Western alien­ation card

Wrong time, but Brad Wall’s ar­gu­ment hits mark on many points

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Trevor McLeod is the di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for nat­u­ral re­sources pol­icy at the Canada West Foun­da­tion. www.troy­media.com

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall stoked the fires of western alien­ation when he sug­gested last week that equal­iza­tion dol­lars should be sent to On­tario and Que­bec in a pipeline.

Make no mis­take, these com­ments struck a deep chord in the West. Af­ter all, the western Cana­dian iden­tity was forged in the con­cept of western alien­ation - the idea that Canada's four western prov­inces have been ex­cluded from the af­fairs of main­stream Cana­dian pol­i­tics to the ben­e­fit of On­tario and Que­bec.

Wall's ar­gu­ment hits the mark on so many points.

First, he was right to re­mind us that western Cana­dian prov­inces should not rush to take eco­nomic ad­vice from ju­ris­dic­tions like On­tario and Que­bec, which have not found a way them­selves to main­tain global com­pet­i­tive­ness while oc­cu­py­ing the moral high ground. More ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the West's con­tri­bu­tion and less mor­al­iz­ing would be a welcome change.

Sec­ond, On­tario and Que­bec (and, for that mat­ter, Bri­tish Columbia) should not be hi­jack­ing the fed­er­a­tion by plac­ing con­di­tions on the de­vel­op­ment of oil sands and pipe­lines. Nat­u­ral re­sources are squarely within pro­vin­cial ju­ris­dic­tion and the pro­duc­tion and trans­porta­tion of such goods should not be de­railed by those seek­ing eco­nomic con­ces­sions (or more wealth trans­fer). Ac­cept­ing this high­way rob­bery could lit­er­ally de­stroy Canada as a trad­ing na­tion.

Third, prov­inces do not have the con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity to stop pipe­lines. The de­ci­sion is fully within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment's purview. How­ever, as Wall knows, pol­i­tics mat­ter (es­pe­cially with a fed­eral elec­tion ap­proach­ing). It was pol­i­tics that al­lowed Wall to pre­vent the BHP Bil­li­ton takeover of the Potash Cor­po­ra­tion of Saskatchewan in 2010. In fair­ness, Wall ac­knowl­edged that this was a fed­eral de­ci­sion and at no point sug­gested Saskatchewan would not com­ply with the de­ci­sion if it had gone against him.

It is easy for Wall - a true states­man with a deft pop­ulist touch - to stoke the fires of western alien­ation at a time when western Cana­dian eco­nomic in­ter­ests seem to be un­der siege by cen­tral Canada. How­ever, it would be wrong to sug­gest that western Canada's in­ter­ests will not be wellserved by thought­ful ac­tion to ad­dress cli­mate change.

The story is now well un­der­stood. Oil pro­duc­ers in western Canada lack mean­ing­ful ac­cess to global mar­kets. They are forced to sell into the North Amer­i­can mar­ket at a sig­nif­i­cant dis­count to global prices. This re­duces in­vest­ment, roy­al­ties and taxes that would pro­vide public goods, like ed­u­ca­tion and healthcare to all Cana­di­ans.

The de­sire to block ac­cess is mo­ti­vated, in large part, by the belief that Canada has been in­ac­tive on cli­mate change. Yes, Al­berta and Saskatchewan have taken some steps to ad­dress cli­mate change. Yes, they have fo­cused on tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions like car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (which could be used in coun­tries like China and In­dia where the real global emis­sions bat­tle will be waged). But, in a Cana­dian con­text, Al­berta and Saskatchewan ac­count for nearly half of GHG emis­sions - and each province has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to do more.

But, let's not fall into the trap of this be­ing a zero-sum game. Pric­ing car­bon in western Canada does not need to re­sult in a large wealth trans­fer to cen­tral Canada.

This is part of the ben­e­fit of prov­inces de­vel­op­ing their own sys­tems - as op­posed to Ot­tawa im­pos­ing a one-siz­e­fits-all sys­tem. A well-de­signed sys­tem can also pro­tect trade ex­posed in­dus­tries and make sure we are not sim­ply ex­port­ing emis­sions to ju­ris­dic­tions with less strin­gent (or non-ex­is­tent) en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies. And, yes, an agree­ment be­tween prov­inces on cli­mate may clear the po­lit­i­cal bar­ri­ers that are halt­ing pipe­lines.

As our pre­miers seek agree­ment on a path for­ward on energy and the en­vi­ron­ment in St. John's this week, they would do well to re­mem­ber that the in­ter­ests of Cana­di­ans are aligned on this is­sue. There is a time to stoke the fires of western alien­ation. This is not it. Now is the time to demon­strate that prov­inces are ca­pa­ble of work­ing to­gether to ad­vance Cana­dian in­ter­ests. If prov­inces want to lead, they should do so.

AN­DREW VAUGHAN / CP PHOTO

New­found­land and Labrador Premier Paul Davis, left, walks with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall at the sum­mer meet­ing of Canada's pre­miers in St. John’s on Thurs­day.

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