OTTAWA — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney warned of deepening Western resentments on Tuesday, following a federal election that sharpened divides between the prairies and Ottawa and laid the groundwork for a potentially raucous parliamentary session this winter.
“If the frustration and alienation in Alberta continues to mount, it will pose a very serious challenge to national unity,” Kenney said, repeating earlier warnings about rising separatist sentiments in the province.
Kenney said he would launch a panel of experts to consult with Albertans about how to “better assert fairness in the federation” as distrust toward Ottawa’s environmental policies grows. Kenney on Tuesday said he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about potential deals the province could strike with Ottawa as a way to ensure the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, potentially including a higher tax on the province’s heavy emitters.
“This relationship needs some good faith from Ottawa, and if it doesn’t get that I feel that alienation is going to go in a very problematic direction,” Kenney said.
The path our federal government has been on the last four years has divided our nation
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the federal election results confirm there’s a fire of frustration burning in Western Canada and it’s time for a new deal with Ottawa.
“The path our federal government has been on the last four years has divided our nation,” Moe said in a statement.
“Last night’s election results showed the sense of frustration and alienation in Saskatchewan is now greater than it has been at any point in my lifetime.”
On Monday, Trudeau eked out a narrow minority government on Monday, dropping from 184 seats in 2015 to 157. The result marked the lowest share of the overall vote ever won by a winning party, and stoked new fears that Ottawa was losing touch both with prairie provinces and with Quebec.
All but one of the 48 seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan went to the Conservatives, while the Bloc Québécois surged from 10 seats in 2015 to 32 as regional alliances appeared to firm up.
“Canadians woke up this morning to a more divided country,” Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said.
In his post election speech, Trudeau sidestepped much of the separatist angst felt by some portions of the country, saying the Liberals had won a “clear mandate” to govern.
He said he would work to “ensure that the voice of Quebec can be heard even more in Ottawa” after his election win. His message to Alberta and Saskatchewan, which he called an “essential part of our great country,” was slightly more subdued: “I’ve heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you,” he said.
Trudeau’s election win comes amid a growing sense of Western alienation in Alberta over frustrations in the provinces battered oil and gas sector. Years of regulatory and legal wrangling has snarled major pipeline projects like the Trans Mountain expansion, forcing many producers to sell their oil at steep discounts and bleeding hundreds of billions in lost revenues.
Following the establishment of a minority Liberal government propped up by the NDP, many in Calgary’s corporate towers are already anxious over whether the Trans Mountain expansion could become a political football this winter.
As of Tuesday evening, well over 150,000 Albertans had signed an online petition that called for the province to separate from the country.
A poll by Angus Reid Group published in January found that 72 per cent of Western Canadians believed they are generally not “treated fairly” by Ottawa, compared to just 49 per cent of Eastern Canadians responding the same way. Alberta led Western provinces with 83 per cent of respondents saying that Ottawa treated their province unfairly.
Fears in the oilpatch were further stoked on Tuesday after news reports emerged that Husky Energy had laid off a number of employees amid years of low oil prices. The company did not specify how many people would lose their jobs as part of the cuts.
Some observers on Tuesday downplayed East-West tensions, saying much of the angst in Alberta over pipeline politics is a failure to recognize much deeper-lying problems, foremost the lack of land agreements with First Nations that have snarled major projects.
Kenney, for his part, roundly rejected the idea of Alberta separatism, saying it would only serve to bar the province from building new infrastructure.
“We’re not going to get one inch closer to a pipeline by closing in on ourselves as a landlocked jurisdiction,” he said.
The resurgence of the Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, is perhaps the starkest example of new regional divisions in Canada, with the sovereigntist party winning 32 of Quebec’s 78 seats on Monday night. The Bloc’s rise all but shut the NDP out of Quebec, leaving the New Democrats with a single seat in Montreal.
Leader Yves-François Blanchet has portrayed his party as the true defender of Quebec values, and reiterated his promise on election night to work only toward advancing Quebec’s interests in Ottawa. “If what is proposed is good for Quebec, you can count on us,” he told supporters. But if not, “the Bloc will stand in the way.”
Blanchet has been clear that the Bloc will not push for Quebec independence in the immediate future. But his priorities will no doubt include insisting that Ottawa not get involved in a legal challenge of Bill 21, Quebec’s controversial secularism law, and seeking more autonomy for Quebec on immigration and other matters.
A strong Bloc presence in Parliament could further exacerbate tensions with the West, as the party is adamant that no new pipeline will be built through Quebec, and opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. “The Bloc Québécois will be collaborative, unless it’s a question of transporting more oil across the country,” Blanchet said during his speech Monday night.
Bloc MP Rhéal Fortin, a former interim leader, said the other parties are hampered by having to appeal to voters across the country with different priorities, while the Bloc focuses only on Quebec. “They want to please their voters in the West with pipelines… while here in Quebec, we say no,” he told reporters on Monday. “People want to be represented by people who understand them, who represent their values.”
McGill University political scientist Daniel Béland told the National Post last week that the Bloc Quebecois’ rise is partly due to a sense that “Quebec and francophones are under attack.” He referred to Kenney’s attacks on the federal equalization program and Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cuts to francophone services. Quebecers have also been sensitive to outside criticism of Bill 21, which is popular in the province.