Just as things are settling down in the United States, they seem to be spinning out of control here in Canada.
Days after incoming President Joe Biden announced he would cancel the presidential permit for Keystone XL, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney whipped himself into a spiral of anger and recrimination that had him calling for the federal government to start a trade war with the U.S. Then came a damning report about Governor General Julie Payette and her treatment of staff. That forced Payette, the 29th Governor General of Canada, to resign from her office on Jan. 21, making her the first Governor General to resign in scandal and the first since the 19th century not to serve out her term.
The decision by the Trudeau government to bypass the system that its predecessor set up for selecting governors general and lieutenant governors and instead pick Payette, a celebrated astronaut with a seemingly endless array of skills and accomplishments, looks bad in retrospect. It’s of a piece with the Trudeau government’s apparent willingness to prioritize optics over operations, one that has already tripped it up any number of times.
And while it’s unlikely this issue will actually register with many Canadians, since the role of the Governor General is about as well and widely understood as the role of our own gall bladders, Trudeau needs to think about more than finding someone new who won’t embarrass us.
Instead, he should focus on doing something about the growing rift between the west and the rest of the country, one that Kenney is actively trying to exploit and expand. How? By appointing someone from the west to fill the role.
There are any number of intriguing possibilities here, from former chief justice Beverley McLachlin (Pincher Creek, Alta.) to musician k.d. lang (Consort, Alta.) or Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde (Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask.), who has announced he won't seek re-election to his post this summer. Even Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Liberal and now Independent member of Parliament for Vancouver-Granville, would be an interesting choice for the role.
But one name stands out above the rest: the Right Honourable Joe Clark, Canada’s 16th prime minister.
For one thing, Clark is already intimately familiar with the machinations and inner workings of Ottawa, not to mention the impact that a Trudeau government in Ottawa can have on people in Alberta and Saskatchewan. And now that Donald Trump is riding off into the Florida sunset, Canada’s biggest challenges will almost certainly come from within — especially if Kenney continues to inflame anti-Ottawa sentiment. While Clark is 81 years old, he may have one last political fight left in him — especially if it’s for the long-term integrity of the country. That he would end up as both the youngest prime minister in Canadian history and one of the older governors general has a certain symmetry to it.
The Trudeau government has delivered some policies that have benefited Alberta, whether it’s buying the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline, supporting LNG Canada, or investing nearly $2 billion in the reclamation of old oil and gas wells. But it has failed to match those decisions with a dialogue that hears out the frustrations Albertans feel about Confederation. That’s been particularly true since the 2019 election, when all of the party’s Alberta MPs were defeated.
On the other hand, the volume of rhetoric coming from Edmonton has only been going up, as Kenney and his various lieutenants attack the federal government for everything from equalization to climate change. And the more Kenney fails, whether it’s his $1.5-billion investment in Keystone XL or the billion-dollar job-creation tax cut that hasn’t created any net new jobs, the more he’s going to blame Ottawa.
While Kenney is wrong to weaponize the anger many Albertans feel right now, it comes from a place that’s worth acknowledging. For years, they paid far more in federal taxes — well over $200 billion more over the last decade — than they received in federal programs and services. This wasn’t deliberate or intentional, of course, and they weren’t earning more than people in the rest of the country because they wanted to pay more in federal taxes. But Alberta’s prosperity helped support the budgets of provinces like Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia while directly employing thousands of their people.
Canada's next #governorgeneral must be from the west to help staunch Western alienation. @maxfawcett makes a case for former PM Joe Clark for @NatObserver
Now, as the global economy has shifted towards lower-carbon sources of energy, Alberta finds itself on its heels — and feeling inadequately supported by the country that it helped backstop for years. Pouring gasoline on that sense of alienation for political purposes is a reckless and dangerous thing. But so, too, is ignoring it or discounting its relevance.
Clark, as Canada’s next Governor General, might be able to bridge this divide between west and east, and stop the country from splitting wide open. He understands, better than anyone from the east, the relationship between Alberta and Ottawa. Clark was around when Peter Lougheed fought back against policies enacted by the first Trudeau government. And he can surely empathize with those bristling under the ones implemented by the second Trudeau. More than anything else, Clark knows how to listen. In the end, that might be more important to Albertans than kind words from Ottawa about a pipeline project.
Justin Trudeau may balk at the idea of appointing a former Conservative leader to the job at Rideau Hall, and Clark may not want to help this particular Trudeau after being defeated by his father in 1980. But if public service is still Clark’s calling, as it clearly was for so many years, then he may not be able to say no. His province, and his country, clearly need him right now — maybe more than ever. And if a Trudeau and a Clark can work together on behalf of both Alberta and Canada, that could set an example the rest of us can follow.