The spat between Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean demonstrates again that Canada’s fragmented political culture is unequal to the task of preserving our prosperity and national unity.
Last week, Coderre made various claims in support of the decision by the mayors of his region to oppose the Energy East pipeline on environmental grounds. “We have committees of engineers, so we are working with credible data,” he said. And it was all very logical, in its own way.
But the mayor’s bottom line was also in plain view: “. . . the economic reality is that it’s only 33 jobs and at most $2 million per year of municipal revenue.”
Jean, for his part, was not impressed. He described the mayors’ position as “disgraceful” and implied strongly that Quebec should simply support Alberta given that his province had contributed the lion’s share of Quebec’s multibillion-dollar equalization payments over the past decade.
The two men then traded schoolyard insults. Jean ridiculed Coderre over Montreal’s scandalous environmental record, particularly the dumping of raw sewage into the vulnerable St. Lawrence River. Coderre – returning fire – managed to insult Jean and all Albertans by suggesting that our science is laughable: “These are probably the same people who think the Flintstones is a documentary.”
The exchange was humiliating for all Canadians. And it helped to make clear that Canada needs vision and leadership in order to rise above this muck and realize this country’s remarkable promise.
Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, faced a similar set of circumstances in the 19th century. He realized that Canadians needed to dream big, to have a larger mission that would “inspire our spirits and unite our energies.”
Macdonald launched his National Policy, a program for building a united and prosperous Dominion. It was ambitious and made no excuses for putting Canada first. But Macdonald also took on the enormous financial and political risk of building the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway – a feat of engineering that opened the West, physically uniting this vast nation.
An obvious symptom of Canada’s modern disease is its descent into a bizarre irrationality. This disease has now infected the normally uncontroversial energy project approval process. We all know that fossil fuels emit dangerous carbon, and we know that pipelines are capable of leakage. But nothing can explain the public hysteria that has erupted over this new generation of energy projects.
I don’t support initiatives like the Keystone XL Pipeline through the United States (I think we should be upgrading and refining our oil in Canada). But given the levels of environmental outrage about that project, you’d think that TransCanada was conducting nuclear tests in the Nebraska heartland.
Today, nothing the energy industry can do is enough. Oil and gas production and pipelines are not seen as normal businesses conducting operations as they have for almost a century; they’re evil incarnate. Oil and gas port facilities (the new Western ones, not the existing Eastern ones) are viewed as wicked – certain to contaminate and destroy pristine coastlines. Today, even the innocuous National Energy Board stands accused of being a pawn of big oil and with it project assessment has fallen into a black hole of risk absolutism and irrational hatred.
But with a younger generation of leadership – Justin Trudeau in Ottawa and Rachel Notley in Alberta – we can launch a new era in Canadian politics. In order to reverse decades of drift and particularism, Canada needs an inspiring national vision, one dedicated to building a more just, more creative, more cohesive and more prosperous nation.
It will be difficult, but we need a 21st century National Policy. And that policy must include a few key facets: a Canada-first energy strategy that includes enlightened policies to transition to renewable energy; help for our First Nations; a plan to tackle the plague of inequality; and new initiatives to unleash the true potential of Canada’s technology sector.
Those kinds of targets would set the stage for a new dynamism. And it just might lift our gaze from today’s muck and launch a great new Canadian century.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.