Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to overcome "the politics of division" Wednesday, as Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer blasted his government from Alberta over energy policies that have triggered regional tensions.
“I can tell you there are not many Canadians out there who wish ill on other Canadians, regardless of which part of the country they’re from, whether it’s Albertans or Quebecers or anyone in any part of the country,” Trudeau told reporters at a year-end press conference in Ottawa.
In recent weeks, Trudeau and his Liberal government have been under fire from politicians in Alberta who want more support for the fossil fuel industry. Premier Rachel Notley has called the federal government’s $4.5 billion purchase of the embattled Alberta-B.C. Trans Mountain pipeline this year no more than a "start." On Tuesday, Trudeau’s government announced it was making $1.6 billion in financial support available to the industry. Notley all but dismissed the announcement as an offer for businesses to “go further in debt.”
In Quebec, Premier François Legault has said he wants to step up the province’s export of hydro power while insisting, “it is not socially acceptable” for a pipeline carrying “dirty energy” to cross Quebec as formerly proposed to bring Alberta oil to New Brunswick.
Scheer was cheered on at an energy rally outside Edmonton on Wednesday when he criticized the Trudeau government’s recent efforts.
“We don’t need handouts, we just want to get back to work,” Scheer said. “Give a province $1.6 billion and you might feed them for a couple weeks, but let them build a pipeline to get our energy to market and you’ll feed them for a generation.”
Scheer also said he would share the same messages in every province, in both official languages, and noted most Quebecers would rather get gas from Canada than from international sources. Western Canada is already Quebec’s top supplier of crude oil.
These political disputes, and a delay on construction of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast, have exposed some regional divisions in Canada. One high-profile public policy expert at the University of Calgary floated the idea of an “Albexit,” or the province pulling out of confederation to strengthen its energy industry. Another noted that some recent criticism of Canada’s equalization system – including concerns that it’s draining money from Alberta to Quebec – is misleading. Economist Trevor Tombe noted that the equalization program was actually about providing equal access to services between wealthy Canadians and those with lower incomes.
In Calgary this week, protesters began to boo when Mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke in French as part of his city’s declaration of support for the oil and gas industry.
Also this week, about 1,500 people attended a pro-oil rally in Grande Prairie, Alta. where both Alberta's trade minister and opposition leader criticized Trudeau for not doing enough for the industry.
“Unfortunately we are at a time that there are politics of division, of difference(s) that get highlighted,” Trudeau said Thursday. “But my commitment to Canadians is always to strive to bring people together, to bridge differences to make sure that all Canadians know that from coast to coast to coast there are people there who have their back, who are ready to support them through difficult times.”
The federal government's approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion was quashed by the federal court of appeal in August, sending the government back to engage in further consultations with First Nations and federal regulators to examine the potential impact of increased tanker traffic off the B.C. coast. Trudeau would not say Wednesday when construction would begin.
Trudeau: LNG Canada a model for Indigenous consultation
Trudeau was also pressed Wednesday to explain how his government can support a liquefied natural gas project that is opposed by hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia.
The prime minister flagged the $40 billion project as “the single largest private sector investment in Canada’s history” and a creator of jobs.
Members of a Wet’suwet’en clan behind the Unist’ot’en camp are blocking the building of a Coastal GasLink pipeline that would connect natural gas to the LNG Canada project on the coast.
But Trudeau said the LNG Canada project has been a “model of working with Indigenous communities, working with environmentalists, working with local communities.”
The prime minister said exporting more liquefied natural gas is good for the environment, as it will displace coal in Asia.
Echoing his own message to the Assembly of First Nations earlier this month, Trudeau said unanimity of all voices is not expected or necessary for projects like LNG Canada to be built.
“The way (LNG Canada) engaged with Indigenous leadership, with Indigenous communities, is actually a model of how we need to go forward. And it doesn’t mean that before a project can go forward we expect unanimity,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation in a country like Canada or even within any Indigenous community. But having a process of engagement, of consultation, of partnership whereby there is a consensus or there is a clear amount of support that comes for it is an important thing, is certainly desirable.”
Editor's note: This story was updated at 8:18 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Dec. 19 to include the prime minister's comments on LNG Canada.
— With files from The Canadian Press