It was a gracious gesture, but also politically shrewd.
As Canada’s first ministers gathered here for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, they made it clear they wanted some long overdue credit for their down-in-the-weeds environmental labour while a federal government was amassing a collection of fossil awards for its mantle and a truck full of negative international media reports for its scrapbook.
So Trudeau invited Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, the woman who had put the policy in the window of this great Canadian climate rebrand, to speak to her colleagues first about her bold plan she had announced on the eve of this meeting. It was a sign that Trudeau was prepared to respect provincial climate change work rather than dictating from his federal pulpit.
It was a sign that a new federal government knew that while common goals could be achieved, provinces had to get to those goals on their own, with some federal cajoling or threatening, mindful of the patchwork of economies and capabilities across this country.
There they were, the two most transformative politicians to land on the Canadian landscape in 2015 – the new NDP premier and the new Liberal prime minister – as if a switch had been flicked and Canada had come out of the climate change dark age.
But, of course, it is not that easy, and it is not exactly accurate, either.
No one mentioned Stephen Harper, but all premiers made the point that this country had been pilloried internationally, and the unspoken but clear message was that Harper had been the pariah and provincial efforts were shoved aside when a Keystone-obsessed friend of big oil took to the global stage.
Trudeau set a dinner table, not a target on Monday, but he is already receiving credit for getting the premiers to that table, shaking them into a renewed sense of purpose, maybe even expediting a major move by an Alberta premier who knew she couldn’t head to Ottawa with nothing new on offer.
The other premiers, squinting into the rays of these new sunny, collaborative methods, must understand that next week’s Paris summit is not merely a marketing exercise.
One by one, they said it was time for Canada to stride boldly onto the world stage and explain the differences between Canadian perception and reality.
Christy Clark of British Columbia, where a revenue-neutral carbon tax has been in place for eight years, said it was time to “lift the curtain” on Canadian efforts and get rid of the global black eye that Canada doesn’t deserve. The country talked too much about economic growth and too little about the environment on the global stage, she says.
Quebec’s Philippe Couillard called it a national “rebranding.” With Notley’s initiative, close to 80 per cent of the country is living under some type of carbon pricing, he said.
“Nobody knows that in the world, by the way. It has to be known. It has to be said. It has to be repeated,” he said.
Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne: “We go to Paris … with a very strong story to tell.” New Brunswick’s Brian
Gallant echoed that message.
But if this is a rebranding exercise, maybe they shouldn’t put Brad Wall on the posters. The Saskatchewan premier has become the de facto opposition leader in this country, already speaking out against Trudeau’s withdrawal of the CF-18s that were bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, and calling on the Liberals to suspend the Syrian refugee resettlement program pending full assurance that none pose a security threat to Canada. Before Monday’s meeting, he was the affable outlier on both climate change and the need for provincial-federal meetings. (Wall liked those one-on-one bilaterals just fine, he said, channelling his inner Harper.)
Any message the premiers and Trudeau take to Paris must include the impact on the economy and the thousands of Western Canadian families feeling the shock of layoffs in the energy sector, heading into Christmas with no breadwinner, he said. That has received scant attention in this rush to a greener image, Wall said, “and I wonder if that might be the case were it another sector in the country? I don’t know if it would.”
Maybe next week we will be spared the fossil awards. The blunt assessment of Alberta’s “dirtiest oil on the planet,” by Barack Obama, and our reputation as an environmental laggard can both fade. But much of the work so far has been of the low-hanging fruit variety. It’s going to take more than goodwill when the hard work is at hand. If you don’t believe me, just ask Brad Wall.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services