Encana doesn’t want to be Canadian anymore, and Trudeau shrugs

The Liberals just failed their first key test after getting shut out of Alberta in the election

In Alberta, painfully symbolic moves just keep piling up. Resource giant Encana’s decision to rebrand itself as the bewilderingly awkward Ovintiv makes it the second iconic company this year to remove the “Canada” component of its name, after pipeline firm TransCanada became TC Energy. A Bloomberg headline observed: “‘Canada’ is becoming a dirty word in the oil patch”—and don’t companies pursuing growth or seeking investment dollars know it. Encana’s further announcement it will decamp from Calgary to a U.S. headquarters makes it just the latest big energy player to shift away from Alberta. But in the province, this move feels more like a kick in the teeth than most have, coming from the once- (and in some quarters still-) iconic Canadian company, which built Calgary’s gleaming Bow Tower, and a decade ago was the country’s largest company by market capitalization—even mightier than the big banks—before fading from prominence amid many transformation attempts.

It was the first major howl of pain to ring out from Alberta since, well, last week’s federal election—the one that seemed to affirm that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals need be more responsive to to the troubles and anxieties in the oil-producing Prairie provinces. Which made Encana-gone-Ovintiv’s announcement the first post-election test for Trudeau. And his team blew it.

Trudeau, busy playing cabinet fantasy draft ahead of Nov. 20, did not come out to speak, nor put out a statement, nor even  tweet on the news. When CBC’s Power & Politics pursued a Liberal guest Thursday to react, nobody was made available, host Vassy Kapelos reported on-air. Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi (who is booked for the show Friday) lost his Edmonton seat, along with all other Liberals in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

RELATED: The answer to Justin Trudeau’s Western cabinet problem

But nobody? All Kapelos, or others, got was a statement from a Natural Resources press secretary. It spends fewer paragraphs expressing disappointment or reflecting on the significance of this move than it does extolling the accomplishments of the Trudeau government on pipelines and investments—the concrete measures that have proven insufficient to bring pipelines to completion or create a solid investment climate. (The statement is reproduced below, in its full boastfulness and inadequacy.)

The what-ifs rang out across the West: would there be such minimal response from Trudeau’s camp if a major Quebec company was uprooting, given the last full year of all-out efforts to preserve the Canadianness of SNC-Lavalin’s head office and jobs? While Encana’s executives have stated no domestic jobs will be lost with the shift, Albertans have long learned to wait a while for the sickening thud of the next shoe dropping.

Addressing newly inflamed western alienation will require both better words and better actions from Trudeau’s minority government, and Thursday offered an obvious opportunity to show his abilities on the first front. Is this Strike One, or do we keep score from the election or last term, in which case I struggle to keep track?

Jason Kenney has exaggerated and hardened the regional disdain for Trudeau by filling the political reaction void, opining that the energy sector’s “broader decline” is a “deliberate policy of the Trudeau government.” Reality may beg to differ, starting with the purchase of Trans Mountain. But Alberta’s premier is echoing a popular sentiment in his province—failing to do so would risk drawing the public wrath in his own direction. Perhaps the federal Liberals didn’t want to sound defensive on CBC’s daily politics show, or to take their lumps so publicly. But in oil country, it’s prime lump-taking season, and the Liberals should suffer their bruises now rather than face worse, more pent-up frustrations later.

RELATED: Why Jason Kenney’s proposed referendum is so puzzling

Kenney demands for a response from Trudeau have become ever bolder, as he calls on the Liberals to implement Conservative platform planks—his own and Andrew Scheer’s. They include pursuit of a cross-country energy corridor, an overhaul to equalization and the undoing of energy regulations in Bill C-69. In the Globe interview , Kenney even demanded that Trudeau move Catherine McKenna out of the environment portfolio, an extraordinary request that will likely result in Trudeau keeping her there. The lines between demands that are genuine and those that are meant for Kenney’s conservative base are starting to blur.

This increases the need for Trudeau to seek more counsel and listen more to voices out west, much as Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe want to be the lone regional conduits. The PM’s only publicly known outreach thus far has been to big-city mayors in Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton and Calgary—all of whom skew more progressive than the region’s broader electorates. He’s also looked to transition advisor Anne McLellan, the former Liberal minister and his Frequently Asked Albertan. But there are business figures to lean on, as well, and not all are in the snarling, anti-Trudeau mode we so often hear. The Business Council of Alberta formed in June, bringing together the oil players that tend to dominate Alberta’s public conversation with other large companies like WestJet, Nutrien and Shaw Communications. Have they heard from Trudeau’s team since the election? No, council president Adam Legge tells Maclean’s.

In response to the questions I’m increasingly getting about separatism, I’ve told people to wait a few weeks to see whether any serious movement coalesces around the idea, and what Trudeau does to ease or exacerbate frustrations. Inaction may help make it worse.

The lone statement from the federal government Thursday, attributed to Natural Resources ministerial press secretary Vanessa Adams, on Encana’s decision to rebrand and move its base south of the border:

We are aware of Encana’s recent announcement, and we are disappointed to hear this news. Encana has been at the forefront of the Canadian oil and gas sector, and their CEO has confirmed that this will not affect the hard-working Canadians employed by the company, or the investments they have made in Canada.

Alberta is a key driver of Canada’s economy, but we know this has been a very challenging time for the energy sector and for Alberta’s economy, with 99% of our oil going to a single customer – the United States. That’s exactly why we have been focused on creating the conditions to attract investment, including by:

  • Building pipeline capacity with the Line 3 replacement and Keystone XL, and getting our resources to new export markets with TMX, which is under construction and has 2,200 workers employed;
  • Making sure good projects can be approved and get built with our better rules for project reviews; and
  • By boosting competitiveness through the Accelerated Investment Incentive, low taxes, and by supporting innovation to reduce emissions.
  • We secured the single largest private sector investment in Canadian history – the $40 billion LNG Canada project – and there are hundreds of other major resource projects planned across Canada over the next 10 years.

We will continue taking the necessary steps to ensure Canada and Alberta remain competitive, and that our energy sector remains a source of good, middle class jobs.



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