There’s a lovely symmetry in two big and growing messes. On one hand is Canada’s attempt to get oil-sands bitumen to saltwater ports. On the other is its attempt to show some late-blooming virtue on greenhouse-gas emissions. Justin Trudeau has always said Canada can do both: that by showing greater concern for Earth’s future, we can also help fuel the planet’s SUVs. It’s a lovely thought, but that doesn’t make it true. Maybe instead of doing both, Canada will do neither. An environmental basket case and a lousy oil merchant? Dare to dream big.
More about this emerging symmetry. In the last week of April, the governments of Saskatchewan and British Columbia announced they would send constitutional references to the courts. References—essentially a request for a court’s formal opinion on a legal matter—are rare. Two in one week is… well, I’ve never seen such a thing. Saskatchewan wants to know whether it can get out of Justin Trudeau’s national carbon-taxing scheme. B.C. wants to know whether it can block oil coming in pipelines from Alberta. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe hopes a note from the courts will let him get out of his climate-change homework. B.C. Premier John Horgan wants some judges to help him block the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. They’re on opposite ends of the oil-vs.-climate axis, and either could seriously gum up Trudeau’s plans as a federal election approaches.
Symmetry: the University of Alberta plans to confer an honorary degree on David Suzuki, the environmental activist. Rich donors, many of whom got rich in the oil patch, are cutting the university off. Two senior members of the university’s administration have responded with abject apologies.
“I deeply regret the hurt, frustration and alienation that many of you feel,” Joseph Doucet, the dean of the Alberta School of Business, wrote.
“I am deeply sorry (ashamed, in fact) for the hurt that we at the university have caused Albertans,” Fraser Forbes, the dean of engineering, wrote.
The university’s president, David Turpin, said Suzuki will get the degree anyway.
There’s no reason to doubt anyone’s sincerity here. But note the backstory of all these people. Before moving to Edmonton, Turpin was president of the University of Victoria, where he helped found the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, which “shares a global vision of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.” Doucet is the Stanley A. Milner professor of economics, which is named for a guy who got rich in the oil patch. Before that, he was the Enbridge professor of energy policy, named for a company that got rich in the oil patch. Forbes helped set up the Imperial Oil Institute for Oil Sands Innovation. These things have these names because the people and companies they were named for gave the university a lot of money.
There aren’t a lot of people anywhere in the country who can read that last paragraph without getting angry at somebody I mentioned in it. If you’re the kind of person who likes to give your oil money to the University of Alberta, Turpin must sound like a carpetbagging social-justice warrior who’s wandered into Edmonton to tell everyone what they can’t do. If you’re a big fan of David Suzuki, you must think Doucet and Forbes are wholly owned subsidiaries of Kinder Morgan. Drill bits in suits.
What we have here are duelling legitimacies, clashing world views. Each is thinking at a different level. The oil-sands crowd—most of the population and almost the entire political class of Alberta and Saskatchewan—are defending the right of hard-working people to extract and sell a product that is, after all, legal to own and use, and that probably got your car to work this morning: hydrocarbon-based fuels. They’re defending the right of their neighbours to put bread on the table. And, incidentally, they noticed when Quebec pension funds invested in the oil sands, while a former Montreal mayor was celebrating the demise of the Energy East pipeline.
The climate crowd are defending the future of life on this planet, no less, and they can’t believe anyone would reduce such a crucial matter to something as crass as gas in your tank. The penalty for trying to bridge the gap between the two worlds is harsh. Read what B.C. environmentalists have to say about Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. It’s not kind.
READ MORE: Trudeau, Notley, Horgan: The Sunday matinée
The latest crucial confrontation between these two visions is the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. The climate crowd cannot let Trans Mountain through B.C. to the coast. If ever Horgan reaches a compromise with Notley and Trudeau to permit Trans Mountain, he will simply be discarded by climate activists and the protests will continue. The oil-sands crowd, which hasn’t won one of these ﬁghts in a while, will discard an unsteady champion like Notley for one who seems more fierce: Jason Kenney.
Now, in Ottawa the Liberals still like to view the positions of the climate crew and the oil-sands crew as extremes. There’s a silent majority willing to back policies that reconcile the duelling legitimacies, the Liberals prefer to think. But the existence of a middle ground is no guarantee of its victory. And there are all kinds of signs that Trudeau doesn’t want to put his convictions to a test. He hasn’t convened the premiers as a group since December 2016. It’s as though he’s worried about what they’d tell him, and one another. He’s not sending his positions to a court for confirmation; only his opponents are doing that.
I tried to remember the last time a new prime minister hoped his charm and conviction would allow him to bridge two sharply duelling notions of Canada. The name that came to mind was Brian Mulroney, who spent eight years trying to reconcile special status for Quebec with provincial equality. He failed, his party fell apart, and the country was lucky to survive. That’s not a prediction, just a reminder. Probably.