Justin Trudeau travelled to a province in distress to tell Albertans that Ottawa is prepared to ante up nearly $1-billion to help – a $250-million fiscal lifeline and the promise to fast-track up to $700-million in infrastructure funding.
A meeting in the provincial capital on Wednesday between the Prime Minister and the Premier was a test for both leaders as Alberta, the long-time spark in Canada's economic engine, shows few signs it will recover in 2016.
While Mr. Trudeau's party made inroads in Alberta during last fall's election, tension remains as Albertans wait to see whether he is serious about building a relationship and expending political capital to help the province that is traditionally most suspicious of Liberal power in Ottawa.
One possible landmine for Mr. Trudeau is how much enthusiasm he shows for the Energy East pipeline plan, which raised protests in Quebec in recent weeks. A proposal to expand an existing pipeline to the Vancouver area has met similar objections in British Columbia.
While Mr. Trudeau did not make any promises on either pipeline on Wednesday, he said after an hour-long sit-down with Rachel Notley that he came with the intent of listening to her priorities for a federal infrastructure plan, reforms to employment insurance, and the province's commitment to tackling climate change.
Mr. Trudeau said he is committed to rapid changes to EI that would benefit Albertans.
"We campaigned on the need to improve EI so that families facing challenges, people getting laid off right across the country, get better access to more help in a more timely fashion," he said on Wednesday. "Nowhere is that clearer that there is a need for than right now and right here in Alberta."
In a statement released by both leaders, the Prime Minister committed the federal government to providing $250-million to the province from a seldom-used fiscal stabilization program.
"Quite frankly, Canadians help other Canadians when they are facing tough times. That's just how Canada works and that's what we're going to do," Mr. Trudeau said. Alberta's Finance Minister announced plans in recent weeks to apply for the funds, available to help provinces struck by big year-to-year declines in revenues.
Ms. Notley's plan for Wednesday was to promote the efficacy of government's climate change plan, highlight efforts to diversify the economy and drive home Alberta's dire fiscal condition and need for a pipeline to access global oil markets.
"We are facing some very serious challenges, we need a federal partner who understands these challenges, especially the economic and jobs situation in this province, and is prepared," Ms. Notley said. "It is clear that we have such a partner in Canada's national government."
While Alberta plans to spend $34-billion on infrastructure projects over the next five years to help rebuild overtaxed schools and hospitals, Mr. Trudeau said that the $700-million in previously committed federal funding would be fast-tracked.
According to Ms. Notley, the extra federal funding will help out-of-work Albertans and should begin to flow in "weeks to months."
Earlier in the day, Conservative Interim Leader Rona Ambrose had suggested that the Liberal government consider temporary changes to Employment Insurance in response to the job losses in Canada's energy sector.
"EI is much more restricted in Alberta than it is in other parts of the country because we've always had such low unemployment. So there may be an opportunity to help there," she told reporters on Parliament Hill.
Workers in Calgary and Edmonton must now have more than 600 hours to qualify for EI and receive up to 38 weeks of benefits. A worker in Atlantic Canada needs only 420 hours and qualifies for 45 weeks of benefits.
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau will move on to Calgary and take part in a roundtable with oil and gas producers, Ms. Notley and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr. Executives from the country's largest oil sands producers, including Cenovus Energy Inc. and Royal Dutch Shell, will be present. He will also meet with oilfield service companies and associations, and visit a YWCA – now busier due to increasing unemployment.
The meeting between Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Notley came just as oil sands giant Suncor Energy Inc. reported fourth quarter results that highlighted the industry crunch. In the last three months of 2015, Suncor posted a net loss of more than $2-billion due to asset writedowns – a result of the depressed crude prices – and a foreign exchange loss on U.S. dollar-denominated debt.
With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa