Kenney urges Trudeau government to take ‘meaningful action’ to address separatist sentiments in Alberta

OTTAWA— Alberta Premier Jason Kenney launched a full-court press on the Trudeau government Monday, arriving with a team of eight cabinet ministers, numbers and charts in hand, to warn that separatist sentiment in the Prairies is real and tied to federal policies that are crushing the energy sector.

Kenney brought his pitch for a “fair deal for Alberta” in person and meets Trudeau late Tuesday, but first he delivered a barnburner to the Canadian Club of Ottawa to set the table for the discussion.

Taking a cue from Quebec’s past tactics in dealing with Ottawa, Kenney outlined his own five “demands” of the federal Liberal government, all aimed at easing environmental regulation on the energy sector, ensuring the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion gets built and boosting federal aid for the province.

The Alberta premier warned separatist sentiment is real in the West, but cast himself as a federalist champion and “proud patriot of Canada,” saying the Liberal government should take its cue from the unanimous agreement last week by provincial and territorial leaders to support Alberta’s demands. They backed Kenney’s call for environmental legislative changes to help oil and gas developers, and for increased federal transfers to address the five-year downturn in that sector.

“If I was the federal government, I would take that as a pretty strong prompt, a nudge, to deliver,” Kenney told a business and political audience at the Canadian Club in Ottawa.

Kenney’s ministers in several portfolios — finance, energy, environment, labour, and Indigenous and child services, among them — are meeting with federal counterparts, Opposition leaders and stakeholders in Ottawa.

But the key meeting with the prime minister will only come late Tuesday, at the end of the two-day “Team Alberta” visit.

Neither Trudeau nor his deputy Chrystia Freeland responded to questions Monday about Kenney’s demands.

Kenney, a cabinet minister in the Harper government, was frank about his expectations. “I don’t expect to be walking out of the prime minister’s office with written agreements on these things tomorrow but I sure hope we get an indication they are prepared to move.”

By the end of the day Monday, it was clear Kenney’s team was already disappointed with what it was hearing from Environment Minister John Wilkinson on the liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector.

Wilkinson downplayed the prospect that Canada would promote its LNG exports — which industry leaders say would displace dirty coal-burning plants in Asia — as a way to meet its international greenhouse gas reduction targets.

It’s all part of discussions this week at the international climate conference in Madrid.

But Wilkinson said he’s not interested in any system that would lead to “double-counting.”

“Let me clear, the Canadian plan in terms of getting to our targets … are focused on domestic reductions. We’re not building a plan to simply trade away reductions. That doesn’t mean that I’m not saying LNG in the future can’t be part of an overall structure. But the focus of the climate plan is on reducing our own domestic emissions,” he told reporters.

Wilkinson also dismissed any prospect of amending its new Impact Assessment Act (which Kenney calls the “No More Pipelines” law).

“We’re not opening the law itself. The law is the law. We are not going to inject uncertainty for business in, in terms of reopening a law that was firmly and ferociously debated,” he said. “We are moving on and we’re certainly happy to engage the conversation around implementation.”

In his speech, Kenney said the energy sector has lost 80,000 high-paying energy sector jobs since oil prices dropped five years ago, but the real problem now is federal policies that have chilled investment and sent capital south to the U.S.

“The difference is not price, it is policy,” said Kenney. “Policies that have made our industries less and less competitive, driving job-creating investment out of this country, and policies that have killed and delayed pipelines mean we are captive to the U.S. and sell one of our country’s most valuable assets to them at fire-sale prices, subsidizing massive profits for U.S. refineries.”

It was offensive when Trudeau, a national party leader, campaigned for re-election saying Canada needed a central government to fight “the large oil companies,” Kenney said, adding it would be “unthinkable” for a prime minister to say the same about large automakers or aviation companies.

Kenney cited a Scotiabank estimate that the crisis in the oil and gas sector is costing the Canadian economy $16 billion a year.

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“These are stark statistics, but beneath them are the human costs which are the ultimate source of the fear and anger that are roiling the Prairies,” Kenney told the audience.

Later, Kenney told reporters that he doesn’t believe that the separatist sentiment has built into a credible movement or organization, saying if a vote were held today, most Albertans would vote to stay. But Kenney said three-quarters of Albertans are sympathetic to the cause because they do not feel the rest of Canada respects them.

“We can’t ignore that. We can’t allow that attitude to develop. It would be really unfortunate for the federation,” he said.

Kenney said many Albertans have moved from elsewhere in Canada to make a living, saying it is where people can most easily move “from rags to riches.” He recited statistics to make his case that Alberta contributes many more billions to the Canadian federation than it “gets back,” adding the province is “the goose that laid the golden egg in the modern Canadian economy.”

Kenney said while he’s encouraged by efforts so far in Trudeau’s government to connect with his government, “we need to see meaningful action.”

Kenney’s list of demands includes:

  • A firm timeline for the completion of Trans Mountain’s expansion and a commitment by Ottawa to bring in First Nations as equity partners as soon as possible;
  • $2.4 billion in payments through the fiscal stabilization program as premiers backed last week;
  • The repeal or substantial amendment of environmental legislation on impact assessments and of the ban on oil tankers in Pacific Northwest waters;
  • Changes to rules to allow oil and gas companies to raise more capital;
  • Ottawa to recognize Alberta’s methane reduction regulations.

Kenney later met with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh for about half an hour. Singh’s spokesperson Melanie Richer said they discussed Alberta’s economy, the provincial demand larger annual increases in federal health transfers — which the NDP supports — and pharmacare.

With files from Alex Ballingall

Tonda MacCharles

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