During the recent French and English language debates for the Conservative leadership, one of the two leading candidates accused the other of wanting to impose an oil pipeline on Quebec without its consent.
Erin O’Toole, the Conservative MP for Durham, Ont., articulated his vision for a national energy corridor throughout Canada. He was then accused by Peter MacKay of ignoring that this may have to involve imposing such a corridor.
This same charge was levelled at departing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during the previous campaign debates.
All the candidates on the stage for this recent debate spoke eloquently and persuasively in favour of building pipelines in Canada.
The problem is that these same politicians are encountering the realities of elected politics in Canada.
The Conservatives have accepted a claim – validated and affirmed by many court rulings, including the Supreme Court of Canada – that inter-provincial pipelines are within federal jurisdictions and within the national interest right now.
Confederation was designed to create an economic union from sea to sea, linked by national infrastructure that crosses provincial borders. Our national railway and our highway systems were built on this rationale.
So the federal government could impose its will on Quebec – or any province and territory – to ensure such a pipeline gets built. That’s a legitimate and constitutionally sound policy option.
So why can’t any of the Conservative leadership candidates just say that?
There are a few reasons and they are all based on politics, not good policy.
Every policy option carries implications and consequences. The immediate calculation for any federal politician or candidate in Canada is that Quebec represents 75 seats in the House of Commons, second only to Ontario’s 106 seats. Clearly, a path to winning a government passes through Quebec.
And Quebec has always been an area where the Conservatives could grow support.
Quebec has a history of asserting its distinct national identity and has been very aggressive in dealing with those who seek to impose a federal vision. Like Alberta, Quebec advocates for provincial rights and a decentralized federation.
In addition, there’s a perception that Quebec opposes pipelines and hates the Canadian oil sector, especially the Alberta oil sands.
There is evidence that Quebec is more motivated along environmental lines than some other provinces. But when it comes to pipelines, the most vocal opponents are politicians, not average voters. Quebec Premier Francois Legault has said: “Regarding oil, there’s no social acceptability in Quebec.”
However, senior Montreal Economic Institute researcher Germain Belzile has noted that polling data from the firm Leger paints a different picture. In the poll – from 2018 – a large majority of Quebec respondents wanted their oil to come from Western Canada. Only a small percentage wanted it from the United States or anywhere overseas.
The same poll revealed that 53 per cent of Quebec respondents would prefer Quebec develop its oil resources than continue to import its oil.
This data demonstrates the gulf of opinion between political elites – and many cultural elites in Quebec – who act like Quebec is monolithic in opposing oil and pipelines. Sometimes urban Quebec politicians assume metro Montreal represents all of Quebec, just as politicians from Ontario and B.C. think opinions from their provinces only come from Toronto or Vancouver.
So when it comes to any Canadian politician promoting pipelines, there’s a third option other than arguing for no pipelines or saying Ottawa must impose its will on provinces.
That option is to speak past Quebec provincial politicians and pundits and address Quebec people directly, armed with data.
While asserting the national interest over various provinces is a valid option, it need not be asserted when the public is already open to considering these pipelines. For example, given B.C.’s intransigence on this issue, there’s a better case for asserting Ottawa’s authority on the province.
Canadian politicians need to recognize that.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org