Smackdown in Western Canada: Christy Clark vs. Alison Redford

Why the premiers of B.C. and Alberta just can't learn to get along

Premier Alison Redford/FLICKR

On the night roughly a year ago when Alison Redford became the first female leader in Alberta’s history, she fielded a call from someone whom many at the time predicted would become one of her greatest political allies. Along with well wishes from Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Redford spoke with Christy Clark, if not B.C.’s first female premier, certainly the woman who has done the most to shake up her province’s political scene.

The conversation was friendly. Clark offered her congratulations and the two joked about just how wrong the pundits had been about both women’s chances of winning the premiership of their respective provinces. “I said, ‘Alison, how did the pollsters get it so wrong?’ ” Clark recalled in an interview with Maclean’s earlier this year. “And she said, ‘Christy, of all the people in the country I can’t believe you’re the one asking me that.’ ”

For many, Redford’s election was considered a win for B.C. After all, the two premiers, part of a growing powerhouse of women in Canadian politics, have some remarkable parallels.

Both are the same age—46—and born in B.C. (Clark in Burnaby, Redford in Kitimat). Both are mothers to preteens—Clark’s son Hamish is 11, Redford’s daughter Sarah is 10. Both were long-time party loyalists who spent time in federal government, Clark working for Chrétien-era transportation minister Doug Young and Redford for Joe Clark. What’s more, both were once married to party stalwarts and maintain close ties with their ex-husbands. So close, in fact, that both recruited their former spouses to work on their campaigns.

Just as crucial, the two might have bonded over their shared challenge in appealing to female voters. The biggest complaint against Redford during the Progressive Conservative leadership race was that she didn’t “look like a premier” says a party insider. Such complaints invariably came from women. And Clark recently took to hosting private women-only meetings in B.C. to shore up her sagging support among her female constituents.

With so much in common, it’s no wonder there was much optimism about their potential to work together. “What does it mean for the West when both B.C. and Alberta are run by leaders with such striking similarities?” wrote Kathryn Marshall, the former spokesperson for oil industry lobby group Ethical Oil, promptly after Redford’s leadership win. “They will probably get along well—and this is important—because so much of B.C.’s economy is tied to Alberta, especially the energy sector.”

Unfortunately for Marshall, and the rest of Canada’s oil industry, any illusions of co-operation between the two premiers quickly fell apart over the fate of Alberta’s cherished Northern Gateway pipeline from the oil sands to B.C.’s coast. By this summer, joint press conferences between Redford and Clark had turned from cheery photo ops to tense standoffs. Clark stormed out of a premiers meeting in Halifax over discussions on Redford’s national energy strategy, adamant she wouldn’t sign any agreement until it was clear B.C. was getting a better cut of the Northern Gateway deal. When Clark finally unveiled the five conditions under which she would support a crude oil pipeline to the B.C. coast, it was the fifth demand—money—that officially ended the premiers’ tenuous alliance. Clark demanded what she called a “fair share” for B.C., which she argued was taking all the risks for the pipeline project, while Redford labelled this an unprecedented grab for Alberta’s resource royalties. Since then, barely a week has gone by without some form of confrontation. In mid-October, after Clark publicly boasted B.C. had created more jobs than Alberta “even without that great natural resource . . . they call oil,” Redford shot back that she was happy for B.C., but “I don’t think there’s really any point in trying to have us compete with respect to who has the bigger or stronger economy.”

The irony in the dispute between B.C. and Alberta is that just as the two premiers were predicted to be natural allies because of their shared female sympathies in a field dominated by men, their falling out has also been characterized as a cat fight between two women who just can’t seem to get along. But such thinking oversimplifies what has become a dangerous divide in the West, Canada’s economic powerhouse. After years of improving trade and labour ties between Alberta and B.C., a relationship that was held up as a model for other provinces, the battle between the two premiers over the future of Enbridge’s $5.5-billion pipeline is shaping up to be the greatest political rivalry since former Newfoundland premier Danny Willams ordered the Canadian flag removed from every government building in a dispute with the feds over offshore energy royalties. In this case the stakes for the country are even higher. The ongoing quarrel has dire consequences for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vision of a wholesale shift in the Canadian economy away from the U.S. and toward Asia, because the pipeline would allow Alberta oil to flow to China. Until the two premiers can resolve their differences, their standoff will continue to cast a shadow over Canada’s long-term economic future.

