The good news for Albertans is that Premier Jason Kenney isn’t feeling pessimistic after his meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The bad news is that he’s not exactly feeling optimistic either.
“Realistic,” is how he put it when speaking to reporters after the lengthy chat in the prime minister’s office on Tuesday, which lasted for more than an hour.
Kenney’s demeanour was an obvious contrast to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who came out of his meeting with Trudeau nearly a month ago fuming about how disappointed he was. Kenney, on the other hand, mentioned several times that he appreciates Trudeau’s willingness to listen to his concerns.
“We had a very frank conversation about the ongoing economic crisis in Alberta and the impact that has on the Canadian prosperity and, frankly, the unity of our country as well,” said Kenney. “I appreciate that the prime minster listened and seemed to be responsive on a number of points.”
The Alberta premier had a number of big requests for Trudeau, with the most important being a firm commitment on when the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will be completed. With the Alberta economy still recovering from a deep economic decline, the extra barrels of oil the pipeline will move to the Pacific coast have become the dominant issue in the province.
Kenney had no firm date to announce after the meeting, but Trudeau did note that shovels are already in the ground and construction is underway on the pipeline.
Kenney also wants changes to the federal fiscal stabilization fund, which provides extra money to provinces experiencing a short-term economic decline. He told Trudeau he wants the cap on the program lifted and $2.4 billion worth of retroactive payments to Alberta to make up for being shortchanged during the recent recession.
Kenney has been referring to it as an “equalization rebate” and a way for the federal government to show it appreciates Alberta’s outsized contributions to the federal coffers. Last week, all the provinces agreed to raise the issue with Trudeau.
“We already got unanimity across the country. Miracles will never cease,” said Kenney.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau said on Monday that he is open to listening to the concerns of the provinces on fiscal stabilization when the provincial finance ministers meet on Monday. Kenney said he received “no specific guarantee” on tweaks to the program, other than a willingness to look at it.
A recent surge in Western alienation also dominated the meeting.
Kenney told reporters that he urged Trudeau to take the concerns of Albertans seriously, citing poll numbers showing that a third of the province saying they’d be better off splitting from Canada than staying in the federation.
“The prime minister agrees that we must not ignore those sentiments,” said Kenney, who has repeatedly noted that Albertans feel unappreciated and neglected by the rest of the federation.
Kenney also lobbied for the federal approval of the massive Frontier Mine oil sands project proposed by Teck Resources and suggested that this “simple ratification” would be a litmus test for Albertans wondering if their federal government has got their back.
“The next few weeks will be critical in determining the seriousness of this federal government to respond to the deep and legitimate concerns in Western Canada,” said Kenney, saying he needed urgent action from the federal government ahead of the February deadline for approval.
Trudeau told Kenney that he’s aware of the deadline and that the federal government is working on the file with that in mind.
“I am somebody who always tries to be hopeful but that’s hard for a lot of Albertans who have been out of work for four years,” said Kenney.
Also on the list of issues that Kenney brought to Ottawa is a request to rewrite Bill C-69, which modified environmental assessments for large energy projects, and a complete scrapping of the government’s tanker ban law, which effectively bans Canadian oil exports from B.C.’s north coast.
Kenney expressed some optimism on Bill C-69.
“While the prime minster is not going to repeal the bill, as we would prefer, he did agree to work with us on its application, on the regulations and on the project list,” said Kenney. “So on a number of issues he’s indicated an openness and we appreciate that but we will be continuing to push our vital economic interests with vigour.”