Jan 022013
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Westerners have more pull than Central Canada, if their differences let them pull together.

by Gillian Steward

CALGARY — Is this the year when Alberta and British Columbia become the new Quebec and Ontario? When the duels between two western powerhouses dominate the national agenda just as the constitutional and political battles of Central Canada once took centre stage?

It certainly looks like it. And it’s yet another sign of how much power has shifted westward.

In the 1990s, the Reform party’s mantra was “the West wants in” and it resonated with a lot of people in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Since Harper can’t afford to alienate BC voters, he is going to have to persuade them somehow that the pipeline is good for them. That certainly will be interesting to watch.

Whether western voters tended to the left, centre or right, they all understood the deep desire to get out from under the domination of Central Canada’s golden triangle — the political and business decision-makers in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Twenty years later, the West is definitely “in.”  The federal Conservative government is built on what seems to be an unshakable western base of support.

After decades of prime ministers from Quebec, we now have a prime minister who, although born and raised in Ontario, is very much a Calgarian.

Energy and resources, the lifeblood of the western economy, are now vital to the entire Canadian economy.

For a long time the striving to accomplish this power shift united the western provinces even though they are in fact quite different from one another.

But during the last two years the facade of unity has fractured — especially between the two most powerful western provinces, Alberta and British Columbia.

The contentious issue that has brought things to a head is, of course, Enbridge’s proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway Pipeline.

Alberta’s politicians and oil industry want it built as soon as possible so diluted bitumen from the oilsands can be piped from Edmonton to BC’s coast and then shipped to Asia.

A significant number of people in BC, including both the governing Liberals (who are really conservatives) and the opposition NDP, who are likely to form the next provincial government, as well as influential aboriginal groups, believe the pipeline is a bad deal for BC.

“We take all the risk, Alberta gets all the reward” has become the refrain for many people in BC. Even my relatives who live in Kelowna were quick to point this out when they visited Calgary last summer. The way they see it, piping thick oil through the northern wilderness and then putting it on tankers that will have to navigate tricky waters is a prelude to environmental disaster.

Most Albertans, on the other hand, see the pipeline as a key to an ever more prosperous economy for them and other Canadians. They don’t understand why people in BC would want to deprive anyone of that.

BC Premier Christy Clark and her Alberta counterpart, Alison Redford, echo the same kind of rhetoric and haven’t really budged from their respective positions. Clark wants some financial compensation for the environmental risk. Redford says that is out of the question and most constitutional experts agree with her.

Stephen Harper is dead set on building this pipeline but he has yet to weigh in on the dispute. Sooner or later he will have to if he expects to get what he wants. And since he can’t afford to alienate BC voters, he is going to have to persuade them somehow that the pipeline is good for them. That certainly will be interesting to watch.

The stakes are sure to get higher later this year. The next general election in BC is scheduled for May and so far the NDP leads in the polls. In the fall, the Joint Review Panel established by the National Energy Board is expected to release its assessment of the proposed pipeline after almost two years of public hearings. Whatever the JRP recommends, there’s a good chance one side or the other will take the matter to the courts.

In many ways, the differences between Alberta and BC over the pipeline are symbolic of the two solitudes that these provinces have become.

Vancouver and Calgary are as different from one another as Toronto and Montreal. Vancouver is a link in the chain of lush coastal cities that includes Seattle and San Francisco where the good life is a relaxed life. Calgary is a city of strivers who believe the good life is a prosperous life.

Both provinces’ economies were built on natural resources but BC’s is more diverse — forestry, mining, fishing and agriculture, and more unionized. Alberta’s economy is much more homogenous — almost everyone in Alberta depends either directly or indirectly on the oil and gas industry for work. When it goes bust almost everything else does too.

BC is also much more diverse when it comes to politics (but then every other province in Canada is more politically diverse than Alberta). BC actually swings between the left and the right and looks ready to elect an NDP government again. Alberta swings between red and not-so-red conservatives.

There is no doubt central and eastern Canadians will be hearing a lot more about the tensions between Alberta and BC. They might seem remote to people in the other end of the country, just as the endless drama of another national dispute was to us. But eventually they will change the entire political landscape.

About Gillian Steward

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald.

© Copyright 2013 Gillian Steward, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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