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Treat Alberta job losses as national crisis, MPs urge government

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has asked the government to make the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion a priority.

Dean Bennett/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Conservative MPs are pushing the federal government to view Alberta's job market as a national crisis and want Ottawa to come up with a wide-ranging policy response.

Calgary Shepard MP Tom Kmiec tried unsuccessfully this week to trigger an emergency debate in the House of Commons, and his party is now considering other options to raise the issue.

Topping the wish list for Alberta Conservatives is the approval of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which also has the strong support of Alberta's NDP Premier, Rachel Notley.

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Ms. Notley has urged the federal government to make the pipeline approval a priority, even though U.S. president-elect Donald Trump supports the Keystone XL pipeline that would connect Alberta's oil sands to the Gulf Coast in Texas.

The strong political support in Alberta for the Trans Mountain project is in contrast to the increasingly vocal opposition in British Columbia's Lower Mainland. Municipal leaders and even some members of the federal Liberal caucus are opposed to the increased tanker traffic that would come to Burrard Inlet if the project goes ahead.

Pipeline critics such as the Dogwood Initiative have released public opinion polls claiming there is "massive concern" about the pipeline among B.C. voters. The advocacy group warned this week that approving Trans Mountain will hurt federal Liberal support in the province, where the party won 17 seats in 2015.

The Liberals have four MPs from Alberta and one in Saskatchewan, the two provinces where support for pipeline expansion is strongest.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to make a decision soon on Trans Mountain, and recent comments from his government have been interpreted as signals that Ottawa will likely approve the project.

Federal Conservative MPs have formed an "Alberta Jobs Task Force" that is holding community meetings and is working on a report with policy recommendations to be released ahead of the 2017 federal budget.

In an interview, Mr. Kmiec – who proposed the emergency debate on the Alberta economy – said he's been struck by the spike in demand at food banks and the rise of visible homelessness in Calgary. He argued that the most immediate and concrete step the government could take would be to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline to the Pacific coast.

"It is so bad in Alberta," he said. "It's twice as bad – I would make the case – as what happened in 2008-2009 with automotive workers, and there, the [Stephen] Harper government reacted in conjunction with the Ontario government and there was a plan. There is no plan for Alberta. We've just seemingly been left to the wind."

Daniel Lauzon, a spokesman for Finance Minister Bill Morneau, said in a statement that the government understands Albertans have been "amongst the hardest hit" by the declines in commodity prices. He said that's why Ottawa approved targeted measures for Alberta, including a $250-million fiscal stability payment, as well as national measures such as increased infrastructure spending and personal income tax cuts.

The ongoing weakness in the oil and gas sectors, combined with the devastating fires in Fort McMurray this year, has led to a grim job market in Alberta. Employment fell 2.2 per cent between the third quarter of 2015 and the third quarter of 2016, according to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

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Rebuilding efforts in Fort McMurray are expected to give the provincial economy a boost in the latter half of this year.

Conference Board of Canada chief economist Craig Alexander said specific measures for Alberta such as increased job training are warranted but he also noted that there are clear signs the province's economy will improve in 2017. He said the unemployment rate in the province should fall from about 8 per cent in 2016 to 7.7 per cent next year and should keep improving after that.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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