An unlikely alliance between between the premiers of Quebec and Alberta to start talks on moving oil east is prompting discussion about whether it will lay the groundwork for a national energy strategy between provinces.
Meeting for the first time this week in Halifax at the premiers' summit, Pauline Marois and Alison Redford agreed to form a joint working group to explore the idea of moving Alberta's oil east to Quebec.
Although, Ms. Marois made it clear this was strictly a deal between her province and Alberta, other premiers, like Manitoba's Greg Selinger, are viewing it differently.
"It's part of a national strategy," Mr. Selinger told The Globe and Mail as the meeting wrapped up Friday. "I think we have greater energy security in Canada by having a pipeline in Canada that goes to the east coast."
New Brunswick's David Alward has been meeting for several months with Ms. Redford about the idea of bringing Alberta's heavy oil to the Irving refinery in Saint John. He told reporters he spoke to Ms. Marois "about the importance we believe this resource could bring to all of Canada."
Ms. Redford noted that her discussions with Ms. Marois were not "exclusive."
"The opportunity to work with any province ... is something that we welcome," she said. "I see this as another component in the development of a longer-term plan that very easily involves everyone."
Everyone but British Columbia, perhaps. Relegated to the sidelines at this meeting was B.C. Premier Christy Clark. She had refused to join the other premiers when they decided at their last Council of Federation meeting, held in Halifax in July, to start working on a national energy strategy.
At that meeting she was the star of the show, attracting headlines with her threats to block the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would take Alberta oil through her province if B.C. did not get an unspecified "fair share" of the profits.
Her controversial position has not changed. "British Columbia is not part of the national energy strategy," she said Friday. "So if Quebec wants to have a discussion with Alberta that's a decision for them to make. But British Columbia isn't part of it."
Ms. Clark said she doesn't see how this is a national strategy when the "west coast of the country is not part of it."
Ms. Redford has been looking to expand into other markets. The agreement with Ms. Marois right now is to share information in the areas of environmental sustainability, economic development and technical energy development. No time frame was given, however. Ms. Marois is expected to visit Alberta "soon."
Her Parti Québécois government has raised concerns about the environmental risks of heavy Alberta oil flowing through the province to refineries in Montreal.
In addition to the discussion around a west-to-east pipeline, premiers adopted a different, more co-operative tone toward the Harper government.
"One of the things that is transparently obvious, I think, is that we wanted to get out of that old model where the Prime Minister was always under siege," said Nova Scotia's Darrell Dexter, the conference chair.
Premiers issued a document setting out a framework of issues they can work on together with the federal government, including immigration, skills training and work force development, trade and infrastructure.
"The point here was to say, 'How do we go about making these things worthwhile for us and also for the federal government?'" Mr. Dexter said.
Mr. Harper had attracted criticism from the premiers for refusing to attend this summit on the economy. He has not called a first ministers meeting since 2009.
This was the first time in nine years, meanwhile, that a premier from the separatist PQ was around the premiers' table. Ms. Marois said she made it clear from the outset that she was "first and foremost at the head of a sovereigntist party."
But she has said she will work with the other premiers and continue to attend the conferences. Manitoba Premier Selinger said she focused "on practical things" and there was no tension in the room.
Outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty later joked that he and his colleagues are "plotting over time to turn Ms. Marois into a strong federalist."