A battle over oil that pits the federal and Alberta governments against B.C. “will be the biggest challenge that Confederation will have faced since the Quebec referendum,” warns former Alberta energy minister Ron Liepert.

It’s a battle that has as much do with personalities as it does with politics. Early in their premierships, Clark and Redford seemed to be following a 30-year tradition of warming relations between their two provinces. Where once B.C. subscribed to a notion of Pacific Coast exceptionalism when it came to talk of Western Canada—keen to distance itself from its neighbour’s oil-based economy—that has been replaced with a growing recognition that a booming Alberta economy has had spinoff benefits for B.C., says University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff. Indeed, relations grew so friendly in the last decade that the two provinces held joint cabinet meetings and signed the largest interprovincial free trade agreement in the country.

In keeping with the neighbourly protocol, Redford, while running for the leadership, used Twitter to extend her best wishes for Clark’s first meeting of the New West Partnership, the free trade alliance between B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. After Redford took office, one of the first photos posted on her official Facebook page showed the two premiers side by side on a couch. Depending on how one views the photo, it can either be interpreted as friends who have just finished chatting about their kids over coffee, or of a pair of rival business associates forced to smile for the camera.

If there was a moment when it became clear the two premiers were on a collision course, it could have been when Clark visited the Alberta legislature in July to give Redford a head’s up before publicly releasing her pipeline demands. Clark, wary of reporters finding out about the informal meeting, reportedly asked Alberta officials to throw legislative journalists off track. They apparently obliged, idling a black SUV in front of the legislature while Clark slipped out a side door. The stunt failed when reporters uncovered the ruse, and both premiers wound up looking foolish.

Even as political watchers in the West early on hailed Clark and Redford’s congruency, others astutely pointed out what set them apart. Redford was the globe-trotting human rights lawyer who shared an office with former South African president Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. Intellectual and even-handed, Redford nevertheless possessed a withering gaze that former Harper strategist Tom Flanagan once described as “the famous Redford stare.”

Clark, meanwhile, studied at the Sorbonne and the University of Edinburgh but never graduated with a degree. A natural populist, she jumped into active politics long before Redford, developing her reputation as a feisty attack dog in the Liberal opposition to NDP premier Glen Clark, later rising to deputy premier before leaving politics for her own talk radio show. Her larger-than-life personality has both entranced her supporters and enraged her critics.

As relations soured between the two premiers, commentators have been quick to ascribe this to a personality clash between two powerful, opinionated women. In a column this month, the National Post’s Claudia Cattaneo called Clark’s demands for a share of the economic benefits of the pipeline a “rant,” noting the B.C. premier was “looking sharp in her high heels and tailored jacket.” Meanwhile Redford, Cattaneo wrote, “dug in her own high heels and had a few comebacks of her own.”

Insiders in both camps, speaking on background, acknowledge there is a personality clash. “Have you ever met someone who is just like you and your friends put you together and say, ‘You’re so similar, you should totally talk.’ Then you end up saying, ‘I hate this person,’ ” says one Redford insider. “But, you know, that’s tough. Make it work. You don’t have to like each other, but you do have to work together.”

In an interview, Clark dismissed the idea that her standoff with Redford is anything other than a purely professional dispute over competing provincial interests. “It’s wrong to suggest that it’s a personal disagreement,” she told Maclean’s. “We have a disagreement about a public policy issue that our citizens also disagree about pretty passionately at the moment and we’re both responsible to the citizens of our province. I think it’s really unfair to boil it down to a personality conflict when it’s pretty clear that there are big public policy issues at stake here.” (For her part, Redford declined an interview request. “The premier has said there is nothing to add from Alberta’s perspective,” said spokesperson Nikki Booth.)

