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National Opinion Centre

What if Canada and Alberta agreed to turn the page on history? What if Justin Trudeau and Jason Kenney set aside their differences and pledged to work together to make Canada and Alberta global leaders in a new energy era?

Fanciful? Maybe, but history is full of unlikely alliances that suddenly make the impossible possible. John A. Macdonald and George Etienne Cartier turned a fractured British colony into a country. Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong stepped outside their ideological shells and changed history.

Maybe the timing is right to solve the western alienation puzzle. According to the narrative, since the early days of Confederation, Central Canada (Ontario and Quebec) has used its majority in the House of Commons to exploit the west.

For Alberta, the defining moment was in 1982, with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program. Basically, the Liberals used their majority in Parliament to guarantee cheap oil for Central Canada.

Forty years later, the battles over pipelines and the carbon tax are still filtered through this lens. Indeed, today, many Albertans are convinced that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals want to kill the oil industry so they can meet their targets on climate change.

So, here’s a question for Canada Day 2020: Could Alberta and Canada create a new story that puts their relationship in a more positive light and leaves the old alienation narrative behind?

A lot of smart people think not. The two sides, they say, would never find enough common ground. They are just too far apart. The alienation narrative is entrenched, and Ottawa’s challenge is to live with it.

I think there is room for more optimism. As I wrote in an earlier piece, a powerful new counter-narrative is already reshaping how we see every region of this country and Alberta is at the epicentre. That narrative is about climate change.

The world, we are told, is hurtling toward global catastrophe and to save it we must shift to renewable energy. Activists have singled out the Oil Sands as a symbol of everything that is wrong with hydrocarbons.

A decade ago, Albertans reacted with a combination of outrage, denial, and defiance, but as the evidence mounts and the climate narrative takes root, the mood is changing.

Albertans may still be mad as hell, but they are also worried. The writing is on the wall and they know what happens when a boom goes bust. They need a new vision for the future – and they need it now.

Kenney is working on it. Yesterday, he announced that Alberta’s new plan for diversification will try to lure Toronto financiers to Alberta. Really? Why not leverage the opportunity that is already there? Which brings me to the good news.

Big multinationals in the oil patch are rapidly changing their narrative. These companies now acknowledge that greenhouse gas emissions must be stopped; they recognize that a transition to a sustainable economy is inevitable.

Rather than resisting change, the industry is repositioning itself as an agent of change.

In this view, the oil and gas sector have a critical role to play in Canada’s transition to a sustainable economy. This will come through new technologies, carbon capture, renewable fuels, and much more.

Not everyone is impressed. Climate change activists are skeptical, at best. So far, there is no agreement on how this transition might work. And there are sharp disagreements over how fast it should go, how it should be planned, and how it should be financed.

Industry’s transition talk, say the activists, is too little too late – a last gasp from a dying industry that is desperate to buy legitimacy. Are they right?

Honestly, I don’t know. Perhaps agreement on a transition plan can’t be reached, but I don’t think anyone else knows either. The only way to find out is to try. And for that, we need our political leaders to do something truly visionary. So far, the signs are not encouraging.

Canadians, on the other hand, want progress. A Positive Energy survey finds that a majority in every region say they believe that the oil and gas industry can be aligned with our goals on climate change.

I’ve argued elsewhere that Ottawa and Alberta could build on this together. They have a mutual interest in forging a credible story – a shared narrative – about the transition to a sustainable economy, one that includes Alberta.

Yes, the stakes are high, and failure is a real possibility. But one way or another, Ottawa and Alberta will have to confront each other on climate change. The only real choice is whether they do it as a team or as rivals – if they see this as a win/win or a win/lose.

If the latter, alienation will likely assume a new and even more belligerent form, and the country could find itself more deeply divided than ever.

So, my hopeful message on this Canada Day is that the alienation narrative in Alberta is not locked in. It can be changed. Indeed, it is already changing; a window is opening in which Albertans and Canadians could create a shared vision for the future.

Will our leaders rise to the occasion?

On this Canada Day 2020, we watch and wait.

Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance. He is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development with over 25 years’ experience as a project leader, researcher, writer, senior government advisor, and facilitator. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.com

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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