The Sunday Magazine

Why PM Justin Trudeau is feeling the wrath of Alberta, just as his father did

It used to be called “Western alienation.” Now a stalled pipeline, low oil prices, and an economy that's bleeding jobs are contributing once again to a cauldron of fury that's bubbling over in Alberta. There’s even a new groundswell of talk about separation from Canada. Michael’s Alberta guests are: Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University, pollster Janet Brown & Calgary Herald columnist Catherine Ford.
Wednesday marked the first time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley met since a ruling halted work on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion last week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley meet following a ruling that halted work on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

 History is repeating itself in Alberta. 

Anger washed over the province in the 1980s over the National Energy Program, when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. And it has welled up again now, in opposition to his son Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — this time over the stonewalled construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

It has happened despite efforts by the federal Liberals to keep the pipeline project alive. When the Federal Court of Appeal quashed approval of Trans Mountain in August, the government paid $4.5 billion to shareholders of Kinder Morgan and bought the pipeline system.

Pierre Trudeau and Peter Lougheed clink champagne glasses at the conclusion of a federal-provincial energy deal in 1981. Lougheed would later say that toasting Ottawa like this was the worst political mistake he had ever made. (Bob Cooper/Canadian Press)

"But still, that doesn't mollify any Albertan and it certainly has no effect on anyone sitting in the head offices in Calgary," Calgary Herald columnist Catherine Ford told Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition. "We have to get our oil to market and it doesn't matter if it's in the next 10 years or the next 20 years. It has to get there or we're going to die."

Duane Bratt teaches political science at Mount Royal University. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

Duane Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, agrees.

"I have no doubt that after this is built — and I think it will get built, whether it's today or 2020 or 2021 — that the government will be able to sell it, quite possibly back to Kinder Morgan," he said, "but it's going to take a Crown corporation with the weight of the federal government to get this thing built."

A woman with blonde hair and glasses is smiling in front of a TV set, which shows a map of Calgary.
Janet Brown is a pollster based in Calgary. (CBC)

While the government's purchase kept the Trans Mountain project alive, some Albertans object to what happened.

"Albertans would have preferred that the pipeline stay within private hands because Albertans are really afraid about the future prospects of getting other major infrastructure built through private means," said pollster Janet Brown.

Much of that fear centres on Bill C-69, federal legislation that will overhaul the environmental assessment process for future resource projects. Players in the oil and gas industry believe it will devastate their industry. 

"Bill C-69 is a real concern for Albertans," said Brown. "The UCP [United Conservative Party] likes to call it the 'no new pipeline bill.'"

Catherine Ford is a Calgary Herald columnist. (CBC)

There are also objections to what is seen as the hypocrisy that oil can be shipped by tankers through the St. Lawrence River or off the East coast — but tankers are banned on the West coast.

All three political observers believe the level of anger in Alberta today is as high as it was during the days of the NEP.

"The Trudeau name continues to resonate here, which is unfortunate for Justin Trudeau because he worked so hard to win some seats in Calgary. He came to Calgary many times. He was usually given a good reception. He is fully cognizant of the history with his father," said Bratt, "but he wasn't going to overrule the courts."

During the prime minister's town hall meeting in Calgary in November, thousands of protesters shut down the downtown core and the temperature inside the meeting hall was just as cool.

"Initially it was pro-pipelines," said Bratt, "and it quickly became anti-Trudeau, anti-immigration, anti-UN, anti-carbon tax. If you had a beef you showed up, preferably in a pickup truck."

Brown says some of the mistrust is also directed at the provincial NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley, which has been trying to reassure Albertans with positive numbers about the economy.

"They don't seem to grasp how painful this has been for Albertans," Brown said, "and every time the NDP messages that things aren't really that bad, voters say, 'I'm sorry, you don't get it. And until I hear the NDP talking with the same urgency that I feel, I don't trust that they're taking this downturn seriously enough.'"

Quebec Premier François Legault raised the ire of many Albertans when he took aim at what he called the province's "dirty oil." (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier François Legault stoked the fires of fury in Alberta recently when he talked about Alberta's "dirty oil." Some Albertans found this particularly galling because Quebec also received an increase in equalization payments, money they viewed as moving from Alberta's coffers to Quebec's.

"Equalization is a very complex formula and I would argue that there's probably only maybe a dozen people in Canada that truly understand it," said Bratt. "There are groups within Alberta who know better, who are making it sound like the Alberta government sits there and writes a cheque to the province of Quebec every year, and that's completely false. And it is also a problem for [UCP leader] Jason Kenney because … the formula was changed under Stephen Harper when Jason Kenney was at the cabinet table, and he kind of downplays his role in that."

Despite its economic slump, Alberta has no provincial sales tax. Changing this is seen as a political non-starter because Albertans view it as part of their identity.

"In polls and in focus groups, Albertans will tell me that they believe yes, we have both a revenue and spending problem in this province, and what's holding us back from maybe fixing the revenue side of the equation is a couple of things. One is that [former premier] Ralph Klein used to talk to us about the Alberta Advantage, and one of the big contributors to the Alberta Advantage was that we had the lowest taxes in Canada," said Brown. "That's what was going to attract business here and what's going to make the economy grow."

Her polling also shows that Albertans want to see the NDP government cut spending before considering an increase in revenues through taxation.

If you think there's anger now, wait for the Kenney government.- Duane Bratt

While there is no independence party in Alberta, there is a public conversation about separating from Canada, much of it flourishing on social media. Two of the prominent provincial voices on the topic are economist Jack Mintz and businessman Brett Wilson.

"Social media is like a firestorm," said Ford. "That's what Brett Wilson has tapped into and, of course, it's tweeted and retweeted and retweeted, and all of a sudden everybody is angry. I'm at a loss for words to explain how stupid the notion of separating from the rest of Canada is."

Some Albertans are countering the separatist fever by writing about how happy they are in the province, using the hashtag #notangryAB.

However, Bratt is concerned that Jason Kenney's strategy of stoking Albertans' anger is working.

"Jason Kenney, as I suspect, is about to become the next premier, and he has promised confrontation with the federal government," said Bratt. "If you think there's anger now, wait for the Kenney government."

Click "listen" above to listen to the panel. 

Editor's note: This article initially stated that Alberta has the lowest provincial income tax in Canada. The tax rate depends on a person's income level. The average tax rate is lower in some other provinces, but those in a higher tax bracket pay less in Alberta. Overall, Albertans have the lowest tax burden in the country.