Albertans don't play the victim card lightly

"We’re at a defining moment for our energy — the energy economy, and our energy as a people,” says Donna Kennedy-Glans.

We're trying to figure out our place in Canada again

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks before a meeting on Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion with B.C. Premier John Horgan, left, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, on April 15. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

It's as if we're between stories.

These days, Alberta feels like a different place. People are different. Here in Calgary — that difference is plain as day.

If you told me twenty-five years ago that the confidence, the let's get 'er done attitude that attracted no end of talent to Calgary, would cool in less than a generation, well … it's like I said — we're between stories.

We're trying to figure out our place in Canada again. And we need to figure out what concessions can be given, and where we must stand firm.

Alberta bound

In 1982, I was literally a farmer's daughter in southern Ontario. I married a Calgarian. As Gordon Lightfoot assured me and thousands of others moving West, it felt good to be "Alberta bound." 

The province was coming to terms with Trudeau the Elder's National Energy Program (NEP). Canadians were told the country was in danger.

Then Finance Minister Allan MacEachen said Canada was "increasingly dependent on insecure foreign supplies and, therefore, unnecessarily subject to the vagaries of the world oil market."

Something had to be done, and Canada decided that something was the NEP. The program was sold as a way to shelter Canadians from rising oil and gas prices. But for Alberta, it was the fed's way of putting the province in its place.

The repatriation of Canada's Constitution and the National Energy Program in the early 1980s created a perfect opening for Alberta's premier, Peter Lougheed. He went toe to toe with the feds, even threatening to stop the flow of oil and gas out of the province. But damage was done. The imposition of the NEP suffocated investment for a time. But it did come back — like the cycles of boom and bust, and boom again.

Peter Lougheed was premier of Alberta in the early 1980s. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

For the next 35 years, Alberta's prosperity was tied to energy. We rode the world oil markets like a bronc rider. We innovated, added value to natural gas, partially upgraded oil and figured out how to develop the oilsands.

Life was good, our place in the country as a confident "have" province felt secure. But right now, it feels like Alberta is coming unbound.

Alberta unbound

The structure that has held us together is in Canada coming apart. We're at a defining moment for our energy — the energy economy, and our energy as a people.

The pipelines we need to get oil and liquefied natural gas to tide water have been cancelled and postponed. Rule of law has been subsumed by social licence.

Blatant self-interest trumps national or public interest.

Even worse, civil disobedience is becoming the new normal. And, squabbles between provinces have escalated into trade wars. For the first time since the days of the National Energy Program, Alberta is threatening to turn off the oil and gas taps to other Canadians.

Indigenous leaders and environmentalists beat drums and sing as they protest Kinder Morgan's $7.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline in southern B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Debates about the existing order can be had. It is legitimate to question the energy industry. It is well and good, necessary to debate the environment and to work to attain a Canada where renewable energy could, eventually, replace oil and gas. We must create innovation hubs and allow new ideas to flourish.

Every generation dreams of wiping the slate clean — of wholesale re-forming their identity story. Yet who we are — our identity — is shaped by events in our shared history. It's not a simple matter of wiping the slate clean.

Right now, today, here in Canada. There is no easy way out for any of us.

Alberta is one place, one society, one economy.

We are also part of Confederation.

The consequences of our impasse

Within the last year, three energy export projects have been cancelled or halted in Canada: Petronas's $36-billion Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas plant; TransCanada's Energy East pipeline and the Eastern Mainline project; and now on hold, Kinder Morgan Canada's expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

On the latter, questions remain about the willingness of governments to intervene to subdue civil disobedience by project opponents.

Pundits frame the pipeline wars as a constitutional impasse between provinces and the federal government. In a way, that's true. But not in the way one would normally expect. It's not a jurisdictional dispute between the feds and resource-owning provinces. Those lines are clear.

The constitutional impasse is our inability to use Confederation effectively, in the way it was intended. When one province has the ability to block the economic prosperity of another province, and the federal government isn't certain about its role, we have a deadlock.

Albertans, thankfully, don't play the victim card lightly.

Rebinding Alberta in Confederation

We're all waiting to see what Prime Minister Trudeau will do. In the meantime, it's worthwhile to think about how we can rise above the polarity.

Configuring this current pipeline stalemate as "independent voices vs. the Canadian national interest" risks leaving us stuck. We're back to tit-for-tat: Project blockades, unending litigation, and economic retaliation. Yet, we are all dependent on one another.

Our reconciliation is to be found in our interdependence. Our relations. This is the very essence of Confederation. Is this even possible, given the state of acrimony, especially between Alberta and B.C.?

I think so. As a farmer's daughter, I'm a pragmatist by nature. So where to from here?

We have to give British Columbia something. And so, while we should let the private sector pay for the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, we could use public dollars to build a refinery in B.C. In doing this, we can mitigate some of the environmental concerns, because the oil will be processed before it hits tidewater — making it safer, and B.C. will get a jobs boost.

At the same time, we should resurrect the Energy East pipeline discussions. Determine if the project is in the national interest and whether it makes economic sense. Delivering feedstock from Alberta to refineries in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and displacing oil imported from countries where environmental and human rights don't measure up seems like a very Canadian idea.

Pro- and anti-pipeline protesters clash outside the downtown office of local MP Kent Hehr in Calgary. (CBC)

Pipe dreams? Perhaps, to cynics and the weary.

But perhaps not if Albertans, and Canadians, could hear the voices of the past. If we could move forward with that knowledge of Confederation and how it was meant to work.

In 1982, Peter Lougheed acted with pragmatism. We can do the same, now. Pragmatic compromise. We must dispel our worn-out cynicism and temper sunny-ways idealism.

We must do that most Canadian of things, find a compromise for the sake of our Confederation.

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Donna Kennedy-Glans is a former Progressive Conservative MLA. She spent 28 years in the energy sector, and currently writes the blog Beyond Polarity.