Aim at the oil sands, and you hit Quebec -

Aim at the oil sands, and you hit Quebec

One pundit suggests Jim Prentice suffered from ‘Quebecophobia’


Aim at the oil sands, and you hit Quebec

One guess what lesson Pauline Marois drew from Jim Prentice’s recent criticism of Quebec’s environmental policies. Why, yes: it just clinches the case for sovereignty. “Quebec is a leader [on the environment]…and Canada is dragging us down,” the Parti Québécois leader declaimed. “If we were independent tomorrow, we could speak with our own voice…We could have signed the Kyoto agreement ourselves.” Etc., etc. “Federalism does not suit the Quebec reality…The real solution for Quebec is sovereignty…” zzzzzzzzz.

But if Marois’s response was predictable—in a sovereign Quebec, the very air would be purer—so was that of the rest of the province’s political class. In La Presse, Alain Dubuc found it “surreal” that a federal environment minister would “harshly attack” the province for “doing too much” for the environment. My sometime colleague Chantal Hébert agreed in her Toronto Star column that the minister’s “attack” was “unprecedented,” even suggesting on our CBC panel that it verged on “Quebec-bashing.” Le Soleil’s Raymond Giroux diagnosed the minister as suffering from “Quebecophobia.”

All this, over one paragraph in a half-hour speech! Prentice’s harsh and unprecedented attack on Quebec was to suggest it is “folly” for provinces to pursue their own individual strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions rather than the continental approach the feds prefer, citing as an example “the new and unique vehicle regulations in the province of Quebec.” That’s it. That’s the Quebec-bashing that set off this firestorm: a brief critique of a particular policy of the government of Quebec, delivered half a continent away in a speech at the University of Calgary.

A couple of pieces of context. A good fifth of the speech, a dozen paragraphs in all, was devoted to a vague but unmistakable threat aimed at Alberta’s oil industry, specifically over the oil sands. The government of Canada, Prentice said, “will ensure that oil sands development lives up to our stated objective to be a clean energy superpower.” The oil sands had become an international issue. What was at stake was not the interests of a single company, but “our reputation as a country.”

Oh, and in case anyone missed his point: “For those of you who doubt the government of Canada [has] either the willingness or the authority to protect our national interests…think again. We do and we will. And in our efforts we will expect and we will secure the co-operation of all private interests which are developing the oil sands” (emphasis mine).

Now, I have no idea what he meant by this. But whatever it is, it involves a good deal more than some hurt feelings in the Grande Allée. As far as Albertans are concerned, it’s about people’s livelihoods. Optics? Try to imagine a federal environment minister giving a speech in Montreal ordering, say, Hydro-Québec to clean up its act, or else. Go on, try.

Which brings us to the other piece of context. In the weeks before Prentice’s speech, the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, had not hesitated to lob all sorts of incendiary charges at federal environmental policies, even taking his case to the Copenhagen conference to ensure maximum embarrassment. It is apparently fair game for a province to criticize the federal government. But God forbid the feds should ever respond in kind.

What of the substance of the dispute? Is it true, as every member of the Quebec political class seems to believe, that Quebec’s contentious new vehicle emissions standard is no different than California’s—the very standard Ottawa is itself preparing to align with? No, it is not. What is true is that everyone on both sides of the border is preparing to converge on a North American standard—including California, which agreed to fold its existing regulations into a U.S.-wide approach.

But in fact Quebec’s new regulation, unveiled at the end of last year, departs in several ways from that standard. It has a different enforcement mechanism—a tax of up to $5,000 on non-complying vehicles—classifies vehicles in more restrictive ways and gives manufacturers no credit for reducing emissions via advances in air conditioning, or for investing in new technologies.

Quebec’s holier-than-thou attacks on federal emissions standards are all the more insufferable given that the province is failing to live up to its own: Quebec’s greenhouse gas emissions, we now learn, grew nearly four per cent in 2007, leaving them six per cent above 1990 levels, or 12 per cent above the original Kyoto targets it had grandly committed itself to, in pointed contrast with the feds.

And while the premier carried on the war of words last week on an official trip to India, he was reminded that not everyone has as high an opinion of Quebec’s environmental record as the province appears to. A letter signed by more than 100 experts in 28 countries was released calling on Quebec to stop exporting asbestos to developing countries, where it is blamed for the death of thousands of people every year. Which is thousands more than the oil sands have killed.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh on Quebec. After all, Ottawa could step in and ban asbestos exports if it chose. But for whatever reason Prentice does not seem quite so vexed about Canada’s international reputation on that file, nor so keen to impose his will.


Aim at the oil sands, and you hit Quebec

  1. An interesting post, as always. In a recent Jeffrey Simpson column in the Globe and Mail, he made the point that Quebec has the luxury of lecturing the rest of Canada on the environment because of a mere geological quirk. Namely, the oil sands are located in Alberta while Quebec has hydro resources.

    "But does anyone believe that if Quebec had oil and natural gas instead of abundant hydro that its politicians would be as morally virtuous as they now purport to be?"

    Indeed. However, the fact that Quebec politicians are bashing the feds should hardly be seen as an outrage. Provincial politicians across Canada have an easy target in the federal government, and Ottawa-bashing is often an easy way to pass the blame to other people. Can it really be said that Alberta, for example, does less griping about the federal government?

