The grievances we feel in Alberta are legitimate, but we need to cool our jets: Jen Gerson

Like Brexit, separation has the appeal of self-determination, and of simply giving a giant middle-finger to Ottawa. This is an emotionally satisfying prospect. But then what?

Better to work within the system than to burn it down

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley met in Edmonton on Sept. 10 to talk about next steps on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Let it be noted for the record: Alberta may be the first province in history to lament the arrival of buckets of money.

Earlier this week, the federal government announced $1.6 billion in commercial support — $1 billion intended to help oil and gas companies diversify their markets and invest in new technology. Another $500 million has been allocated to offer loans to smaller companies.

The response from Alberta? A resounding: "Thanks, but where's our pipeline?"

Protesters gathered outside an event Trudeau attended in Calgary on Nov. 22, 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

"We didn't ask for the opportunity to go further into debt as a means of addressing this problem," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters. "What we asked for was for them to remove the handcuffs."

Alberta is losing tens of millions a day on the oil price differential. Protests are mushrooming across the province. Mainstream pundits are openly musing about separation.

So yes, when it came to the new cash, a lot of Albertans were saying, "thanks, but thanks for nothing." For this we were called, perhaps rightly, ungrateful.

Look. I don't mean to be too snarky about this — some aid is always better than no aid — but nobody in Alberta was asking for money. What the province needs is for the federal government to demonstrate some political will in support of a beleaguered oil and gas sector.

It's not about money. It was never about money. It's about trust.

Misunderstanding Alberta

Albertans are losing trust in the federal government.

Many in the province are rapidly abandoning any hope that the Liberals aren't complicit in a broader environmental plan to strand Alberta's oil and gas assets, thus bringing the once-wealthy province to heel.

It must be said, that thesis, long past proof among many Conservatives, has always had a few glaring holes. Put plainly, it's just wrong, as well as not particularly politically useful. It doesn't align with the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, for example. And the delay on that project was brought about by a Federal Court ruling that Ottawa clearly neither desired nor anticipated.

But the Liberals have not helped themselves in Alberta with Bill C-69 — the new regulatory framework that many fear will effectively shut down pipeline proposals and capital investment.

Conservatives here are further buttressed by Bill C-48 — the tanker ban that forbids Alberta oil from departing from B.C.'s North Coast. (Oil tankers are permitted to wander freely along every other coastline, of course.) As well, the Liberals won't be let off the hook for the now-defunct Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. Then, there's giving B.C. infrastructure capital —  even as that province has engaged in obstructionist court measures against Trans Mountain.

Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi announced $1.6 billion in federal subsidies for Alberta's energy sector on Dec. 18. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

All this contributes to a narrative. One in which a continued Liberal government represents an existential risk for Alberta's most valuable assets and, thus, for Alberta itself. This narrative is dangerous. It contributes to very real anger. It isn't an artefact of Conservative rhetoric. United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney is responding to kitchen table outrage, not creating it.

So, the Liberal government, faced with this deep-seated Alberta anger, acted. It cut a cheque. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it would take to show support for Alberta.

The new loans do nothing — absolutely nothing — to solve the political impasse, or the pipeline capacity problems that have now hit a point of crisis.

The well intentioned (but flawed) action won't restore Albertans' faith in Ottawa, and until that can be done, we are all one more bad court decision, one more failed pipeline, one more embarrassing rhetorical gaffe from a national unity crisis.

In the era of Brexit and Donald Trump, no one should underestimate a volatile and angry electorate. Strange political things occur when regions or groups feel deeply aggrieved.

If the federal government doesn't do something to shore up lost faith and show some serious goodwill, politics are going to get a lot weirder out West.

And on that note.

Misunderstanding Ottawa

Look Alberta, I love you.

The grievances we feel are legitimate and they deserve a fair hearing — but we need to cool our jets. Seeing every act of the feds as maliciously contrived to deliberately harm us risks becoming a pathology.

Could we also please, once and for all, bury this separation talk.

It's a terrible idea. Even if we could muster the majority support, we'd be left with a landlocked nation that would have to negotiate for market access with the vastly more populous and wealthy countries of the U.S. and the rest of Canada. In other words, it would be a lot of political theatre that would lead us right back to square one.

Like Brexit, separation has the appeal of self-determination, and of simply giving a giant middle finger to Ottawa. This is an emotionally satisfying prospect. But then what? Brexit isn't shaping up so well in the U.K., in case you'd missed it. There's a calculated argument for threatening separation in order to gain concessions from the rest of Canada — much as Quebec has traditionally done. But let's not bet the game on a bad hand.

A pumpjack works at a well head on an oil installation near Cremona, Alta., on Oct. 29, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

We need to understand Ottawa better. And our place in national politics.

Alberta's population is only four million out of Canada's 36 million — we have 34 seats in a Parliament of 338. None of those seats are likely to turn red in the coming election. The Liberals must know this, and yet they have still made moves to try to address the pipeline crunch.

To repeat: the Liberals bought a pipeline for $4.5 billion, and offered $1.6 billion in aid despite the fact that there can be no electoral gain for them in this move. Quite the opposite; they stand to lose support on their left flank for every gesture to us.

For this, we should allow for a little charity and goodwill in our own interpretations.

The locus of power and attention is going to rest in Central Canada for the foreseeable future. Any government in Ottawa will struggle to balance competing interests between provinces, First Nations, the environment, the economy, the law, and the national interest.

The Liberals are acting out of straightforward political calculation rather than malice.

And we are better off to work within the system than to burn it down.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


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