C-69 to pit Liberals against conservative premiers in upcoming federal election

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa in May 2019. Image: Justin Trudeau/Flickr

The federal Liberal government has thrown down the gauntlet in front of half of Canada’s premiers.

On June 11, the same day that six premiers sent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter urging him to “refine or eliminate” two bills – one revamping the environmental assessment process, the other banning oil tankers from the West Coast – the federal Liberal government rejected the majority of proposed Bill C-69 amendments. That’s the bill Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has dubbed the “no more pipelines bill.”

Bill C-69 would radically change the way environmental assessments are done in Canada, and resource industries and business associations warn that it will kill investment in Canada if it isn’t significantly amended.

The Senate had recommended close to 190 amendments to C-69. What’s curious is that, although Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has accepted more than 60 of those amendments, she dismissed, out of hand, more than 90% of those from Conservative senators.

That’s troubling, said Canada West Foundation CEO Martha Hall Findlay, because it is the job of the House of Commons, not the environment minister, to vote on what amendments should stay and which should go.

“That package of amendments was voted for by the entire Senate,” Findlay said. “Maybe it’s because there’s an election looming, but to turn this right away into a partisan reaction is really unfortunate.”

University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston disagrees. He said C-69 is a government bill, and as a majority government, the Liberals have the power to winnow out amendments it disagrees with.

“If they want this legislation to get on the books, time is running out,” he said. “It seems to be the larger story here is this is set up for the election.”

Given all of the damage the Trudeau government has suffered over controversies like the SNC-Lavalin affair, the government needs to tick off a few election promise boxes, and environmental protection is one of them, especially given the Trudeau government’s support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

“I think that Trudeau needs to refurbish his environmental credentials here,” Johnston said. “They’re already compromised [by Trans Mountain], and I think he needs to do everything he can to deliver other environmental goods.”

Another environmental bill (Bill C-48) is a ban on oil tankers on the West Coast. Because it applies only to the West Coast, and not the East Coast, which has more oil tanker traffic than B.C., it is viewed as anti-Alberta.

The premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories sent Trudeau a letter June 11 urging him to back off on both bills.

Findlay thinks Trudeau should listen to them.

“They were elected by the people in those provinces,” Findlay said. “When they express concern, then, frankly, the federal government should be paying attention and should be engaging.”

Bill C-69 would dramatically change the way environmental assessments are done. It is generally supported by environmental groups but is opposed by business associations and chambers of commerce across Canada, several economic and public policy think tanks and half of Canada’s provincial and territorial premiers. Even the NDP in Alberta, now in opposition, opposes it.

“We need the federal government to take another look at all of the Senate’s amendments to Bill C-69 and approve them,” said Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade.

“Bill C-69 threatens to further depress investment in the natural resources sector and delay projects by unnecessarily exposing them to political risk,” the C.D. Howe Institute warned in April.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which has the authority to conduct environmental reviews, generally supports the bill but has raised concerns with some key elements of it.

Canadian resource industries and associations warn that investor confidence, already low in Canada, will inevitably worsen if the bill is passed without significant amendments.

At May’s Canada Gas and LNG Conference, Doug Ford – not the Ontario premier, but the CEO of Communica, a firm specializing in stakeholder engagement and consultation – said that under Bill C-69, it’s unlikely any additional LNG projects will go forward in Canada.

“In its present form, it makes it exceptionally unlikely that you’re going to see some major project development occur, unless you see some modifications to it,” Ford warned.

“So from a regulatory perspective, I cannot envision LNG Canada moving forward had Bill C-69 been in its current form back in 2010.”

In a June 12 press conference involving the energy ministers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said that, should Bill C-69 pass without the amendments recommended by the Senate, Alberta will immediately launch a constitutional challenge.

“We can’t do that until it passes into law,” she said. “But this bill clearly intrudes into provincial jurisdiction.”

Given how unpopular Bill C-69 is, one might wonder why the Trudeau government would risk a political war with half of the country’s premiers during an election.

There may be some political benefits for Trudeau, Johnston said, if he is seen as fighting back against Conservatives like Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and standing up for the environment. After all, Ford’s approval rating is now almost as low – or even lower, according to some polls – than Trudeau’s.

“If you’re trying to come up with demons to run against, Andrew Scheer is just tough to demonize,” Johnston said. “Jason Kenney makes a pretty good demon, but Doug Ford – this is just central casting.”

— Business in Vancouver