The insiders’ perspective on Trudeau federalism 2.0

An important meeting with provincial and territorial leaders will be a test of the feds’ hug-it-out approach. Will it work?

The premiers of the provinces and territories take part in a 'family photo' during a First Ministers meeting at the Canadian Museum of Nature with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The premiers of the provinces and territories take part in a ‘family photo’ during a First Ministers meeting at the Canadian Museum of Nature with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

It’s going well, as Justin Trudeau heads toward a meeting with provincial and territorial premiers in Vancouver on March 3.

“You had to peel Quebec off the ceiling after the first federal memo went around,” a source in another province told me.

“Your sources are good,” an adviser to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said. “But not only Quebec. They also surprised Ontario and other provinces—B.C. and even Alberta.”

Why was the spatula needed for some remedial ceiling work? “It’s the old Liberal federal reflex,” my Quebec source said. “Centralization. We can criticize [Stephen] Harper a lot for not wanting to look after the environment, but on the other hand, when the provinces wanted to look after the environment, he wasn’t getting into their jurisdictions.”

But here’s the thing. As this Quebec government source (anonymous like all my other sources this week; sue me) recounted the Trudeau government’s first clumsy attempts to herd the provinces toward a climate-change strategy everyone could sign in Vancouver next week, his tone was more amused than outraged. The early problems were being fixed, he said.

Philippe Couillard feels that a key ally in making the whole process more province-friendly has been Justin Trudeau. Le fils de l’autre. Will wonders never cease.

Related: At the First Ministers’ summit, the meeting was the message

The main sin of “the federal machine,” this Quebec source said—in comments that were echoed in another conversation by a senior adviser to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne—was to forget that the provinces have been working, alone and in concert, to reduce their carbon emissions for a decade. Suddenly the feds show up and at first it was as if they thought they’d invented the notion.

“They’re proposing working groups on different subjects,” the Quebec adviser said. “Mitigation, clean technology, climate resiliency, ‘Let’s sit together with the Indigenous people, with the public in general’—it’s very Trudeauesque, . ‘And we’ll reach agreement.’

Attends une minute, là. Life isn’t like that. The provinces have their jurisdictions, there are committees, there are groups. The provinces have done a lot of consultations over the last 10 years. The provinces have their goals, they’ve done things. Now the feds come along as if nothing has been done before in Canada. There’s been nothing done by the federal government, I agree. But that’s not the same as saying nothing has been done in Canada.”

This apple-cheeked, “Hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show” approach was similarly amusing to the Ontario government, which has been deep in the emission-reduction trenches for years. Ontario closed all of its coal-powered energy stations, producing almost all of the emissions reductions Canada-wide. Processes to recreate processes were not super welcome.

But Wynne’s office didn’t even bother to reply to the early federal proposals, because they knew other provinces would complain and Ottawa would adjust. Indeed this seems to be what has happened.

“I’d tell you two things about Mr. Trudeau: Openness and sincerity,” the Couillard adviser said. “When the premier talks to him, he feels like he’s being listened to, and that when Mr. Trudeau has bought into the argument, his commitments are sincere and he makes things happen.”

The surprise is that anyone is talking this way about a Liberal prime minister named Trudeau in Quebec City. “But I’m telling you, he’s more of a Sinclair than a Trudeau,” my interlocutor said. The reference is to Jimmy Sinclair, the avuncular Vancouver Liberal who was the Prime Minister’s maternal grandfather.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall speaks to reporters before a meeting with premiers hosted by the Council of The Federation in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (Justin Tang/CP)

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall speaks to reporters before a meeting with premiers hosted by the Council of The Federation in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (Justin Tang/CP)

Not everyone is writing glowing reviews of the meeting before it happens. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is in the newspapers announcing that he will never accept a carbon tax. He may be pushing on an open door. “The truth is, that region’s got a lot of issues we’ve got to deal with,” a Trudeau adviser said. “We don’t want to get into a fight with premiers. You guys spill a lot of ink, everybody gets angry, and nothing happens.”

The feds, freshly admonished in the merits of flexibility, say there are many ways to cut carbon emissions. My federal source listed four. There’s “the built environment everywhere”—mostly old buildings that could be retrofitted with greener equipment. There’s transport, from cars to public transit, heavily concentrated in the country’s largest cities. There’s “extractive activities in the natural resource sector”—the huge amount of energy and carbon dioxide used to get valuable stuff, from oil to minerals to liquefied natural gas. And there’s carbon pricing, which would constrain the use of carbon-emitting technology anywhere a tax is levied or a cap-and-trade scheme imposed.

