by Chantel Hebert

Kudos to Justin Trudeau and Alberta’s Rachel Notley for taking the time to talk face to face about the province’s economic challenges on Wednesday. The Liberal prime minister has a compelling interest in keeping the channels open with the NDP premier.

If Trudeau can’t get along with Notley, he is unlikely to get along with any Alberta government. Her two top advisers – Richard Dicerni on the public service side and Brian Topp in the most political role of chief of staff – know the federal capital inside out and have worked with the federal Liberals in the past.

Dicerni served in a senior role in the unity backrooms of Pierre Trudeau’s government at the time of the 1980 Quebec referendum. Topp was Jack Layton’s lead negotiator in the talks that led to the 2008 Liberal-NDP coalition accord.

But while the prime minister can offer Notley some financial relief in the upcoming federal budget, the real test of their relationship will be the resolution of the pipeline file and the fate of Alberta’s efforts to connect the oilsands to tidewater.

It is by far the most contentious issue on the federal-provincial radar. Yet, this is one national discussion that is unlikely to be resolved between first ministers. To date, the lead players in the debate have mostly been municipal politicians. Here are a few of them:

Joanne Monaghan was the mayor of Kitimat, B.C., on whose watch a plebiscite was held on the Northern Gateway pipeline in 2014. As the end point for the pipeline bringing oil from Alberta, Kitimat would be home to a marine terminal where tankers would load up. Almost 60 per cent of her constituents voted no, driving another nail in the coffin of the moribund $6.5-billion Enbridge project.

Derek Corrigan is the mayor of Burnaby, B.C. The Trans Mountain pipeline runs through the city and its corporate owner, Kinder Morgan, wants to triple its capacity. Corrigan is hardly the only Vancouver-area
mayor to oppose the pipeline but he is one of the most vocal. Last May, he told a community meeting he was prepared to be arrested and see his political career come to an end to stop the project. He called last week’s federal announcement of an expanded consultation process and an extended approval timeline a disappointment.

Marc Demers is the mayor of Laval, Quebec’s third-largest city, and one of 82 Montreal-area municipal leaders who came out against the Energy East pipeline. While most Canadians see Denis Coderre as the face of the region’s opposition to TransCanada’s current plans, Demers has been campaigning hard against the pipeline since early last fall.

Gilles Lehouillier is the mayor of LÈvis, across from Quebec City. He turned down TransCanada’s plan to locate a terminal for the Energy East pipeline in his city and remains ambivalent about the project as whole.

There are mayors in the pro-pipeline camp who are not from Saskatchewan and Alberta – the two provinces whose oil industry needs access to a coast – but their support tends to be more tentative than the opposition of some of their mayoral colleagues.

Quebec City’s Regis Labeaume gave his support in principle to the Energy East pipeline last week. In the same breath, though, he said TransCanada had proven inept at addressing the environmental concerns arising from the project.

Mel Norton, the mayor of Saint John, N.B., where some of the oil delivered by the pipeline would be refined, also supports Energy East, but his municipal council wants more definitive answers from TransCanada as to its benefits for the region.

Canada has hit upon defining issues that have pitted regions against region in the past.

Think of the National Energy Program in the early ’80s, the 1988 free trade agreement with the United States – opposed by Ontario but supported by Quebec and Alberta – and three divisive constitutional rounds. But none of those discussions engaged Canada’s municipal politicians in the way that this one does.

No mayor holds a veto over a pipeline, but it will be hard to secure a social licence for any project absent more support from the political leaders who are closest to the day-to-day life of so many voters.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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