Weaponizing wine: Notley's engineering a federal crisis in her battle with B.C.

The wine embargo is a precedent that can't be allowed to stand, any more than B.C. should be able to end Trans Mountain. Jen Gerson on what Prime Minister Trudeau needs to do to end the interprovincial dispute.

The phrase 'dancing on the edge of the volcano' comes to mind

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced Tuesday her government would place an immediate boycott on B.C. wines. The move was in reaction to B.C. Premier John Horgan's call last week for further review of the oil-spill risk from the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Left: Richard Marion/CBC Radio-Canada, Right: The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

You have one big job, federal government. One.

It's not to make Canada shiny in the eyes of foreign press. It's not to put a bumper sticker on the side reading "Canada is Back," whatever that means. It's not to push progressive bromides into international trade agreements. It's not even to legalize pot (although that is great, thanks.)

The one big job of the federal government is to prevent our federation into devolving into regional, pissy sub-national tribal states that are constantly at each others' throats for some economic scrap.

In other words, it's to prevent what happened in Alberta on Tuesday when Premier Rachel Notley announced the province would no longer allow the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission to purchase B.C. wine.

Pointless grandstanding

On its surface, this is an utterly absurd move. An act of pointless grandstanding that contravenes the ethos of free trade that is supposed to pin this country together. But then so was B.C.'s announcement last week that it would bar additional shipments of diluted bitumen in its waterways until it could study the effect of Alberta's chief export in water. B.C.'s announcement, which was only a proposal — all the better to avoid an actual court challenge — was patently unconstitutional to boot.

So here we are; two provinces taking potshots, risking an all-out trade war. The phrase "dancing on the edge of the volcano" comes to mind.

Both Notley and B.C. Premier John Horgan are operating in their respective self interest.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notely isn't trying to hurt B.C. with her provincial wine boycott, but is trying to pressure Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to act, argues Jen Gerson. (Bottom left: CBC/All others: The Canadian Press)

Opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline is fierce in B.C., particularly among the left, and with the Green Party MLAs that Premier Horgan needs to maintain power in the Victoria legislature.

Meanwhile, thanks to pipeline constraints, the delay in the Trans Mountain project is costing the Alberta treasury $1.5 billion per year, Notley said on Tuesday.

No province can afford to tolerate that kind of a markdown.

But Notley also needs to shore up her right flank. She needs to out-Kenney United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney who loves to whip up Alberta audiences with strong talk of anti-B.C. retaliatory measures.

And this is why, ladies and gentlemen, we are supposed to have a federal government that makes decisions on infrastructure projects that cross provincial boundaries, including pipelines, railways, roads and canals.

Because every piece of infrastructure will benefit one province to the exclusion of another.

Making sacrifices

There are clear parallels here to the construction of the railway; a nation-building exercise intended to unite disparate provinces across a vast expanse. That project too was fraught with scandal, fraud, bribery and worse. In the end, it got built, bringing the west into Canada at the extraordinary expense of the east.

Trans Mountain is nothing so monumental, but the example is instructive.

A federation requires each province to make some sacrifice of its own narrow interest for the wealth of the country as a whole.

Alberta doesn't get anything out of hosting the highways and railways by which B.C. ships its products eastward. Should that change?

Nobody in Alberta would claim that diluted bitumen is mother's milk. It's oil.

And how does the rest of the country imagine the oil that heats their homes and fuels their cars arrives at their local gas station? This stuff doesn't arrive on the back of angel wings. It travels by barge and pipeline and rail — all managed by federal regulation and oversight.

If B.C. finagles the functional ability to veto Trans Mountain — even if it does so simply by introducing proposals and obfuscations in a bid to run out the clock — then the covenant that binds the national project is under threat.

Engineer a crisis

This wine embargo has generated some very cute names (War of the Rosés is my favourite) but the purpose is very clear, and very serious.

Notley isn't trying to hurt B.C. She's trying to pressure Trudeau.

She is engineering a crisis that only the federal government can fix. The wine embargo is a precedent that can't be allowed to stand, any more than B.C. should be able to end Trans Mountain. Because cooler heads won't prevail. Weaponizing beer comes next. And then what?

Trudeau needs to stand up not just for this pipeline, but for the authority of his own order of government, or there is no federation. We work together, or we don't work. His title will become as empty as his promises.

The Canadian Prime Minister;  a nice guy with a good sock collection.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Jen Gerson is a journalist, political commentator, and co-founder of the online newsletter The Line.