British Columbia·Analysis

B.C.'s labelling of Alberta trade war as 'distraction' is more strategy than reality

B.C. Premier John Horgan, in his first news conference since Alberta announced it would ban wine imports from his province, described the kerfuffle over the possible effects of a $7.4 billion energy project as a distraction. Which might indicate it's more than that.

With no more tenable cards to play, Horgan seeks to lower temperature

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and B.C. Premier John Horgan continue to be locked in a dispute over the B.C. government's decision to explore a temporary cap on increased bitumen exports. (Left: Richard Marion/CBC Radio-Canada, Right: The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Is labelling something a "distraction" ever a good thing?

Maybe in specific situations — something fun to take your mind off stress at work, for example. 

But for the most part, it's not a word that carries a positive connotation.

And yet, there was B.C. Premier John Horgan, in his first news conference since Alberta announced it would ban wine imports from his province, saying this whole kerfuffle over the possible effects of a $7.4 billion energy project was just that. 

Six times in 15 minutes, to be exact. Which might indicate it's a little bit more than a distraction.

"The premier of Alberta has taken a course, but I'm not going to be distracted by that, I'm going to focus on things that matter to British Columbians," he said.

"This is a distraction that I think most British Columbians would prefer we put to one side and focus on the issues that matter to them," the premier repeated, four minutes later. 

"I want to resolve this, but I'm not going to be distracted or deterred in my resolution to make sure this government focuses on things that matter to British Columbians," he concluded, just in case it wasn't clear.

But if he thought this week's developments were a good thing, Horgan likely would call it something other than a "distraction."

Notley slams B.C. proposal as unconstitutional

4 years ago
Duration 8:15
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says the B.C. NDP can represent their folks by objecting to the Trans Mountain pipeline project within the rule of law - not by "flagrantly thumbing" its nose at it.

No benefit in escalation

Of course, an escalating trade war, and constitutional debate over jurisdiction of transnational energy projects, is a little bit more than a distraction. 

But Kathryn Harrison, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, who specializes in federalism and environmental policy, says it's smart of Horgan to try and lower tensions — including his comments that he wouldn't retaliate with a boycott of any Alberta goods.

"I think it's a good way to go. Escalating further isn't going to win over Rachel Notley and her government ... and only undermines British Columbian's impression of their own government," she said. 

Harrison said that Horgan has played his most effective card already as an opening salvo, raising the spectre of regulations that would temporarily ban increased bitumen exports — and further actions would overplay what leverage he has. 

"It's not up to Rachel Notley, John Horgan or even Justin Trudeau to determine what's constitutional and what's not. It's up to the courts as an independent referee. I think the trade war is a side scuffle. It's a political issue, and it's not one that B.C. can win by escalating," she said.

Attention turns to Trudeau

But the Alberta government knows that an extended court battle would be a major impediment to Kinder Morgan going ahead with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which is why focus is turning east to Ottawa. 

Wednesday, a senior federal Liberal told CBC News "ultimately the federal government will not allow any province to impinge on its jurisdiction over the national interest. Full stop."

It's a message Notley wants the prime minister to expand upon with concrete details. 

"That's encouraging, but what we need them to do is say that publicly and more definitively, to speak directly to B.C.'s suggestion that they have the ability to pass laws that would limit what goes into a pipeline approved by the federal government," Notley said.

Back in B.C., next week brings a speech from the throne and the beginning of a legislative session full of new bills from the government.

This week's announcements of ICBC reform and an Airbnb tax were overshadowed by the Kinder Morgan dispute — and the premier hopes it doesn't happen again. 

"I appreciate this is of public interest, media interest, national interest, but we have whole bunch of other issues here in B.C.," said Horgan, once again downplaying the "distraction." 


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.


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