Scott Moe is so unhappy with the policies Justin Trudeau is pursuing to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions that he declared in November that Saskatchewan “must be a nation within a nation.”
Saskatchewan’s prime minister had called a radio station to propose building “provincial autonomy” after Trudeau said he would put a cap on emissions from the oil and gas industry. The prime minister made the announcement at a climate summit in Glasgow, without consulting Moe and Jason Kenney of Alberta, the prime ministers of the two provinces hardest hit by the cap.
Moe denounced Trudeau and said Saskatchewan will consider pursuing Quebec-style deals to give him greater control over immigration and childcare. “We’re going to flex our autonomy, flex our provincial muscle, if you will, within the nation of Canada.”
The inspiration for this work may be generations of Quebec nationalists, but it is not clear that there is a consensus on the need for greater provincial autonomy in Saskatchewan, as there is in Quebec.
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Still, by taking up the nationalist cause, Moe is following in Kenney’s footsteps. In October, Albertans voted in favor of a referendum to demand changes to the federal leveling program, which Kenney promised would give him a mandate to deal with Ottawa. Kenney also threatens to withdraw Albertan’s workers from the Canada Pension Plan and replace the province’s Mounties with a provincial force.
Moe and Kenney are sure to give Trudeau a headache with their nationalist challenges in the year ahead. At its center is the debate on how to balance climate and energy policies. Less clear is whether voters are prepared to occupy the jurisdictional walls: in recent federal elections, disenchanted conservative Westerners voted for the People’s Party, led by a Quebecer, and not for the quasi-separatist Maverick Party. Moe and Kenney may not find eager allies in the less rectangular provinces, either.
The situation was very different three years ago, when Kenney formed a coalition of four provinces to fight the Trudeau carbon tax. That war ended on a whimper after a series of failed court battles, most recently on October 26, when Judge Richard Mosley ruled in federal court that Manitoba’s latest constitutional challenge was a dead end.
It seems unlikely that Manitoba will launch a nationalist crusade, and it’s hard to imagine Ontario doing so. Provinces can be expected to complain about climate measures, equalization, and healthcare funding levels, as they always do, but the fight for the carbon price should finally end in 2022. “I suspect we will end up adopting our own consumer carbon tax or agree to the federal consumer carbon tax for the next year, something that is subject to negotiations, ”said an official from a western province, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of his government on the subject. “Having lost the case, there really is no other play.”
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It’s hard to recall now that the outcome was once in doubt, and a beleaguered Trudeau faced provinces ready to fight him in court and at the ballot box to prevent him from imposing a carbon tax. “We had Jason Kenney losing his mind over the carbon price,” recalls Catherine McKenna, liberal environment minister from 2015 to 2019. “And on the other hand, we had Greta [Thunberg] coming to visit Canada, and young people marching through the streets, and we bought a pipeline. So I was worried. “
Ontario Prime Minister Doug Ford, who won the support of grassroots Ontario Tories by opposing a carbon tax, was also happy to fight. Brian Pallister of Manitoba, who had his own carbon tax scheme, joined in after Trudeau stood by his side and used him as an example of a cooperative prime minister. Behind the scenes, Stephen Harper cheered on prime ministers. “Let the others make a carbon tax, because we can all win the next federal and provincial elections only on that issue,” he said in speeches. It didn’t seem far-fetched: In 2008, the Liberals lost an election built around Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift (a combination of carbon taxes and tax cuts).
Today, Pallister is gone, Kenney is setting new records for unpopularity, Ford no longer talks much about the carbon tax he once loved to attack, and Moe complains. “They complain but they comply,” says Tim Gray, chief executive of Environmental Defense, of the carbon tax. Gray had a front row seat for the fight. His organization had intervening status in legal battles, though he chose not to bother in the most recent Manitoba case. He doesn’t see which moves are left open to Trudeau’s provincial critics. “It is a bit like public health care. You are not seeing anyone who wants to be elected in this country putting on their political platform ‘Choose us! We’re going to get rid of public health care. ‘
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Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole seems to have recognized that Conservatives cannot continue to fight carbon prices. After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on March 25 that Trudeau’s carbon tax law was constitutional, opponents thought voters could override it. But the following month, O’Toole announced its “low-carbon savings account,” a complicated arrangement in which consumers would accumulate carbon credits that they could spend on green purchases. The idea seemed misleading and impractical. “Do you have a credible plan?” asked a senior conservative. “That is what the voters want to know. Nobody reads the plan. “It was designed to neutralize the problem, not to be implemented.
Gerald Butts, who helped design the carbon tax plan when he was Trudeau’s top secretary, believes the writing is now on the wall. “The direction of travel is pretty clear to everyone, even Scott Moe,” he says. But Butts isn’t sure the Conservatives won’t back down. He notes that the party’s rank and file continue to oppose carbon pricing. “I still wouldn’t ice skate with the cup,” he says. “I’ve seen many moments in this debate where I felt like it was over.”
McKenna worries that if an internal rebellion overthrows O’Toole, his party will once again fight carbon prices, but believes the Conservatives would lose more elections. “You can’t win an election talking about repealing the carbon price, so it’s funny that there are several prominent conservatives who want to re-legitimize it,” he says.
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A big difference going forward is the importance of the oil and gas industry to the western provinces, as opposed to Ontario. Ford has moved on. “The Supreme Court is the Supreme Court, and that’s it,” says a Ford adviser. “It’s done. We have to accept it. What the carbon tax looks like in the future, that’s up for debate now.”
Unlike Kenney and Moe, Ford, who faces an election this spring, has to acknowledge that many of the people who vote for him voted for the liberals at the federal level, particularly in the Toronto suburbs, which are crucial to both parties. That overlap in support means that Ford and Trudeau must work together, unlike Kenney and Moe, who do not count the federal liberals in their provincial coalition.
It seems that the war is over and the environmentalists will have won. Kenney and Moe are not going to sit quietly, but both are less popular now than when this battle began, as they have alienated voters with poor responses to the pandemic. Neither appears to be in a position to lead a successful nationalist uprising.
This article appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline “The Last Sigh”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.