As neatly as a personal spat between Clark and Redford might fit into some larger debate about the impact women have on Canadian politics, ultimately the pipeline showdown, like all political battles, is about two leaders playing to their very different constituencies. “It’s a bit unusual to see two prominent women politicians really go head to head on a very contentious issue,” notes Grant MacEwan University political scientist Chaldeans Mensah. “But the whole thing has been blown apart because of the reality of local politics, which has become predominant over the niceties of these two politicians trying to get along.”

One senior B.C. Liberal says within Clark’s circle that Redford is simply seen as “having walked right into a political trap.”

The trap, in this case, is the election that Clark faces next May, which polls predict will be an uphill battle against the NDP, thanks in part to intense public opposition to the idea of shipping raw bitumen by tanker through pristine B.C. waterways. A fight with Redford allows Clark to position herself as the province’s economic and environmental steward. It also draws attention away from the revolving door of former Stephen Harper staffers who have cycled through Clark’s campaign office, not to mention a stampede of deserters from her caucus.

To a lesser extent the feud has helped Redford, too. Less than a year after a bitter election fight with the Opposition Wild Rose, Redford has been able to present herself as a defender of Alberta’s economic sovereignty. “Christy Clark is trying to win an election and Alison Redford is trying to cement her position as the defender of Alberta’s interests,” says Mensah. “Both are simply not helping the cause and they’re clouding the issue.”

While Redford’s stance may play well in Alberta, there does appear to be a growing acknowledgement within her own party that she has taken too hard a line on the issue. At least some insiders argue it might be a good strategic move for Alberta to offer a more generous deal to B.C.; if not a cut of Alberta’s royalties, then at least some sort of opportunity for B.C. to reap more economic benefits from the pipeline. “We have a $3-billion deficit this year,” says a senior Alberta Conservative of the provincial budget. “It’s not going to get any better without access to world pricing [for Alberta oil]. They have to figure it out.”

Among the ideas that have been floated is a proposal by B.C. media mogul David Black to build an oil refinery in Kitimat. This would mean B.C. would be loading gasoline or diesel onto tankers headed for Asia, rather than politically unpalatable raw bitumen. While such a scheme would give Clark a chance to champion the pipeline’s job creation benefit, it’s received little support in Alberta. Instead, former Alberta energy minister Ron Liepert thinks the provinces could strike a deal where B.C. hydro is transmitted back to Alberta to power future oil sands development. That, he says, would give Alberta a chance to promote its use of clean energy and B.C. an opportunity to tout the economic benefits of Alberta oil. “Somebody has to help B.C. find a win in it for the residents of B.C.,” Liepert says.

Clark dodges any questions around what kind of financial arrangement with Alberta she would accept for the pipeline. Perhaps a sign of conciliation, she is adamant that she never asked for a cut of Alberta’s royalties. “I’ve said, ‘Look there are a huge range of benefits on the table. Let’s sit down with the federal government, the Alberta government and British Columbia government and talk about how British Columbia can get a fair share of the benefits on that.’ I’ve never said, ‘Boy, gee, we want our fair share and we’re zeroing in on the royalties as the source of that.’ Never.”

But with virtually no support in the province for shipping raw bitumen off the coast of B.C., and a National Energy Board review of the pipeline that won’t conclude until late 2013, there’s little incentive for either side to negotiate a deal anytime soon, notes Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer, a veteran watcher of B.C. backroom politics. “The fundamental issue for the whole country is what to do when one province doesn’t want the project and the other one needs to put a pipeline through that province,” he says. “I don’t know how a country resolves that one.”

Clark herself thinks as much, saying she hasn’t asked for any new meetings with Redford on the pipeline and has turned her attention toward growing B.C.’s liquified natural gas industry. “As an economic development project, the Northern Gateway pipeline just isn’t going to deliver those kinds of benefits to the province, so therefore it isn’t occupying much of my government’s attention in terms of trying to move it forward,” she says.

As for her relationship with Redford? Clark insists it’s still a good one, citing her government’s support for shipping Alberta beef through B.C. ports and plans to expand the Trans-Canada Highway to four lanes from Kamloops to the Alberta border. “Premier Redford and I have a collegial business relationship,” she says, adding that “we’re not always going to agree on everything, but we agree on a lot more than we disagree on.”

She adds: “We’ll work through this, one way or another.”