    • Ralph Klein built his career on Ottawa-bashing. He also built up a big propaganda department to talk about how well his government was doing, while it didn't actually do anything much. Harper, Prentice and Stelmach all seem to be following Klein's basic doctrine: If you say you are accomplishing a lot over and over again, enough suckers will believe you that you don't actually have to accomplish anything.

    • As an Albertan I do I agree that many Albertans gripe about the federal govt especially about the oil sands.
      I think one way to avoid a federal fight on climate change legislation would be a carbon tax so that all emissions of carbon dioxide are treated equally ( I think Coyne made this point in one of his video chats with Wells). If we go down the cap and trade route we are going to have some serious provincial clashes. Anyone know how BC's enviro tax is going?

  2. if you put a Complaint to the Envoirnment Quebec ,they take about 6 weeks to Answer the Complaint,depending on the situation or the Status of the Complainer, they are not on the Top of The Laws, easy to say they are # 1 the best ,then you have the worst of the dupmp sites of all of North America.

  3. I suppose it has a lot to do with the fact that Charest needs no Alberta votes to win re-election and Harper needs tons of Que. votes to do the same.

    As for Coyne defending Mordor, if Albertans won't green up at the behest of the rest of Canada, they will under American pressure. The whole notion that–hey presto! they'll be a pipeline through B.C. so Alta. can sell dirty oil to communist China is a long way from ever becoming a reality.

    • Obviously, any pipeline project that hasn't started yet is a long way from becoming a reality.

    • Don't worry, CN will solve that problem. Unit trains shipping oil to tankers in Prince Rupert… CN couldn't be happier – and there's not a thing BC can do about it because the provinces can't touch the federally-regulated railways.

  4. Another excellent column from Andrew Coyne. The hypersensitivity that afflicts so many members of Quebec's political class is almost as annoying as the hyperbole and hypocrisy on environmental issues.

    • After Quebec, which province's political class is the next most hypersensitive? And which province is home to the most hyposensitive political class?

      • hahahah Good point. As an Ontarian, I'm always flabbergasted by Albertans complaining about Quebec's complaining. It's like Paris Hilton complaining about Nicole Ritchie being high maintenance.

        • It is a hard act to pull off successfully.

          Just to clarify, I think that each province has more than its fair share of whiners. I would prefer to hear less from them and more from folks who are a bit quieter and more thoughtful (I'm equally sure that every province has many of them as well).

      • which province's political class is the next most hypersensitive?

        That's easy… Alberta. But we have a long way to go before we approach the levels of Quebec.

        And which province is home to the most hyposensitive political class?

        You mean, which province's political class is the least sensitive? I dunno… PEI?

        • I'm not as convinced as you that Alberta is so different from Quebec…..certainly there is room for Albertans to be a litle less sensitive, especially if we want to set an example for Quebec to follow. Eg, the third "In Converstaion with Macleans" seemed to have a fair measure of 'whine' to it.

          And, yes, hyposensitive is a new word that I'm trying to promote, and you have deduced the correct meaning… in the next election I intend to vote for the most hyposensitive candidate that I can.

  5. PhilCP, I think you may have already mentioned this but I've forgotten… what part of our glorious country do you hail from?

    • Just a few (three) hours up the road from you……Edmonton area.

      • I've noticed that there are quite a few Albertans who comment here, and our opinions are anything but homogeneous.

        • our opinions are anything but homogeneous…are you aiming for the understatement of the month award? ;-) (I have no steak knives to offer…)

          The image of homogeneousness that you allude to is both humourous and frustrating (probably for all of us commenting here) no matter which side of an issue we might support.

          • He meant homergenious.

          • Doh?

  6. Optics? Try to imagine a federal environment minister giving a speech in Montreal ordering, say, Hydro-Québec to clean up its act, or else. Go on, try.

    Would that be before or after I try to imagine a federal government penalize Quebec by enforcing the inter-provincial portability provisions of the Canada Health Act? Oh, wait…

    Would that be before or after I hallucinated and imagined that Stéphane Dion called the Charter-notwithstanding provisions of Quebec's language charter as a "great Canadian law"? Oh, wait…

    Would that be before or after I try to imagine Quebec getting a seat at UNESCO? Oh, wait…

  7. Hats off to you, Mr.Coyne. Fair piece of writing. Strong piece of writing.

    I have to admit I was getting a little worried about the condition of your backbone, but it now appears your stand is straightening out. Looking much better.

    (I never watched the full run of that particular At Issue segment. A call for tea time interrupted me. Now I must go and watch it. )

  8. Quebec gets over 5 billion dollars a year in federal transfer payments. A large chunk of that change comes from Alberta, from oil sands royalties in fact. I don't see any Quebec politician declining the handout…or saying thank you for that matter. If the oil sands had been located in La Belle province and not in Wild Rose Country, Quebec would have pocketed the money and declared independence years ago.

  9. Does anyone have the numbers on Alberta's federal transfer payments and the numbers on oil revenues that go into provincial and federal coffers?

  10. Why does everything have to revolve around Quebec Why does Quebec have their own Federal Government party and no other province have one, I think that is wrong and unfair. As an Albertan , I believe if it wasn t for the West the East would be broke and in bigger trouble than they are in now. Why does the West have to support the East and get nothing in return.
    As for voting in this country, the Government is showing our youth that voting does not matter anymore because if the other parties do not like what our Government is doing then they can band together and rise up to over throw the existing Government (good job in promoting voting in this country). I would like these questions answered in layman terms so we all understand the answers, not a run around with no answer.
    Edmonton A.B