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.

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