Why Trudeau’s cabinet is still all blurry on the western front

The PM wisely avoided a stunt move like appointing an unelected Albertan. And he spoke of the energy industry with some overdue respect.

Rather than that stunt-cabinetmaking idea of appointing a non-MP to be Minister for Saska-berta—heave a sigh for Mayor Nenshi!—Justin Trudeau created the surface-level appearance that attention to what’s ailing the petro-provinces will be a coast-to-coast priority. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan is MP for Canada’s easternmost riding in St. John’s, while Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s sits across Vancouver Harbour from the western terminus of the Trans Mountain pipeline and its maybe-one-day expansion. Jim Carr, the Prime Minister’s special Prairie envoy, is from the keystone province of Manitoba, and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland lives in the Centre of the Universe.

These will be the key players in Trudeau’s efforts deal with the searing frustrations in the two western provinces that rejected the Liberals entirely. He was wise not to name an unelected figure to carry all the burdens of Alberta and Saskatchewan—to not further enflame grassroots anger out here and to avoid clogging one minister’s office with the phone calls and email queries of anxious western mayors and energy CEOs. The balm for western alienation must be applied by many hands, Trudeau has decided. Though even after cabinet day, a whole post-election month in the making, he seems to have little idea what the ingredients of that balm should be.

When asked about the western strategy Wednesday, many of the answers from Trudeau and his lieutenants diverted to the need to heed concerns of all Canadians. Freeland, the Prime Minister’s apparent co-leader of these efforts as deputy PM, said the key will be to “start by listening very, very hard” to concerns in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the plaintive, vague talking point that has remained the Liberal failsafe since Oct. 21.

RELATED: Why so many Albertans are giving up on their country

There was no talk about the demands from Premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe to reopen equalization—probably wise, as that is the perennial Pandora’s box of federalism. Cabinetkind wasn’t even saying much about the Trans Mountain pipeline that Trudeau’s pledged to finish—perhaps for fear of further angering to risk further angering environmentalists who are upset the Environment portfolio didn’t go to Équiterre founder Steven Guilbeault—a move that would have sparked outrage in Calgary and the rest of oil country.

It could be that Trudeau isn’t keen to start his second term with anything resembling an open chequebook for the ransom-list of demands from Kenney and Moe to basically implement the federal Conservative platform. Or it could be that the Liberals honestly keep struggling with the puzzle of addressing the economic and political anxieties of a particular region that detests them, while at the same time maintaining NDP and Bloc support for the minority government.

The Liberals, at least, avoided putting gasoline on the fire with the picks of Wilkinson, Freeland and Carr, all of whom are generally well-liked and have Prairie roots. O’Regan will be a more polarizing figure—someone who assuredly has the Prime Minister’s friendly ear, on one hand, but also a politician who’s known better as a Trudeau pal than someone who accomplished much in the Veterans or Indigenous Services portfolios he’s been previously assigned. The energy sector in his native Newfoundland and Labrador already isn’t an O’Regan fan.

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

But amid the rhetorical vagaries of Wednesday there emerged one potential avenue to common ground between Kenney, the Trudeau Liberals and the oil patch. Green technology! Who doesn’t love that phrase, progressive modernity squared? Oil companies and their political boosters have lately taken keener interest in showcasing their attempts and successes at reducing their per-barrel carbon footprint, in hopes of blunting the longstanding argument about oil sands as dirty oil. Trudeau and his new team seem equally keen to nudge them further in that direction as they work toward that lofty net-zero promise, as the only other way to decarbonize without improving efficiency is to scale back production entirely.

It would tone down the pervasive fear in Alberta that the Liberals actually want to shut down the hydrocarbon sector. The Globe and Mail’s Marieke Walsh gave Trudeau a do-over of sorts of the “phase out the oil sands” remark he infamously made two years ago, when she asked him of the oil sands’ role in a net-zero future for Canada. Here’s his answer:

We recognize that people who work in the oil sands have been providing energy and resources to Canada for many decades in a way that has created tremendous prosperity for this country. The world is looking at reducing its carbon emissions, and as we move towards a lower-carbon economy, it’s going to be important to lean on the kind of innovation and technology that Albertans and Saskatchewanians and people right across the country are contributing to creating and delivering for the benefit of not just the industry and the jobs it creates but all Canadians. We recognize we need to move towards a lower-carbon economy. We also see Alberta and Saskatchewan as an essential element in moving forward in a way that brings all Canadians along.

Wilkinson, the environment minister, told reporters that energy-sector innovation could certainly become an area of federal-provincial common ground. He even spoke of efforts to reduce “emissions intensity,” as opposed to pushing down the fossil fuel sector’s overall carbon footprint—the sort of language Calgary corner offices like to hear.

The hotter issues like separatism, an Alberta-only pension plan, oil tanker-ban legislation and that darn pipeline will attract more attention, and those are the real beefs people have in the country’s Liberal dead zones. But behind the flame and sulphur, there could be a future where the resource-economy provinces and Ottawa are rowing in the same direction.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.