Energy East could be generation's Meech Lake
Security guards try to restrain a demonstrator from interrupting the National Energy Board public hearing into the proposed $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline project proposed by TransCanada Monday, August 29, 2016 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Canada is gradually and blindly stumbling toward this generation's Meech Lake.
That's the familiar name of the 1987 agreement among Ottawa and the provinces to grant Quebec special status in the Constitution. The proposal was controversial in English Canada, leading to a national-unity crisis, the rejection of the proposal and the Quebec sovereignists' near-victory in the 1995 referendum.
Like Meech Lake, the Energy East project, to build a pipeline across Quebec to deliver oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan mainly to New Brunswick for export, is dividing Canada between Quebec and other regions of the country.
Only this time, it's Quebec that's on the defensive against the proposal. The West, which is suffering from the collapse of oil prices, and New Brunswick want the pipeline for economic reasons. Quebec public opinion mostly doesn't want it, because of environmental concerns.
Quebec is not the only province where there is strong opposition to the construction of a pipeline across its territory. British Columbia and Ontario are others. Much of the opposition comes from First Nations.
It hasn't helped in Quebec that its promoter, Calgary-based TransCanada Corp., only belatedly realized the importance of persuading public opinion. Before that, TransCanada appeared to assume it could have Ottawa impose its pipeline on the province.
Nor has it helped that doubts have been raised about the impartiality of the National Energy Board, also based in Calgary. The NEB is the federal regulatory body asked to recommend Energy East to the federal government for approval.
The National Observer website disclosed that senior officials of the board had sought and obtained a private meeting with Jean Charest, when the former Quebec premier was paid by TransCanada to promote Energy East. As a result, the NEB had to suspend hearings on the project.
Yet it's Quebec that has borne most of the brunt of the West's anger over delays in the construction of new pipelines. Western politicians and commentators have angered Quebecers by calling them welfare bums, happy to have their province collect federal equalization payments while resisting a measure to create the prosperity in the West that provides them.
In a speech last week in Calgary, former prime minister Brian Mulroney declared Energy East, with characteristic hyperbole, a "grand nation-building exercise." And he called on Justin Trudeau to invest his popularity in building a national consensus in favour of the project.
But as Chantal Hébert of the Toronto Star commented, "if there is one former prime minister who should know the limits of the persuasive powers of a top-down policy consensus, it should be Mulroney" -- prime minister during the Meech Lake crisis.
If Trudeau does heed Mulroney's advice, he may have trouble finding political allies in Quebec. Premier Philippe Couillard, who was believed to favour Energy East, appeared to take a step back from it this week.
In an interview with Bloomberg.com, he said Quebecers' concerns about the pipeline are legitimate. He added, "we will not compromise our people's security and safety as far as water is concerned."
And at least one prominent sovereignist is counting on Energy East to help revive his movement.
Jean-François Lisée, who appears to have the momentum in the Parti Québécois leadership campaign, predicted in an interview with Le Devoir on Saturday that with time, Trudeau will "show his incompatibility" with Quebec. And one of the issues on which Trudeau will do so, Lisée said, is Energy East.