Typically, when Canada’s premiers gather to discuss the state of the federation, they produce enough hot air to float several trial balloons, all drifting in different directions at once. But last week’s gathering in Niagara-On-The-Lake suggested that provincial leaders might be warming to the idea of pinpointing one or two destinations at which to touch down together.
New Brunswick’s David Alward can take much of the credit for forging at least the semblance of common cause among his colleagues this year. He has been a vocal and effective critic (whether or not you agree with him) of federal changes to both the Employment Insurance system and labour market agreements. He has emphasized the shared impact of these moves across the country.
He has also reached out to other premiers in a consistent and collegial way – not seen since the Frank McKenna era – on the subject of energy, which is rapidly becoming the most important file on the interprovincial agenda. Even in the notoriously self-absorbed central Canadian press, his name tends to come before all others in stories about a dearly imagined west-east oil pipeline.
“They’ve all been very open to that discussion – I don’t have any concerns at all,” he told the Globe and Mail last week. “We’re bullish on the project because it’s a nation-building project, it’s going to have a positive impact on Canadians from coast to coast to coast. . .We feel very good about the work that is taking place and I have full confidence in the next steps.”
Reflecting on Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ refusal to discuss the pipeline in the wake of the Lac Magentic tragedy, Mr. Alward was circumspect: “In discussions with the Quebec government thus far in our working groups, in terms of the pipeline, have been excellent, and we look forward to continuing to work with them,” the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal quoted him in Friday’s edition. “A catastrophe in their province, the derailment. . .I don’t believe Premier Marois is commenting out of respect for that. . .And I respect that.”
In fact, Mr. Alward was one of the first Canadian leaders to recognize the project’s symbolic significance to the country, as whole. He likened it to a new “national dream”, as big and bold for this century as the transcontinental railway was to the 19th. The argument resonated immediately with Alberta Premier Alison Redford, whose overriding priority is to get her province’s crude to refineries (any refinery) as soon and as cost-effectively as possible.
It’s clear, from her quote in the Telegraph-Journal last week, she hasn’t changed her mind. “We believe it is terribly important that this be considered exactly what it is,” she said. “(This) is a commercial transaction that must be approved by the approval processes in each province that has to take into account the integrity of the project, as well as the environmental impact of the project.”
Moreover, she said, “I’ve heard nothing (at the premiers’ meeting) that in any way suggested to me that there was any possibility that there were any new developments that would change this – that each jurisdiction that is touched by this project will do the work that it needs to do to make sure it does receive the approvals.”
Translation: Stay tuned, but matters are proceeding apace.
The pipeline company, itself, seems to agree. Last week, the Globe and Mail broke news that TransCanada Corp. was nearly chafing at the bit to execute its Energy East strategy sooner, not later.
“(The company) says it has garnered significant support for its quest to ship Western crude to refineries in the East, as premiers seek consensus on a politically charged cross-country pipeline,” the newspaper reported on Thursday. “The Calgary-based company (said) it has received major backing from producers who want to ship crude on its Energy East pipeline, and will make an announcement in the coming weeks. ‘We are very optimistic about the project,’ Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s president for energy pipelines, said in an interview.”
For New Brunswick and the rest of Canada, this is one trial balloon that may be getting ready to come down to earth.