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West vs East Fight Over Energy East Pipeline Leaves Little Room for Adult Debate

Conservative politicians aren't taking too kindly to Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre's opposition to the Energy East pipeline.

A TransCanada Keystone pipeline. Photo via Flickr user Shannon Ramos

In the past week, many conservative politicians in Canada proved that they are not adults, but just infants cleverly disguised as adults. Consider the response to the Montreal mayor Denis Coderre's announcement that he (and 81 other municipal leaders) is not down with the construction of TransCanada's Energy East pipeline through his turf. Instead of simply saying, "Hello Denis, you actually don't have the authority as a municipal government to block the construction of the 1.1 million barrel/day pipeline as the approval process falls under the jurisdiction of a federal regulator," some of the country's most prominent right-wing figures essentially tried to blackmail him under completely imagined pretenses. In short, they've been playing rhetorical Calvinball.


Take Brad Wall, Saskatchewan Premier and rumoured Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate, who tweeted: "I trust Montreal area mayors will politely return their share of $10B in equalization supported by west." Or Derek Fildebrandt, finance critic for Alberta's far-right Wildrose Party, who babbled: "If Quebec has such a big problem with our energy industry, it can give back the $73B in Equalization." This refrain was also reiterated by Edmonton Sun columnist Lorne Gunter and "The Rebel" himself, Ezra Levant. But the idea that "the West" pays for Quebec isn't remotely close to reality.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. Photo via Facebook

Here are the boring details. Since the late 1950s, the federal government has redistributed tax dollars to poorer provinces to ensure they don't have to blow up hospitals or cut off education at Grade 3. It's typical socialist hogwash (although the money is given unconditionally like God's love, so the province can do whatever the fuck it wants with it). The idea was immortalized on paper in 1982, when Canada finally scored its very own constitution. Since then, provinces endowed with lots of oil—read: Alberta—have moaned about how smaller and poorer provinces have benefited from their wealth.

If anyone cared to actually look at how equalization transfers (which are one of three major transfers, along with the Canada Social Transfer and Canada Health Transfer) work, they'd quickly realize that money is distributed from the federal government's general revenue fund, which is collected via taxes like personal income, corporate income, and GST (so technically, Alberta's citizens as a whole would pay more into the fund then say citizens of Nova Scotia). Provinces don't "give" any money to the fund. Taxes would continue to be collected at the same rate, even if equalization payments ended (which they won't without a constitutional amendment).


At the heart of the idiocy spouted by conservatives like Wall and Fildebrandt is a regurgitation—a snotty sneeze combined with throwing up, if we're going to get technical about it—of the complex history of Western alienation. To condense Mary Janigan's excellent and very dense bookLet the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark into a single sentence: the Prairie provinces fought for decades in order to finally attain resource control in 1930, got really fucking pissed in the 70s when the federal government implemented an export tax on crude oil, and then burst into goddamn flames when Pierre Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program in 1980. Slamming Coderre for slamming the only pipeline that feasibly has a chance of being constructed in Canada in the near future arguably channels such resentment.

But the way that such dissatisfaction is manifesting is not only completely erroneous for all the boring reasons listed before, but it's drowning out thoughtful criticisms of Coderre et al that are actually grounded in reality. Think of Calgary's mayor Naheed Nenshi ("I've got a lot of respect for Mayor Coderre on this, however he's wrong") and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (who called such opposition "short-sighted").

The argument goes that Alberta's energy sector is hurting in a very real way and the plunge in global oil prices has dragged down the Canadian dollar to a staggering low. Energy East wouldn't increase greenhouse emissions but just replace emissions generated by oil imported to Montreal from foreign jurisdictions. Without new pipeline access to transport energy products to other jurisdictions and/or fulfill domestic demands, the country's trade balance will remain in a deep deficit. In the words of Nenshi: "This country works because prosperity for one part of the country is prosperity for the entire country."

But diplomacy apparently isn't in the cards for many: the Wildrose Party—Alberta's official opposition, which still hasn't released a shadow budget or alternate climate change plan despite having months to do so—insists "it's clear the NDP government's plan for a new carbon tax to get the "social license" for pipelines is failing" and that Notley needs to "fight" for pipelines. Yet the day after Montreal's rejection of Energy East, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced tentative support of the pipeline due to the very climate change plan denounced by the Wildrose. If it's going to happen, convincing Coderre and other municipal leaders to get on board with Energy East will likely take much more of same sort of statecraft.

Of course, such tactics may not result in the 1,600 dopamine boosts AKA retweets that Brad Wall's deeply ignorant statement received. But being a grownup in charge of an entire province isn't always fun.

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