Analysis

Accused of 'swanning' around Davos, Trudeau called to mediate Energy East

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returns from the World Economic Forum in Davos to face the Energy East controversy in the House. Aaron Wherry observes the first question period of the new sitting.

Commons Sketch | Aaron Wherry offers his observations of the first question period of the new sitting

In Question Period, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defends his comments from last weeks speech in Davos, Switzerland. 3:45

With the first question period of 2016, the prime minister stood accused of "swanning," specifically around Switzerland and in the company of actors and billionaires.

"Conservatives," Rona Ambrose noted by way of contrast, "were back at home, listening to business owners and volunteers and regular Canadians."

You will understand that when Stephen Harper — not to mention other of Ambrose's colleagues in what used to be the federal cabinet — went to Davos, he did not swan. Presumably, he trudged. Or shuffled. Maybe sulked. He surely did not gallivant, frolic, saunter or gambol. Not even strolled.

These regular Canadians, Ambrose reported, are of the opinion that the current prime minister is without a plan for the suddenly worrisome economy. But, Justin Trudeau pleaded, while in Davos he had been meeting with the sort of rich people whose companies might invest in Canada. "We are working hard every day to create jobs for Canadians," he declared.

The interim opposition leader was unpersuaded, venturing that Trudeau had not only run off to mingle with the "one per cent," but while there he had been "running down" the hard-working people who toil in this nation's mines and oilfields, presumably a reference to the prime minister's suggestion that Canada should be known more for its "resourcefulness" than for its "resources." Ambrose seemed to deem this an insult, and an indication that the prime minister does not care.

"I find it quite peculiar," Trudeau responded, "that the honourable member doesn't realize that when we talk about the resourcefulness of Canadians, we include the natural resources sector."

The Conservatives laughed mockingly as the prime minister enthused. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes a photo with Rawan Albutairi from Saudi Arabia at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. The Conservative opposition accused Trudeau in question period Monday of being more interested in selfies than the economy. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

But this was all merely populist preamble to what most concerned the Official Opposition this first day of the new sitting: the Energy East pipeline and the loud opposition of Denis Coderre, former Liberal cabinet minister and now mayor of Montreal.

"Mr. Speaker, maybe the prime minister should stop using his cellphone for selfies with Leo DiCaprio and pick it up and call Denis Coderre and fight for natural resources," Ambrose finally stated, wagging her left index finger and then glaring at the prime minister.

The Conservatives leapt up to applaud.

Here was what Ambrose had, hours earlier, likened to both a national unity crisis and the national energy program (the latter a long-festering grievance that originated, coincidentally enough, with the current prime minister's father).

"There are almost 100,000 people out of work in this sector," Ambrose continued when her side had quieted down. "Does the prime minister understand that his lack of leadership on this issue is creating divisions in the country?"

This much could apparently be somehow resolved if the prime minister would just call the mayor of Montreal and straighten him out.

"Will the prime minister pick up the phone, call his friend, the mayor of Montreal and tell him to smarten up and start standing up for Canadians all across Canada?" Conservative critic Candice Bergen latter demanded.

Indeed, perhaps Justin Trudeau could ring Coderre, tell him Energy East is a "no brainer" and insist that the federal government will not take no for an answer. Surely that would be enough to get Energy East built, much like oil is now flowing freely through Keystone XL as a symbol of continental cooperation and harmony.

"It's interesting, Mr. Speaker, that the members opposite are criticizing us for not getting done in 10 weeks what they were unable to do in 10 years," the prime minister shot back.

Pipelines and public confidence

There is some dispute as to how much pipeline was built during the Conservatives' years in power — the Liberals say zero "major" pipelines were built, the Conservatives called out this afternoon that four pipelines were completed — but the most useful number might be 57, as in the percentage of Quebecers who expressed opposition to Energy East in a survey last year. Coderre, and the 81 other mayors who joined him last week in opposing Energy East, are surely not unaware of such opinion.

"Mr. Speaker, Canadians want to find a responsible way to move these resources to international markets," Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr posited at one point. "They want to determine the safest, most economically advantageous and environmentally responsible way of moving them. The only way that these resources will move across the country is if the people of Canada have public confidence in the decisions that put us there. That is our commitment. That is what we intend to do."

Shortly thereafter, the NDP's Peter Julian would be up to lament that the Energy East review was "continuing under the Conservatives' broken rules ... reviews that come from the old discredited government."

That the unity of the country should depend on the construction of a single pipeline might not inspire confidence in the relative health of the union, but Energy East is now indisputably a disagreement between regions, and at a particularly sensitive moment of economic hardship in the West. And so much now depends on whatever new rules the Liberals are willing to impose on Energy East.

Departing the House after question period, Trudeau paused long enough to be asked by reporters if he would call the Montreal mayor.

"I've actually scheduled a meeting with Denis Coderre shortly," he said before heading up the stairs.

So the prime minister will go further than asked and be at Montreal city hall Tuesday morning to meet the mayor. Whatever else he accomplishes while in Montreal, he is advised to avoid doing anything that might look like swanning.

The CBC's Chris Rands asks the Prime Minister if he will meet the Mayor of Montreal to discuss his opposition to the Energy East pipeline project 0:21

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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