, Saunders says.
"We’re able to work together better and more functionally and respectfully than we gave ourselves credit for," she says.
The collaborative spirit is, however, unlikely to last.
"People rally together in the earlier part of crises," Wesley says. "We’re about to enter, I’d argue, into the second phase of the crisis, where the patriotism will start to die off and people start to look locally."
He expects western grievances will mount if premiers manage to successfully pin economic problems on Ottawa.
That might be tricky.
The premiers declined to cede powers to Ottawa under the federal Emergencies Act. Instead, Trudeau has positioned the federal government as a benevolent provider of resources for testing, contact tracing and reopening, but left provinces to control when and how to undertake those measures.
That leaves missteps largely at the feet of the premiers, such as an unforeseen second wave or a reopening that comes too late for particular industries.
"The ultimate responsibility for it falls to the provincial governments," Wesley says.
ven without a blame game, he predicts a clash between Ottawa and the Prairie premiers, who are already leaning toward belt-tightening.
In the 1990s, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government imposed conditions on health and social programs that forced provinces, who held more cash than Ottawa, to share expenses.
This time around, Ottawa can borrow more easily than provinces, and the minority Liberals are relying on support from parties that pushed them to open the taps.
The Manitoba and Alberta premiers are taking a different approach, slashing spending. That’s despite lagging approval ratings over the course of the pandemic.
"They seem hell-bent on using COIVD as a pretext for even deeper cuts and more dramatic austerity," Wesley says.
For weeks, Conservative MPs have donned face masks and flown to Ottawa for the bare-bones committee meetings being held in the House of Commons.
The other parties have overwhelmingly relied on Ontario and Quebec MPs driving in for those sessions, and let other MPs tune in through videoconferencing.
But the Tories feel western MPs aren’t actually heard when they speak through the Zoom app, especially with so few Prairie voices in the government.
Last fall, Trudeau had his deputy Freeland focus on the west. Winnipeg MP Jim Carr had served as minister of natural resources and then minister of international trade diversification in Trudeau’s first cabinet, but was diagnosed with a blood cancer the day after last October’s election. Trudeau named him special cabinet adviser for the Prairies.
Carr’s office said he was not well enough for an interview this week.
Trudeau named Winnipeg MP Dan Vandal northern affairs minister last fall. His focus has largely surrounded co-ordinating Ottawa’s pandemic response with Inuit and territorial leaders.
Conservative MP Candice Bergen wishes Carr a speedy recovery, but says he and Vandal haven’t been visible.
"They have been very quiet, and it is indicative of Trudeau’s approach to Manitoba and Western Canada overall; he’s just basically dismissed us and written us off," the Portage-Lisgar MP says, arguing it echoes Pierre Trudeau’s legacy of sidelining the Prairies.
"We haven’t even seen or heard from Dan Vandal; I haven’t heard a peep from him through all of this."
"That’s completely unfair," he says, arguing he, Bergen and all MPs have been hunkered down at home, doing their jobs as much as they can online.
"I’ve been doing what I can virtually, both for Manitoba and the North. These are tough times for a politician."
He says the cabinet talks about the Prairie energy sector almost every time they meet, once or twice a week.
He said he’s regularly speaking with city officials, provincial ministers, both chambers of commerce and urban Indigenous groups, all to make sure Winnipeg gets a fair cut of the federal spending bonanza.
In the six months since he was appointed to cabinet, Ottawa has lurched from the Iran plane crash to rail blockades to the pandemic; Vandal pines for normal days.
"There really hasn’t been any time for the government to implement the agenda that Canadians elected us on," he says.
"We are definitely still in the COVID crisis."
Alberta’s energy minister Sonya Savage was mocked last month for suggesting pipeline-construction companies take advantage of the pandemic by limiting protesters from gathering.
Irrespective of Alberta’s chest-thumping for the oilsands, the province has slowly been shifting toward a greener economy.
Just in February, Kenney made waves when he used the phrase "energy transition" in a speech in Washington, acknowledging one day tapping "the last barrel."
"It’s the first time I’d heard the premier signal that we are in an energy transition," says Gary Mar, president of the Canada West Foundation, who has spent decades overseeing Alberta’s energy industry.
His non-partisan group advocates for the four western provinces. Under COVID-19, that’s meant pushing for the pipelines needed in the immediate term while buttressing a gradual, long-term transition away from oil.
That means projects such as converting abandoned wells into geothermal plants and lithium mines.
Small towns across the Prairies are already making that shift.
