'It could get ugly' if Alberta premier ups ante in trade spat, B.C. pundit says

The growing tensions between B.C. and Alberta over potential restrictions on bitumen shipments to the coast could escalate into another B.C. 'war in the woods' type of conflict, two former government chiefs of staff say.

Massive civil disobedience, arrests possible if prime minister 'brings down the legislative hammer' on B.C.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley​ and B.C. Premier John Horgan have been engaged in a trade dispute that centres around the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project. (Left: Richard Marion/CBC Radio-Canada, Right: The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

While the Alberta premier's wine-ban retaliation for B.C.'s potential pipeline delay has been punningly dubbed the War of the Rosés, or a Pinot Grudgeo match, several B.C. political commentators say it's no joking matter.

An escalation in tensions between B.C. and Alberta over a new bitumen pipeline to the coast could lead to another "war in the woods," or worse, political commentator Norman Spector says.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced a ban on B.C. wine imports to Alberta this week to "send a clear message" to the province's western neighbour and to the federal government about the need for certainty on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

"It could get ugly if Rachel Notley increases the pressure," Spector, who is a member of the On the Island political panel, told host Gregor Craigie.

Spector, who was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and deputy minister to former B.C. Premier Bill Bennett, said Notley herself is under heavy pressure because of delays that could ultimately kill the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project. 

"She cannot afford this standoff," Spector said.

Another Oka crisis possible

"It could also get ugly if [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau takes the bait and decides that he has to commit that he will bring down the legislative hammer, he will bring down constitutional hammers on British Columbia," he said.

"I say this more in sadness and regret, but if he does that, I think that will not just lead to another 'war of the woods', but it will lead to another Oka crisis, in British Columbia," Spector said.

The "war in the woods" refers to the massive demonstrations that took place in 1993 when environmentalists — angry with both logging companies and the provincial government — attempted to block roads in an effort to keep loggers away. More than 800 people were arrested and thousands came from around the world to take part in the demonstration. 

The Oka Crisis refers to a 1990 standoff between Mohawks, provincial police and eventually the Canadian army that was sparked by a golf course development on disputed land.

"The big difference being that at Oka it was the provincial government that called in the army. That would not be the case here," Spector said. 

Two people were arrested Thursday following a protest against the Trans Mountain pipeline in Coquitlam, B.C. (Shane MacKichan)

"If it happens here, it will be up to Trudeau to call in the army and things could get very, very ugly in British Columbia."

There is clear precedent for threats to Alberta's energy-based economy, Spector said. "Peter Lougheed [a former Alberta premier] actually turned off the taps at the beginning of the 1980s."

Concern for Confederation 

Political panellist Martyn Brown, who was chief of staff to former B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, said it's important to consider the influence of "big oil" and the impact on Canadian Confederation if the federal government forces the pipeline to proceed against the wishes of a provincial government.

"Ottawa would never, ever, ever contemplate forcing a project like this on Quebec or Ontario," Brown said. "Nor should it."

Elizabeth Cull, a former B.C. NDP finance minister and On the Island political panellist, urged calm discussion to avoid an imposed decision from the federal government.

"Otherwise...the strongest person's going to win on this one and I don't think that's good for us," she said.


With files from CBC Radio One's On the Island with Gregor Craigie.