Any action by any government that tends to reduce emissions will be welcomed and, the Trudeau crew hopes, encouraged under a flexible set of policies whose nature will be the object of federal-provincial discussions long after the final gavel in Vancouver. If Wall doesn’t want a carbon tax, he can find another mechanism. (Besides, an official in another provincial capital said, “He’s usually quite different in the room than he is in the press beforehand.”)

There are many ways to skin this cat. Anything that works helps. “People always take their theology texts to these things,” the Trudeau adviser said, “but it’s really math class.”

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna walks to a meeting with her provincial counterparts Friday January 29, 2016 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna walks to a meeting with her provincial counterparts Friday January 29, 2016 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Everyone will be staying after school to study. Catherine McKenna, the federal environment minister, has already been saying there’ll be no final agreement in Vancouver. Instead, four federal-provincial “work streams” will coordinate, from their respective capitals after the Vancouver meeting ends, on different projects. One group will try to identify job opportunities in expanding green-technology markets. A second will try to find some carbon-pricing mechanism that will be broadly acceptable. A third will look at all those emission-reduction strategies that aren’t about a carbon price. A fourth will accept that by now some climate change is happening despite all these meetings to try to stop it, and identify strategies for helping populations adapt as floods, extreme storms, coastal erosion and Arctic warming progress.

At least, that’s what an adviser to McKenna told me. This person cheerfully acknowledged that in advance of the Vancouver meeting, prep work in Ottawa is being led by the Prime Minister’s Office. And, as the provinces have been careful to remind the Trudeau crew, everything is open to amendment in Vancouver, based on work the provinces were already doing before Trudeau even led the federal Liberals.

The Vancouver meeting, then, stands somewhere near the midpoint of a process. This may be the emerging model for second-generation Trudeau federalism: low on confrontation and brinksmanship, high on consultation. It’s not dramatic. We’ll find out soon whether it works.


The insiders’ perspective on Trudeau federalism 2.0

  1. Personally, I thought I would never hear myself say this, but since Trudeau has been elected, I only see him governing from Quebec to British Columbia, and don’t get me started on the cow towing to Alberta, I find it insulting being from the Atlantic Region(NL, where we don’t even take transfer payments), that Trudeau hasn’t even taken the time to come and thank the Atlantic region for voting him in all 32 seats. I feel like I live in a foreign country whenever I read political news in Canada, that’s why I no longer engage in chatter online like I did.

    • You no longer engage in chatter online like you did previously… at least there is one positive that can be found from Trudeau being elected…

    • OK Carpet Bomber;
      You were a have not province for 65 years…and will be one again this year.
      Perhaps you won’t feel like a foreign country as the revenues start pouring in again on yet another generational basis. Please spare us!

  2. So, the return of federal interventionism and wastage of borrowed public funds on a new layer of study groups and delays is being celebrated by another acolyte. ho-hum

    Time to abide by Constitution and Sect 91, 92 division of fed-prov responsibilities instead of massive duplication. Time to cut spending, cut taxes and pursue vast trade opportunities by facilitating transportation efficiencies. [Including internal movement of energy across provincial borders.]

    Atlantic Canada can be a major beneficiary of CETA trade agreement with EU — federal government can help boost by creating reduced tax regimes in areas of chronic high unemployment.

    Focus on re-plowing fields already plowed shows why Trudeau approach is more costly and will hurt Canada in both short and long-term. “We’re from Ottawa and we know better” was never true and still isn’t.

  3. Using the “Anything that works helps” approach is silly – it provides no measures of success because you can throw anything at the wall and some of it will stick but that doesn’t mean it was a worthwhile, productive activity. Unfortunately the feds are so willing to spend and spend to maintain their green creds with the world, that they forget that Canada accounts for less than 2% of CO2 IN THE WORLD.

    There is lots to do on ensuring clean air, water and soil and that is something that can and should be done. But the quest to reduce C02 or other greenhouse gases is silly and wasteful.

    • The old minimization argument – presumably it’s also okay for a dog to poop on your lawn as long as it’s a small dog. “Canada makes up less than one half of one percent of the world’s population, but is the world’s eighth largest producer of greenhouse gases”. The problem is that our trend is increasing emissions while many others are reducing theirs – by 2020 Canada could have the highest per capita GHG emissions. “There is lots to do on ensuring clean air, water and soil” – certainly and since GHG emissions are accompanied by emissions of toxic materials, none of this (including GHG reduction) is something that can be avoided. Ontario closed it’s coal plants that were responsible for an estimated 1600 premature deaths per year plus many more health problems – one shouldn’t so flippantly write down the value of human life.