“It’s the first time I’d heard the premier (Jason Kenny) signal that we are in an energy transition.” – President of the Canada West Foundation Gary Mar
"Alberta’s having a tough time in terms of just everything that’s going on," says Chris Warwick, mayor of Hanna, Alta.
The nearby coal mine is shutting down, and its processing plant is switching to natural gas as a result of the province’s carbon-reduction strategy.
After layoffs and tumbling house prices, the town of 2,500 is pivoting to agriculture, while downsizing retirees are buying cheap houses.
Echoing Mar, Warwick feels Alberta’s tumbling oil prices has evaporated the cash needed to bankroll a wider shift.
"It’s put the province in a tough space, because you don’t have the funding to transition yourself from an energy-dependent province to what’s next," Warwick says.
At the start of the pandemic, North American demand for oil dropped to an amount the industry had forecasted for 2050.
"That reduction in demand happened not over three decades, it happened over three weeks," Mar says.
Eco-conscious MPs have argued that now is the time to let the oilsands die, but Mar says that would cut off the main income source for Quebec iron mines, Ontario steel plants and workers from across Canada.
Farney fears a generation of massive youth unemployment similar to Greece and Spain during the Eurozone debt crisis. He says there’s still an expectation that someone without a college degree can get a six-figure salary driving a bulldozer.
"Somebody needs to tell (them) that dream is dead. And I haven’t seen anybody step up to the plate," he says.
"We’re going to have — especially in Western Canada — a generation of angry young people whose careers and lives have been interrupted. And we’re only going to see the implications of that in the next couple of years," he says.
"That’s going to be a really dramatic shock."
In the wake of April’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia, the Liberals proceeded with banning firearms, a move popular in Quebec and large cities, but one that left mostly rural gun owners wondering about compensation.
Meanwhile, Ottawa still doesn’t have a strategy for the rise in rural crime nor Winnipeg’s ongoing meth crisis, both of which were the subject of parliamentary hearings last spring.
Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said last month she needs farmers to apply for aid programs in order to get her colleagues on board with putting up more funding for the industry, which sits outside the Liberals’ urban base.
From his corn farm, McCutcheon argues that’s a circular argument from a Quebec minister, instead of looking at why programs designed decades ago aren’t working during the pandemic.
"We’re an integral part of this country," he says.
This week, the Liberals blew their deadline for an action plan within a year of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a tragic situation that disproportionately occurs in Western Canada.
"I’m sure there are lots of issues that are going by the wayside," Bratt says, noting the re-emergence of the Bloc Québécois has put that province at the top of Trudeau’s mind.
Last month, Trudeau never even mentioned Manitoba’s 150th anniversary, either in a spoken or written statement.
"Normally, Trudeau’s pretty good at the symbolic stuff. So to have missed that shows what’s happening — if it’s not COVID-related, it’s not getting on (his) agenda."
Meanwhile, the ongoing federal Conservative leadership race has no westerners in its lacklustre contest.
Loleen Berdahl, political-studies head at the University of Saskatchewan, says western premiers have become the prominent voices for Canadians who disagree with Trudeau’s agenda.
"The real wild card is this Conservative leadership race," Berdahl says. "Will this mean that we’ll see a more energized (federal) opposition, or not?"
If so, the minority Liberals could call an autumn election, on the basis that Canadians should choose who’d be best to steer them through an economic recovery.
Bratt notes that Western Canada and the Maritimes have largely contained the virus, but face a more dire economic recovery than Ontario and Quebec. He said it’s important for the cabinet to understand that difference.
"Regional ministers explain how the impact is hitting different parts of the country in different ways," he says, noting that questions at Trudeau’s daily press briefings focus heavily on the ongoing crises in Montreal and Ontario.
Ministers from British Columbia make brief appearances for their relevant files, but "it’s Trudeau’s show; he sets the agenda every morning," Bratt says.
The Prairies come up when First Nations push ahead with powwows and sun dances, with the Trudeau government siding against premiers urging Indigenous groups to scale down events that exceed public-health orders.
Farney predicts more tension with the West is around the corner.
"All those flashpoints are still there. I think the bickering’s been put on hold because of the crisis. But I get the sense that it’s kind of returning to normal," he says.
Yet Saunders is optimistic the premiers’ co-operation with Trudeau could carry through to figuring out the future of the energy industry and the issues that drive western alienation.
"It’s been a good time for us take a deep breath; to pause and reflect, and maybe find ways of engaging with each other — as provinces and the federal government, across partisan lines and with the private and public sector."
Back in small-town Alberta, Warwick says his province needs Canadians to focus on their common ground.
"It’s never been an us-and-them thing," he says.
"This is one nation, and when one province succeeds, we all succeed."