The federal government is looking to douse simmering federal-provincial tensions by identifying short-term victories that can be offered to Alberta.
New documents, obtained by CBC News under Access to Information law, show Ottawa is searching for opportunities to advance “easy wins” for the province in the wake of Premier Jason Kenney’s big requests during a visit to the capital with a ministerial entourage in December.
During those meetings, Kenney outlined his demands of the federal Liberals. A memo sent internally at Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) shared the eight “Urgent” priorities set out by the Alberta government. These included a $2.4 billion “equalization rebate,” changes to two pieces of federal environmental legislation (C-48 and C-69) and support for oil and gas projects in the province.
The memo called the delegation’s visit an “unprecedented step” and a “significant escalation” in the province’s efforts to make headway on its goals.
WD cautioned in a statement that there is no relation between the push for short term “easy wins” and work on the longer term requests from Alberta — adding they are in no way being “dismissive” of Kenney’s asks.
“Building positive momentum is always important to building trust to address longer term issues,” the department said.
The tensions between Ottawa and Alberta have escalated in the last year. Anti-Trudeau rhetoric used in the provincial campaign escalated during the federal one. Federal legislation unpopular in Alberta (including the imposition of a carbon tax) and a general election that returned the Liberals to power stoked anger and separatist sentiment in the province.
It was only a few weeks after the election that the Alberta government established the “fair deal” panel to examine how to boost Alberta’s autonomy.
“We’ve have been working for Ottawa for too long and it’s about time Ottawa started working for Alberta,” the premier said during his trip there in December.
The documents acknowledged that as the months have worn on since October’s vote, there has been “a willingness from both governments to consider and be open to the other’s proposals and options on key files.” Ottawa is looking to keep that door open.
Many of Kenney’s asks won’t come about in the immediate future, and the government — recognizing the magnitude of Alberta’s frustrations — has set about looking for “easy wins.”
What’s in a win?
Those “wins”, according to the department, are slowly being rolled out.
One example is the reopening of applications for the Business Scale-up and Productivity Program, which provides interest-free loans to innovative businesses. Demand for these loans in Alberta is quite high, WD said, with nearly $40 million approved to date. The department has invested about $309 million to fuel innovation in the province since 2015.
Progress on the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is another win for the province, said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.
Another recent compromise he identified is Ottawa accepting Alberta’s carbon plan for large emitters at a tax of $30 per tonne.
“Those are the two big areas that we’ve seen cooperation on,” Bratt said.
A ‘substantial problem’ in the prairies
As the federal cabinet was considering the future of the now-dead Teck Frontier project, Reuters reported the government was also preparing an aid package for Alberta, though it’s unclear what that would consist of or when it could be handed down.
Fiscal stabilization is another area where there could be movement. Finance Minister Bill Morneau hinted in January there would be news on potential changes to the program shortly.
Looking to hand victories to Alberta and boost cooperation indicates one thing to Bratt.
“I think the federal government realizes that they’ve got a substantial problem out here,” he said.
“The memo itself shows the importance that the federal government is now giving to the prairies.”
After the Liberals were shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the election, Trudeau appointment Winnipeg MP Jim Carr as a special representative for the prairies. The prime minister’s deputy, Chrystia Freeland, also has roots in Alberta. Both have spent time in the province as envoys, however, the memo said those visits have yet to lead to “specific outcomes” and Alberta’s government is looking for “concrete action.”
Alberta has occupied a lot of real estate in the federal government’s mind since the price of oil crashed in 2014-2015 (plummeting from $107 US a barrel to $42 in less than a year).
Dozens of documents have flitted between federal departments: On the “fair deal” panel, Kenney’s visits, analysis on the provincial election and budgets, updates on the Teck Frontier mine, meetings with presidents of oil companies and Alberta universities — and that’s just in the past year.
Even in 2016, a handful of briefing notes showed the feds were anxiously trying to keep tabs on Alberta and its economy.
Easy wins won’t fulfil Kenney’s larger goals, and while the federal government may not be able to immediately offer solutions to those requests, the province is holding Ottawa’s attention.