Back in the fall of 2015, a little over 1,000 days ago, Premier Rachel Notley was the fresh-faced newcomer at the table as Canada’s first ministers gathered in Ottawa.
The world had a distinctly progressive feel to it.
Barack Obama was still in the White House then, Justin Trudeau had just been elected prime minister, and the federal government was preparing for the consequential Paris climate change talks.
The major theme of that 2015 first ministers meeting was on the need to step up Canada’s efforts on the environment.
Notley was in the spotlight and received kudos from Trudeau on her government’s new Climate Leadership Plan, featuring a $30 per tonne carbon tax, a cap on oilsands emissions and a phase-out of coal plants.
Similar support came from other leaders at the conference table, a group that hailed mostly from the Liberal camp and included two other women premiers — Christy Clark of B.C. and Kathleen Wynne of Ontario.
The odd man out was Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, the lone conservative leader in the room and about the only one to caution against imposing harm on an oil industry struggling with low prices.
What a difference three years makes.
At least that’s how I suspect Notley was feeling this week while travelling to another first ministers conference in Montreal where she is facing a political landscape turned upside down.
Notably, Alberta is now the only province with a woman serving as premier.
Previously Liberal or NDP governments in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick have flipped, mostly to Conservatives opposed to carbon taxes.
The only other NDP premier, B.C.’s John Horgan, has ironically become one of Notley’s biggest adversaries due to his government’s attempts to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to the Pacific Ocean.
And even Trudeau has become something of an antagonist for Notley these days, with the Alberta leader regularly bashing Ottawa’s failure to get the pipeline built and inaction to help alleviate the recent oil price crisis.
Largely because of that price collapse, Notley is now the loudest voice in the conference room leading the defence of oil.
Instead of touting action on climate change, the premier’s chief mission for this meeting is to build support for getting more of Alberta’s crude to market.
On that issue, Notley did find alignment with some premiers to at least push the issue onto the agenda.
But expecting complete consensus or real action to emerge from the leaders was always going to be a tall order.
The official communiqué from the meeting said the first ministers agreed Ottawa should invest in short-, medium- and long-term efforts to help the energy industry, but no specifics were identified.
Notley skipped the wrap-up news conference to catch a plane, but made brief comments to reporters that confirmed no tangible commitment had been made by Trudeau.
“We don’t have the answer yet. I’ve got to be frank about that,” she said.
She said her main accomplishment was to raise the profile of the issue, though she acknowledged she had to “get her elbows up a little bit” to ensure enough time was provided for a full discussion.
The central message to her counterparts was to illuminate the economic damage wrought by low oil prices as a “slow-moving car crash” neglected by political leaders for nearly a decade, Notley said.
“As first ministers we have all been very politely sitting around and admiring the problem and (now it is) time for us to stop doing that and take action.”
But it was also clear not everyone in the room was receptive to the message.
Particularly unhelpful were the comments of Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who suggested prior to the meeting that Alberta’s oil crisis wasn’t Quebec’s problem. He also rejected calls to revive the Energy East project by saying pipelines no longer have “social acceptability” in his province.
Such remarks are likely to leave Albertans bristling, particularly since Canada’s equalization regime has helped fund Quebec’s infrastructure and social programs with revenue originating from Alberta’s energy sector.
You’d also think a province that lived through the 2013 Lac-Megantic train disaster would see the value of transporting oil by pipeline rather than by rail.
But it’s also nothing new from Quebec, and Notley is not the first Alberta premier unable to penetrate faulty logic from leaders of that province.
Which means some politics haven’t changed. And no advertising blitz, such as the one Alberta launched in Quebec media on Friday, is likely to shift attitudes — though Notley had to try.
The meeting in Montreal was likely the final first ministers conference for Notley prior to the Alberta election next spring, which means it could be the final such conference for Notley, period.
If that’s the case, I can only imagine she will head out, head shaking, at how the world flipped on her in such a short time.
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