Ottawa's plan to buy Trans Mountain project raises concern in Quebec over provincial rights

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says the debate over the contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project belongs in Western Canada. Quebec opposition parties have blasted the federal government for its plans to buy the project, however.

Philippe Couillard says debate belongs in Western Canada, while opposition parties blast 'attack' on provinces

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said Tuesday 'there should be room for the expression of provincial jurisdictions,' even if the federal government holds the final say on a project. (CBC)

At least Quebec isn't at the centre of the storm this time.

That's how Premier Philippe Couillard responded to the federal government's announcement Tuesday that it would buy the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and related infrastructure for $4.5 billion.

Ongoing discussions over the future of the contentious oil pipeline project — which would twin an existing, 1,150-kilometre pipeline from Alberta to the coast of B.C. — should be handled in Western Canada, Couillard said.

"We've had our share of discussions in Quebec over many years. This time it's out west," he told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Ottawa must intervene in 'strategic' interests, Couillard says

In addition to a igniting a debate over Canada's energy future and its respect of Indigenous rights and the environment, the Trans Mountain project has triggered questions over provincial and federal jurisdiction.

The federal and Alberta governments support the Trans Mountain project, while the B.C. government and environmental and Indigenous groups across Canada have expressed strong opposition.

Ottawa says the project is in Canada's national interest and that despite opposition at the provincial level in B.C., it has the final say over its future.

In April, Couillard cautioned Justin Trudeau that overriding concerns in B.C. over the project's environmental impact was "not a good sign for federalism."

Earlier today, the premier said the pipeline debate shows that "even in projects that are federally regulated in terms of final authorization, there should be room for the expression of provincial jurisdictions."

The federal government's equalization payments to the provinces, which often lead to resentment and anti-Quebec sentiment in the rest of Canada, are a two-way street, he said.

"There [are] a lot of Quebec tax dollars in equalization. There [are] Quebec tax dollars in the recent decision of the federal government" on Trans Mountain, Couillard said.

He also said he hoped the pipeline would show Canadians that Ottawa "must intervene to support strategic parts of our economy, like they did for aerospace in Quebec."

That's a nod to a large federal loan that was offered to Quebec aerospace company Bombardier last year.

The $372.5-million investment was panned in much of Canada as a disappointment, with critics saying Ottawa should not bail out private companies.​

Opposition blasts 'attack' on provincial autonomy

The leader of Parti Québécois, Jean-François Lisée, said the federal government showed it's "in the pipeline business" by deciding to buy the Trans Mountain project.

He said he expected more than $1 billion of Quebec taxpayer dollars to go into Ottawa's $4.5-billion investment.

The leader of the Parti Québécois, Jean-François Lisée, said the federal government's decision goes against what Quebecers want. (CBC)

"That's going to come from the pockets of Quebecers to do exactly the contrary of what Quebecers want — a cleaner planet," Lisée told reporters Tuesday. 

"And so this goes against everything we hold dear on the environment front and on the rights of the provinces."

Simon Jolin-Barrette, spokesperson for Coalition Avenir Québec, which has been leading in recent opinion polls ahead of October elections, said the decision constitutes "an attack on the autonomy of the provinces."

He called on Couillard's Liberal government to put pressure on Ottawa to ensure provincial autonomy is respected.

For his part, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for Québec Solidaire, called the decision "catastrophic" and "unacceptable."

"It's a betrayal of my generation, of young people," he told reporters.

He criticized Justin Trudeau for investing public money into a project that would expand the Alberta tar sands, when Canada should instead be moving away from fossil fuel energy sources that harm the environment.

The move "puts the future of Quebec [and] the future of Canada in peril," Nadeau-Dubois said.