The last Canadian prime minister named Trudeau who cited the constitution to impose his view of the “national interest” on a western province obliterated the Liberal Party in Alberta for a generation. Now the Globe and Mail editorial board is urging  his son to invoke the same power to force a U.S.-owned oil pipeline on British Columbia against that province’s will—risking his party’s future again, this time in a province with even more seats.
Many Albertans continue to revile the Liberal brand for Trudeau Sr.’s 1980 imposition of a national oil price well below world levels. What the Globe is now casting as a constitutional showdown between the federal government and a wayward province is in fact just the latest chapter in that saga: Alberta’s ongoing, as-yet unmet desire for an outlet to world markets, and world oil prices.
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But where Alberta and the Toronto paper agree is that it’s now time for British Columbia to feel the federal lash—whatever the consequences for Justin Trudeau government.
Ottawa approved  Houston-based Kinder Morgan’s plan to triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain diluted bitumen pipeline last fall, with some rerouting of the line requiring additional approvals. But the alliance of newly-elected Green and New Democrat MLAs, who hold just enough seats in the B.C. legislature to defeat Liberal Premier Christy Clark at her government’s first appearance in the House, have said that if (or when) they form a government, a top priority  will be to frustrate the company’s ability to complete the project.
“In the end, they could kill the project by forcing delay after delay,” the Globe writes, “while Ottawa, paralyzed by a fear of alienating voters, stands by.”
As the paper puts it, “Ottawa played by the rules” in approving “a project of the type that the constitution places squarely in its jurisdiction: railways, canals, hydro lines, pipelines, and other infrastructure that cross provincial boundaries. Ottawa also has clear jurisdiction over seacoasts, navigation and shipping,” giving it the authority to determine, for example, whether additional tanker traffic  in the Salish Sea warrants the threat it poses to its endangered orcas. The paper’s editors point to a constitutional fallback clause that gives Ottawa residual jurisdiction over any projects that Parliament declares to be “for the general advantage of Canada.”
“It comes down to one question,” the Globe declares. “Can Ottawa effectively exercise its responsibilities if the provinces refuse to recognize its authority on controversial issues?” The paper’s melodramatic language echoes the tone of Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley, who last week warned, “we can’t be a country that says one of its two functional coastlines is only going to do what the people who live right beside it want to do.”
What the paper and Notley overlook, however, is that the power the constitution gives to various Crown agents is discretionary. It allows the federal government to act in areas of its jurisdiction; it does not require it to do so. And Ottawa has frequently declined to exercise its jurisdiction on other areas, such as choosing not to enforce legislated wildlife protections in the Athabasca River, which flows past Alberta’s tar sands/oil sands.
And where the constitution gives Ottawa a strong hand, politics may counsel discretion. The Liberals were shut out of Alberta for decades after 1980’s National Energy Plan. British Columbia has a quarter more seats in the House of Commons than Alberta does (42 to 34), and in 2015 gave 17 of them to Trudeau’s Liberals (versus four from Alberta).