How’s that firewall working out for you guys?

So the federal government announced its “approval” of the Northern Gateway pipeline. The fact that the Prime Minister said nothing, the Minister of Natural Resources was nowhere to be found, and none of the government’s BC MPs were available for comment, says pretty much everything you need to know about the government’s own estimation that the thing will ever be built.

That they would approve it was a foregone conclusion, since failure to approve it would have been the final nail in the coffin of the Keystone XL pipeline. (One of the major talking points of American Keystone XL opponents is that, if pipelines are so fabulous, then why don’t Canadians just build them on their own soil, why do they have to go through the U.S.?) Furthermore, the only thing that the Harper government has really done in Ottawa, with any sort of consistency, is advance the interests of Alberta and the Alberta tar sands.

So I don’t think there’s very much of interest to say about the Northern Gateway pipeline (although I would be happy to hear more from our friends in B.C. on that score). I do however think that it provides us with an occasion to reflect a bit on a somewhat neglected topic, which is the role that a federal government plays in a nation like Canada. Because one of the features of the current Conservative government is that they don’t really have a positive theory of federalism, or of what Ottawa is supposed to be doing. That’s why most of their initiatives have been aimed at reducing the power of Ottawa over the provinces, in practically every dimension (save criminal justice). And as far as First Nations are concerned, I’m wondering how Stephen Harper’s decision to trash the Kelowna Accord is looking in retrospect. The fact that the Government of Canada can’t get an ounce of cooperation out of B.C., or First Nations in B.C., seems to me a clear case of the chickens coming home to roost.

One of the consequences of dismantling the federal government is that, when the day comes that you need the federal government, it will no longer be there. One theory about the current Conservative government in Ottawa holds that, in order to really understand their motives, you have to go back and read the famous “Alberta Firewall” letter (addressed to then-Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein) that Stephen Harper signed (here), back in the days when he felt free to shoot his mouth off. Some people have gone so far as to claim that, having failed to implement the firewall “internally” by persuading the government of Alberta, Harper has instead implemented it “externally” from Ottawa. This is clearly not true if one looks at the specific demands. On the other hand, if one looks at the general spirit that animates the firewall letter, one can see that it informs most of the thinking of the Harper Government about the status and role of the federal government. For example, this section is worth rereading:

We believe it is imperative for you to take all possible political and legal measures to reduce the financial drain on Alberta caused by Canada’s tax-and-transfer system. The most recent Alberta Treasury estimates are that Albertans transfer $2,600 per capita annually to other Canadians, for a total outflow from our province approaching $8 billion a year. The same federal politicians who accuse us of not sharing their “Canadian values” have no compunction about appropriating our Canadian dollars to buy votes elsewhere in the country.

What is being expressed here is the sentiment, widely shared in Alberta, that oil and gas royalty revenue simply belongs to Alberta and to Albertans. This manna from heaven just happens to rain down upon Alberta, and the demand that its benefits be shared with other Canadians constitutes nothing more than illegitimate “appropriation.” The quirk of constitutional history that led to resource revenues accruing to the provinces has been transformed, over time, into a sense of moral entitlement.

Now there may be many people in Alberta who don’t share the sentiment that Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton and their friends were expressing in the firewall letter. But it is important for everyone in Alberta to understand that, outside the province, we never hear from those people. All we ever hear is “hands off our money, it’s all ours, why should we share?” And for the past eight years, that’s been the prevailing view in Ottawa (e.g. remember the Canada Health Transfer? It’s useful to compare the tone of this with this).

There are lots of problems with the view that Alberta should “go it alone,” but here’s a rather important one:

Alberta is landlocked. Like Burkina Faso, or Malawi.

That means that Alberta requires the cooperation of other Canadian provinces, or else the United States, in order to gets its products to market.

And how do you go about getting this sort of cooperation? In principle, it should be easier to get from other parts of the same country than it is to get from a foreign power. Why? Because the major reason for having a federal government is to stop counterproductive forms of jurisdictional competition from erupting. For example, when Alberta Premier Ralph Klein decided to reduce the cost of social assistance in his province by offering anyone on welfare a free bus ticket to Vancouver, the federal government eventually had to intervene, in order to stop this sort of “beggar thy neighbour” policy from provoking retaliation by B.C. That’s what the federal government is there to do.

Unfortunately, people in Alberta are so accustomed to seeing the rest of the country as a drag on their economy that they haven’t done much to accumulate either favours or goodwill from everyone else. After decades of hearing about how oil wealth is not “ours,” as Canadians, but rather “theirs,” as Albertans, is it any wonder that no one else in the country cares much whether Alberta gets an extra $20 per barrel? So it would take a very strong federal government to push a pipeline through. And that’s precisely what we don’t have – thanks in large measure to our friends from Alberta.

Is there anything to be done about it at this point? For the pipeline, no. Albertans have made their bed, now they get to lie in it. But for the federal government, I think it would be nice if this episode were to stimulate more serious reflection and debate about the basic principles of federalism in a Canadian context. We are so accustomed to thinking about federalism through the lens of Quebec politics, and the accommodation of Quebec’s particular interests, that there has been very little discussion about the contribution that the federal government makes to relations between all provinces. My own view is that we can learn a lot from European discussions of subsidiarity as the central organizing principle of federal states. This article, for instance, might serve as a good point of departure.

More on that some other day.


How’s that firewall working out for you guys? — 1 Comment

  1. My BC home for the past 23 years, Prince George, provides an interesting vantage point for viewing the Northern Gateway conflict. Traditionally forestry-based, it’s now just as much a regional centre for public administration, health care and education. It’s like the larger Prairie cities in having a sadly visible urban aboriginal underclass and an above-average crime rate. It’s the kind of place that most folks only move to when they get a job offer, but once here, they tend to stick around because housing is cheap by BC standards, freeing up disposable income for private toys and amusements. (This has to be the runner-up to Ft. McMurray as national capital for tricked-out monster pickups.)

    So there’s a certain self-protective conservatism to the place that comes from tenuous prosperity gained in cyclical industries and/or choosing to live where work is available rather than where you’d prefer to locate based on climate or other amenities. Despite many similarities to the parts of northern Ontario that traditionally vote NDP, Prince George is considered to be a swing area provincially, and has been reliably Reform/Conservative federally for more than 20 years.

    With all that, it’s interesting that the only public support for NG seems to come from business spokespersons, and it seems pretty perfunctory. Enbridge’s local astroturf front group, headed up by a former PG mayor and failed 1988 federal Con. candidate, has been pretty quiet of late. I’m not aware of any genuine polling of local opinion, but I’d suspect that the mix of views on NG would be close to provincial averages. Anti-Enbridge protests tend to draw 100-150, although tomorrow evening’s demonstration outside the local MP’s office should do better than that. The most consistent and articulate leadership for local public opposition to NG has come from the young leader of the regional tribal council. NG has never become a big issue in local elections, unlike in communities farther west such as Smithers.

    I have no data, but I suspect that most public opinion here feels that there’s little at stake for PG, either positive or negative. So if a stronger current of opposition does emerge in this area over the next few months, I think that would be quite significant, and it would worry the Harper Government (TM).