Jason Kenney says he’s hearing the right things from Ottawa, but the true test will be if the federal government can put its money where its mouth is on key decisions affecting Alberta in the next few months.
The Alberta Premier’s two-day trip to Ottawa culminated on Tuesday in a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Alienation in Alberta and Saskatchewan has been at the centre of the conversation on Parliament Hill since the October federal election. The governing Liberals were shut out of the two provinces, whose governments have argued they are being unfairly targeted by policies they say are hurting their oil and gas sectors.
Alberta has struggled to fight its way out of the 2015 recession and faces a stagnating economy, higher than average unemployment and the exit of high-profile companies such as Encana. Mr. Kenney also tabled a budget that slashes spending and cuts the civil service as he tries to balance the province’s books.
The Premier arrived in Ottawa asking for help, listing five key items, chief among them more federal cash.
Mr. Kenney called the nearly hour-long meeting “frank” and said the Prime Minister “seemed responsive," but that the true test of Ottawa’s sincerity will be revealed in what it does.
“The next few weeks will be critical in determining the seriousness of this federal government to respond to the deep and legitimate concerns in Western Canada," Mr. Kenney said.
Next week, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau will meet with his provincial counterparts, and Alberta’s request for the government to expand a federal program that boosts transfers to provinces facing hard times will be on the agenda. It has received unanimous support from the other provinces and territories.
Mr. Kenney sees the potential reforms to the Fiscal Stabilization program as one of the key measures of Ottawa’s commitment to Alberta. The program is meant to be an emergency fund for provinces that experience a sudden and sharp drop in revenue because of economic pressures. However, provinces can only receive a maximum of $60 per capita, a limit that has not kept up with inflation.
Mr. Kenney wants that changed, and for Alberta to be paid the difference retroactive to 2014.
Another major test will come when Ottawa delivers its decision on Teck Resources Ltd.'s proposed Frontier oil-sands mine. The Premier said the project has gone through eight years of review and has already been approved by Alberta and a federal-provincial joint review panel. Mr. Kenney said the decision should be a “simple federal ratification of those recommendations.”
The mine’s additional emissions would still leave total well below the cap imposed on the Alberta oil sands. However, any new emissions in the oil sands still mean Canada will have to find more reductions elsewhere if it’s to meet its 2030 targets, and the promise to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.
The company’s proposal is for the bitumen mine to operate for 41 years.
Jim Carr, a Winnipeg MP and the Prime Minister’s special representative for the Prairies, told reporters the government is keeping an “open mind” about Mr. Kenney’s requests. But he added that the government is already acting, saying the request for changes to the Fiscal Stabilization program is already on the agenda for the meeting with the Finance Minister next week.
Mr. Carr also tried to play down any differences between the two governments, saying Canada and Alberta have a common goal in the country’s unity and the province’s economic growth.
“There was an awful lot of common ground and alignment,” Mr. Carr said, adding that the meeting was respectful and warm.
On Ottawa’s controversial new environmental assessment law, Mr. Kenney said he prefers it be repealed but barring that he would like to see changes to it including which projects will fall under it. Mr. Carr said the government is open to that and other recommendations for how the law can be improved and implemented.
With reports from Bill Curry