To crib a thought from Justin Trudeau’s late father, the universe did unfold, but not quite in the way it was designed for his son over the weekend.
The Prime Minister, was in Lima, Peru on Friday and Saturday, attending the Summit of the Americas. From Lima, he was supposed to fly directly to Paris, there, among other things, to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, attend the inauguration of the new Canadian Embassy on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and, not least, become the first Canadian prime minister to address the French National Assembly.
Then on to England for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, dinner with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and a day at Windsor Castle in private discussions with the other leaders of the 53-member Commonwealth.
It is pretty heady stuff, striding the big international stage.
But it didn’t play out as programmed when domestic Canadian politics intruded. Instead of flying from Lima to Paris, Trudeau flew back to Ottawa for a two-hour crisis meeting – call it a pipeline summit – Sunday morning with a pair of warring provincial premiers, British Columbia’s John Horgan and Alberta’s Rachel Notley.
There was something incongruous about that meeting. A Liberal prime minister rushes home to attempt to mediate a dispute between two New Democratic Party premiers, ostensibly ideological soulmates, over the expansion of a pipeline that, because it would run from one province to another, falls squarely under the constitutional authority of the federal government – and is not within the jurisdiction of either provincial government.
What’s more, the project – the $7.4 billion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion to carry heavy oil from the Alberta oil sands to Burnaby, B.C. – is a project that has already received final government approval.
Incongruous, perhaps, but vitally important to both premiers and to the prime minister.
No one expected a meeting of minds and there wasn’t one. B.C.’s Horgan, the fate of his minority government in the hands of three Green party MPPs, left Ottawa still resolutely opposed to the pipeline – for environmental reasons. Alberta’s Notley left equally determined that it be built – for economic reasons.
That left it to Trudeau to try to balance the economic with the environmental. It is a balance he has been struggling with for months as he pursues policies to combat climate change on one hand and, on the other, measures to encourage economic growth through resource development.
Jet lag may have been a factor, but the prime minister looked ill at ease at his press following the pipeline meeting. He did what he had to do. As he has throughout, he asserted the federal government’s constitutional authority.
Ottawa, he said, will not permit British Columbia to block the pipeline, but he also announced that his government will introduce legislation to reinforce that federal authority – presumably by making it clear that B.C. has no jurisdiction over contents of pipeline, as the province has suggested.
Legislation to protect the ocean coast from increased tanker traffic is to be enacted. And Ottawa will pursue negotiations to give Kinder Morgan a measure of cost certainty that it says its shareholders require if the pipeline is to proceed. Whether that support will be in the form of loans to Kinder Morgan or Ottawa taking an equity position in the pipeline won’t be known until the negotiations with the company are concluded, Trudeau said.
Although the federal position is clearer than it was before the meeting, the risks to the Trudeau Liberals are also clearer. Loss of some of the party’s 18 seats in British Columbia seems highly likely, if not inevitable. But there is little chance that Albertans will reward Trudeau’s support by increasing the Liberals’ seats beyond the three they already hold.
The Prime Minister could be forgiven a sigh of relief when his plane finally took off from the stress of Ottawa, headed for the relative tranquility of Paris.