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NY Times: Trudeau Won the Election, but Hasn’t Won Over Western Canada

As Justin Trudeau officially begins his second term, a sense of alienation from the rest of the country is the dominant sentiment in the oil-producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

LONGVIEW, Alberta — Justin Trudeau, beginning his second term as Canada’s prime minister, unveiled his new cabinet in Ottawa on Wednesday. Thousands of miles away, in the western Canadian province of Alberta, John Scott, a rancher, had a few words of advice for him.

“Trudeau hates us, but he’s going to have to learn that he’s going to have to deal with us,” Mr. Scott said last week, bouncing around his land in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in a sport-utility vehicle.

Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party won enough seats in the Canadian Parliament to hang on to power with the support of other left-of-center parties. But it did not win the popular vote. The vast prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan voted overwhelmingly for its main opponent, the Conservative Party.

Mr. Trudeau found himself without any Liberals from the two oil-producing provinces when he appointed his new cabinet. It’s a reflection of the strong distaste that this part of Canada has for the prime minister and his party — and the challenges that will present as he tries to unify a country increasingly fractured by region.

The bad feelings in the western part of the country are mostly animated by a perception that Mr. Trudeau is undermining the oil and gas industry, the economic lifeblood of the west. There is also a sense that he is unwilling to help the provinces as they are going through a period of economic pain.

“For most Albertans, much of this revolves around a basic hostility on the part of the Trudeau government to our energy sector,” said Jason Kenney, a former federal Conservative cabinet minister who became Alberta’s premier earlier this year.

In a bid to reach out to the West, Mr. Trudeau named Chrystia Freeland, his former foreign minister, to handle relations with the provinces, and gave her the largely ceremonial title of deputy prime minister.

Ms. Freeland grew up in part on a farm in Alberta although she now represents a downtown Toronto electoral district and has spent most of her adult life in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Trudeau also named Jim Carr, a former cabinet minister from the prairie province of Manitoba, as an adviser on western provinces.

Mr. Kenney, the Alberta premier, has become the most prominent political critic of Mr. Trudeau since the election. He relentlessly attacks the prime minister in interviews, and has spent 30 million Canadian dollars, or about $22.7 million, on a push to respond to critics of Alberta’s oil industry and the oil sands, which many environmental groups argue is an exceptionally polluting energy source.

While Mr. Trudeau rejects Mr. Kenney’s position that his policies are undermining Alberta’s oil and gas industry, the sector is unquestionably at the heart of anti-Trudeau sentiment in the west.

More than a year before Mr. Trudeau first took office in November 2015, global oil prices collapsed. The price most commonly paid for Alberta oil has been stuck at half or less of its most recent peak of $86.56, back in July 2014.

The province has gone from begging for workers to take high-paying jobs, particularly in the oil sands, to an unemployment rate higher than the national average. Its budget has been hit by falling tax revenues as well as decreased royalty payments from oil and gas companies.

But Mr. Trudeau has taken some extraordinary steps to help mitigate these problems.

Last year, he spent 4.5 billion Canadian dollars to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline, which links landlocked oil sands with a port farther west near Vancouver, British Columbia. He is now spending billions more to increase its capacity, a plan opposed by British Columbia’s government.

The project has been bogged down by legal challenges, particularly ones from Indigenous groups in British Columbia. That has led many Albertans, including Mr. Scott, the rancher, to speculate about the prime minister’s motives.

“Trudeau bought the pipeline so he can stall everything — that’s my own personal opinion,” said Mr. Scott, whose ranch with its breathtaking views of the Rockies doubles as a location for feature film making, and supplies filmmakers with horses, buffalo, cattle and other animals.

“And that’s what’s killing us right now,” he said. “We’ve got a great product but where are we’re going to sell it if we can’t get it out of here?”

There is also a sense within Alberta that the rest of the country is unwilling to help out the province during its current troubles.

Gary Mar, a former Conservative cabinet minister in Alberta who is now the president of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, keeps the blinds drawn in his downtown Calgary office to shield his view of swathes of empty space in neighboring buildings.

He estimates that the province of 4.4 million people has lost about 100,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry over the last four years, something that, he says, the prime minister has not sufficiently recognized.

“That is, in part, what fuels the sense of anger,” he said.

Eleanore Catenaro, Mr. Trudeau’s press secretary, said the government was “determined to see the Trans Mountain Expansion project completed,” noting that despite the court challenges, work has already begun. She also pointed out that the government was supporting four pipeline projects other than Trans Mountain involving Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“These projects demonstrate our support of Canada’s energy industry and its workers,” she said.

To some extent, the discontent with Mr. Trudeau is an offshoot of structures in the Canadian government that predate him.

The way federal tax revenues are distributed, for example, has long rankled people in the west. Even with oil industry in a slump, Alberta provides a disproportionately large chunk of the federal government’s revenues. But to make sure that Canadians have roughly the same level of basic services in areas like health care and education, the federal government helps provinces with weaker economies.

This year Alberta will get no help from the federal government because comparatively its economy remains strong, even though Mr. Kenney has cut spending to make up for lost income from the oil downturn. But Quebec just posted a budget surplus of 4.8 billion Canadian dollars after receiving 13 billion dollars from the federal government.

On top of that, Mr. Kenney said that changes to environmental review laws introduced, but not passed, by Mr. Trudeau’s government before the election will cripple the oil and gas industry. And Mr. Trudeau will impose a federal carbon tax that includes consumers in the province at the beginning of next year.

“You’ve got at least two provinces who have made a hugely oversized contribution to the federation, to prosperity, to fiscal balances,” Mr. Kenney said, referring to Alberta and Saskatchewan, “that are feeling increasingly like they’re not at home in their own country.”

This sentiment, Mr. Kenney said, explains the so-called Wexit movement, a push for Alberta and Saskatchewan to break away from the rest of Canada.

“A lot of people brandish this threat because they think it will maximize leverage,” he said, comparing it to Quebec’s history of pushing for separatism.

But it seems more talk than a serious political movement at the moment, although it has attracted news coverage of rallies of a few hundred people calling for a referendum on leaving Canada. A Wexit Party has been registered with federal election officials.

“Some people want to talk about separatism but that’s because they want to stir the pot,” said Janet Brown, who conducts political polling in Alberta for news organizations. She added, “Not many Albertans see it as a very practical solution. But Albertans still do want a better deal.”

Mr. Kenney does not support separation. He has appointed a panel to make recommendations on how Alberta might pull back from the federal system in other ways by, for example, taking over its citizens’ public pension plan or no longer relying on the federal government’s tax collector to handle provincial income tax.

Not every Albertan backs Mr. Kenney’s pugilistic approach to relations with the rest of Canada.

Not far from Mr. Scott’s ranch, Gordon Cartwright presides over the venerable D-Ranch, which sits on land his family has owned or worked even before Alberta became a province in 1905.

To Mr. Cartwright, who was part of a group that successfully fought a natural gas pipeline through their area, Alberta’s governments have become “captured by the oil industry.” And he thinks his province has to work with the rest of the country, not fight it.

“There’s going to be a pocket of Albertans that think they want to be separate,” he added. “It’s always a symptom of when things are under stress. But it’s usually better to work on a marriage.”

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  • Nov. 20, 2019

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