Trudeau’s backers argue the prime minister’s indifference to Albertan oil is rational and that the province’s petroleum industry is morally and structurally dubious. Along with climate change concerns, many progressive energy analysts and futurists argue that long-term trends in global petroleum prices and clean energy technology are simply not on the side of Alberta’s bitumen fields.
Trudeau’s administration has nevertheless routinely resisted reason when it exists at the expense of Quebec. Free trade with the United States was brought to the brink of collapse over Trudeau’s “100 per cent” commitment to dairy tariffs, which were loathed by President Trump but protect Quebec’s stranglehold on the Canadian milk market. Ottawa put the purchase of badly needed Boeing jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force on hold the moment the U.S. firm decided to sue Quebec-based rival Bombardier over an unrelated matter. Despite facing a seemingly clear-cut charge of corporate malfeasance, the prime minister engaged in “consistent and sustained” lobbying for SNC-Lavalin to be spared the business-killing consequences of breaking Canada’s harsh anti-corruption laws. At some point, it has to be concluded that the prime minister simply likes this province more.
The opposition Conservatives, for their part, have not been averse to courting Quebec equally aggressively, but this courtship has produced comparatively little. Despite their best efforts, it appears flatly impossible to be a persuasive champion of both Albertan oil and Quebec environmentalists. Accordingly, while the Conservatives now reign as unchallenged kings of western Canada, their inability to forge a broader geographic coalition means Trudeau’s second term will be even more Quebec tilted.
The chauvinistic Bloc Quebecois party, meanwhile, which has surged on a series of mind-bending assertions that Trudeau has somehow been too sympathetic to Alberta at the expense of Quebec, can now play power broker in a tightly divided Parliament. There’s little reason to expect Trudeau’s post-election peace offerings — such as appointing former foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, a Toronto elite if there ever was one, to “oversee” Alberta-Ottawa relations — will do much to offset Parliament’s blunt geographic realities.
What recourse does Alberta have? Alberta is only Canada’s fourth-largest province by population, and Canada has nothing like the powerful Senate of the United States, which grants all states equal representation regardless of population. Canada is likewise a deeply centralized federation in which virtually all relevant powers over environmental regulation and approval of trans-provincial energy projects like pipelines — the prerogatives Albertans are most exercised about — rest with the federal government alone.
Alberta’s Conservative premier, Jason Kenney, has vindictively proposed Alberta explore opting-out of certain federal programs such as the Canada Pension Plan and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, though these feel like responses to nothing in particular. More provocative is his suggestion that Albertans vote on a constitutional amendment altering Ottawa’s financial “equalization” regime, in which federally collected revenue is redistributed among the provinces in the name of national fairness. Last year, Quebec received CA $11.8 billion in equalization but made no net contribution, while Alberta’s comparably stronger economy made a net contribution of CA $17.2 billion.
Kenney is unwilling to go as far as a quarter of his citizens (and over a third of Conservative supporters) want and argue his province would be best served by simply leaving Canada altogether — the so-called “Wexit” idea. Kenney is believed to harbor prime ministerial ambitions, and presumably contesting the country’s territorial integrity runs against that goal. In a post-election speech pouring water on the separation idea, Kenney argued the patriotism of Albertans was beyond reproach, and it was the prime minister who was stirring the forces of division.
“I’m not going to let Trudeau push me out of my country,” he declared.
This is a curiously passive position to take and may reflect the degree Kenney’s personal ambition makes him ill-cast for this moment. Trudeau himself, after all, once mused about supporting Quebec separation, telling a Quebec interviewer in 2012 that if Ottawa drifted too far to the right on social issues, “maybe I would think about wanting to make Quebec a country.”
This is how the separatism game has been traditionally played by even nominally “federalist” Quebec politicians: throat-clearing hesitation about the wisdom of secession promptly offset by clear demands and admissions of open-mindedness. The understanding is that the threat of separation is simply too powerful to take off the table when negotiating with the feds.
In his words and actions, Trudeau has made it clear he regards the appeasement of Quebec nationalism as an existential issue for Canada. Alberta’s loud dissatisfaction, by contrast, while certainly annoying and embarrassing for his administration, is not ultimately an issue of comparable stakes.
For now, Alberta appears unwilling to engage in the sort of tactics that might make him reconsider that assumption.