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Albertans' Power

Thumbing their noses at Harper and the rest of Canada.

Rafe Mair 11 Feb

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair.

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Alberta oil: A new NEP?

Quebec is the destabilizing factor in Canada -- paradoxically, it is the stabilizing factor as well. The separatist poison ivy that goes away and comes back regularly makes Quebec into a special place not so much because of its language and culture but because it must constantly be wooed, cosseted and bribed.

On the other hand, without Quebec there is no Canada -- in her absence Ontario and a couple of Atlantic client provinces would run the whole show.

We have another destabilizing province, Alberta, which hitherto we haven't taken too seriously. In order to assess its seriousness we must lay an historical base.

Powered by gas

In 1878, after paying his political forfeit over the Pacific Scandal, Sir John A. Macdonald returned to power on the theme of a national policy. The idea was that a transcontinental railway would encourage settlement in Western Canada thus provide a ready market for Ontario (largely) manufactured goods which would be protected by high tariffs. The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885. The policy was very unpopular in the western provinces as they saw the same goods they paid for dearly, sold at much reduced prices below the U.S. border. The white hot anger at the CPR, the visible cause of Prairie misery, gave rise to the story about the farmer, whose crops had been ruined by locusts, shaking his fist at the sky calling out "God damn you CPR."

Fast forward to 1905 when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were fashioned out of the Northwest Territories, owned by the federal Crown. The new provinces weren't given power over "natural resources," a power all other provinces had. This was keenly resented and a bitter struggle ensued. Finally, in December 1929 Ottawa granted the prairie provinces the same rights other provinces had.

Then came natural gas in Turner Valley, followed by what seems like a never ending discovery of oil. The 1929 deal had come just in the nick of time for Albertans.

Now to 1980. As with other countries in the "West," we suffered from the shenanigans of OPEC, which hit the manufacturing regions hard, as it did all Canadians outside Alberta and B.C. (which had huge natural gas resources) when it came to heating homes in winter. Pierre Trudeau, who wasn't big on provincial rights in the first place, brought in the national Energy Program (NEP), which, by keeping domestic oil prices below world market prices, forced Alberta, and to a lesser degree B.C., to be generous by subsidizing industry and homeowners alike. Alberta reacted by cutting back on production and using bumper stickers saying "Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark."

Brian Mulroney came to power in 1984 promising to get rid of the National Energy Plan, which was pretty easy because the NEP contained a threshold price of oil before it kicked in and oil prices had fallen well below that mark.

Alberta-centric politics

Before going on it must be stated that in B.C. and Alberta, the latter especially, the right to natural resources is an "or fight" issue.

Alberta will, on March 3rd, elect another Conservative government even though the Tories are stale with a colourless leader and have been in power since man's mind runneth not to the contrary. The result will mean that Premier Stelmach will say "the rest of Canada can get stuffed on climate control and keep your grubby hands off our oil resources."

Now that the price of oil is pressing on the $100 per barrel mark, the tar sands, hitherto uneconomical to mine (for that's how it's done) are in production. Thus has Alberta flung down the gauntlet and dared the federal government to pick it up and fight.

This puts that part-time Albertan Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a hell of a box and, in my view, explains why he's egging on the opposition to force an election. The last thing he needs is a federal election where the votes of Albertans are crucial to his success. In other words, for Mr. Harper, it's gird up our loins with a majority government then step into the ring with Alberta.

In the result, the 1980 policy of Pierre Trudeau must be examined by the feds. The NEP was never tested in the courts as to its constitutionality and my guess is that if it is, Ottawa will win and they'll be able to do through the back door, taxes, what they can't do through the front door: expropriate provincial resources.

If that happens, all hell will break loose with Alberta and B.C. -- and maybe Saskatchewan as well, making the same noises as Quebec does when the poison ivy re-occurs.

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