When he landed in Alberta for two days of meetings this week, Justin Trudeau had a number of options.
I suppose he could have charismatically willed the price of oil back up to $100 per barrel.
He could simply, as the Conservative opposition in Ottawa keeps telling him, just build a pipeline already.
He could have brought that big armoured car stuffed with cash with him, as Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci had suggested, tongue-in-cheek, or maybe a huge oversized cheque with his party’s logo emblazoned on it for the cameras.
He could have just told Premier Rachel Notley what he was going to do, in the spirit of federal-provincial relations of recent vintage.
He could have shrugged, headed home and collapsed on the couch with Sophie and the kids and flipped on Netflix. Albertans don’t vote for him anyway.
Or he could have travelled to Alberta, met with Notley, oil and gas executives and social-service agencies and discussed short-term aid, raised the issue of longer-term diversification, reiterated an inclusive pipeline strategy, and promised action in the coming federal budget.
He could have pledged to fast-track $700 million in existing infrastructure money, provide $250 million in a stabilization fund and assure Albertans that Canadians were standing with them during tough economic times.
MERCANTILE CLOSING SALE
By choosing the latter option, Trudeau is again showing that a type of leadership that involves talking, listening, learning on the ground and gathering facts as a way of making an informed decision does not sit well with those used to dictatorial fiats from on high.
It’s understandable that some Albertans expected something more substantive, but empathy and discussion meant Trudeau was a “perpetual earnest schoolboy,” according to one Alberta-based columnist. Another dismissed him as the “selfie king.” Still another likened him to Oprah.
Conservatives in Ottawa, under the interim leadership of Rona Ambrose, will tell you Trudeau is out of touch with Alberta’s pain, wants to keep its bitumen in the ground and is plotting to pivot away from the entire resource sector in this country for some ephemeral Davos-style industrial revolution.
Short on deliverables, maybe, but two days with Notley in Alberta was hugely important.
The last time a prime minister travelled to Edmonton to meet with an Alberta premier was 11 years ago, when Paul Martin sat down with Ralph Klein. Those grousing about the point of the visit would, perhaps, want to go back to those good old days of Alberta relations with Liberals, those halcyon days of Klein accusing federal health minister Allan Rock of a “drive-by smear” for defending medicare in Calgary, or the constant threats from the Jean ChrÈtien government to withhold federal health transfers if Alberta didn’t fall in line.
Klein was pushing provincial legislation to allow private for-profit clinics to perform surgeries in the province when Rock landed in Calgary.
“I don’t feel snubbed at all,” he said in 2000. “I’ve come to expect it.”
Or maybe 2003, when Klein, responding to “a condescending lecture” from then-intergovernmental affairs minister StÈphane Dion, provided a laundry list of Alberta concerns ignored by ChrÈtien, including gun control, Senate reform, the Canadian Wheat Board, climate change and health-care funding.
Maybe we should go back to the real good old days of the National Energy Program, Pierre Trudeau’s move to control Alberta resources, fund Petro-Canada with federal taxes and make this country self-sufficient in oil.
It cost jobs and investment in Alberta, sparked war with premier Peter Lougheed and gave rise to a short-lived western separatism movement and bitterness that lingers today.
It’s understandable that if you’ve lost your job and you’re hurting in Alberta, you wouldn’t think a prime minister would need a two-day “listening tour” of your province.
You’d probably think you were being fed platitudes instead of help.
Trudeau continually reminded Albertans that their supposed ally, Stephen Harper, got no pipelines built over almost 10 years and it was time for a different, more inclusive approach.
But he delivered an even more important message. Both days, he stressed that Canadians have Albertans’ back. There will always be those who think that’s just talk, that Trudeau is morphing into a Martin-style “Mr. Dithers,” that all this stagecraft and tone is a weak surrogate for action.
The test will come in a federal budget expected next month.
Alberta will be competing against big city mayors, First Nations, the middle class . . . the list is long. Only then can we measure whether Trudeau put some money where his mouth was this week.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
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