      • Hopefully before 2020 the world wakes up and realizes what a huge scam Global Warming became. The climate has and will continue to change as demonstrated by the ice ages that came and went long before man lit the first fire. There is nothing humans can do or should do to try to change that. There are now 31,000 scientists who believe, as I do, that the changing climate cycles have everything to do with solar activity and the relative changing tilt of the Earth’s axis and nothing to do with man made CO2. The scam changed from being called Global Warming to Global Climate Change after the Earth had not warmed for 17 years. That’s now 20 and the 31,000 scientists are growing in number daily. Climate Change has become a big business and everything to do with government funding rather than anything to do with making the world a better place. Diverting the same funds to delivering potable water to everyone would be a the right choice.

        • I forgot the part where GERALDR said “since GHG emissions are accompanied by emissions of toxic materials…”, Here’s a man living in an old paradigm!! GHGs are largely carbon dioxide which you exhale and all plant life is dependent on and I don’t believe you emit toxic materials. If you compare an automobile from the 1970’s to a current one, the current one emits just as much CO2 as the 1970’s model but the toxic materials exhausted are over 99% less due to advancements in both gasoline as well as automotive technology. And that is true of almost every hydrocarbon consuming technology in use today. So the harmful outputs of combusting hydrocarbons has essentially already been addressed.

          • major Tom to planet earth…i.e. Jerome;

            your math does not add up. Billions of tons of co2 are emitted every year…much more then can be consumed by plants, oceans and animals. That is the problem.
            To think improvements in technology have off set the amount of co2 is dreaming in technicolor.

  4. Well Paul got the election all wrong, so he hardly qualifies as an “insider” or even a writer about “insiders”…and the rest of you are complaining, because Justin hasn’t walked on water yet, or done the “loaves and fishes trick” after only three months.

    Jeebus, what a country

    • What a blessing it would be if you left this Country and quit kissing up to a PM that has disgraced our country. He has created two jobs,nannies, and made many Westerners remember the mess his father left for us.

  5. One can understand that there is a discontinuity between provinces and Ottawa as federal-provincial meetings were so rare in the past decade that they’ve even forgotten how to arrange them. It’s true that ‘the provinces’ meaning some of the provinces have, in the absence of any federal cooperation under Harper, made substantial strides and some of them have even arranged collaboration among themselves in spite of negative pressure from the federal government; it’s perhaps a little alienating when Ottawa suddenly does a 180 – better late than never? There’s certainly a diversity of direction among provinces: while many provinces have leveled or reduced their GHG emissions with three (Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia) already having met 2020 Copenhagen target (-17% w.r.t. 2005) and two substantially increasing with one (Alberta) doing the complete opposite. One can imagine that some provinces would be a bit leery and/or skeptical of a possible national plan because they’ve already done a lot and don’t want to see it reversed or because they’ve done little and don’t want to be dragooned into catching up or they’re Quebec which has the lowest per capita GHG emissions and the highest production of renewable energy and will find it harder to find places to improve. Saskatchewan is a special case whose politics of discord may derail any national accord.

    • Such a bunch of nonsense. Harper, as he should have, gave the provinces the latitude they wanted.
      As an example, he continued to increase funding for provincial health care by 6% per year-3 to 4 times inflation-with a STATED expectation that the provinces would find a way to reign in their uncontrolled and mismanaged health care expenditures by 2017 when the increase would be reduced to 3%. And you know what, the provinces reduced individually and with their own solutions to grow no greater than 3% by 2015. That to me is great leadership and management. Trudeau like his old man is more interested in self promotion than making Canada better. In Pierre’s day he managed to give us mortgage rate of 19%. The big problem we have now is that Justin isn’t even as bright as his father. Just 3.7 more years to go thank god!!

  6. During the campaign his battle cry was, “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian!” The Liberals lashed out at the Conservatives for passing FATCA legislation. Now he’s supporting that legislation in the face of a lawsuit by the Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty. Under C-31, your bank information is sent to the U.S.A. even if you’re a Canadian citizen living in Canada, if you’re classified as a U.S.A. person under laws that should end at the 49th parallel.

    • Trudeaus (father, mother, son Justine) are so tiresome. At least one can hate the father and pity the mother but Justine is just laughable.

    • “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” only when it’s expedient for the Liberals. The LPC’s about-face on FATCA is disgraceful.

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