What to do with the West?

Grumbling in Western Canada about the Trudeau Liberals started months before, and reached a fever pitch on election night. Aside from a few lone MPs in and around Winnipeg, the Liberal Party was wiped out from the Ontario-Manitoba border straight through to West Vancouver. Even the Liberal Party stalwart Ralph Goodale, MP for Regina-Wascana since 1993, couldn’t hold on to his seat. A message had been sent to the Prime Minister: listen to us or else.

Leading the charge: Premiers Kenney and Moe. The Carbon Co-Captains, seemingly unconcerned that their inflammatory language was stoking the the fires of alienation, had doubled down, blaming the Prime Minister for every ill facing their respective provinces. Kenney’s solution? Fire public servants, slash education spending and cut support for events like the Calgary Stampede. Meanwhile, the best Moe could come up with was a cheap gimmick involving a fire extinguisher. True Profiles in Courage.

The two Premiers – Righteous and Indignant – will never be happy irrespective of what the Prime Minister does to address the real and understandable frustration and anxiety felt by many Western Canadians. Which is why the Prime Minister should tune them out and instead focus on the real problem. And it certainly isn’t about appeasing the Premiers.

The appointment of former federal cabinet minister Anne McLellan as an unpaid adviser to the government is a good start. But more directly, it’s about helping the people directly affected by the downturn in the price of Canadian oil. And there are thousands of them, mostly men, who are proud of the industry they have been working in for years, if not decades. Like their parents and grandparents before them.

And that’s exactly where the Prime Minister should start. Before any carrot or any stick, he needs to use every ounce of his emotional intelligence – not his thespian side – to show Westerners that he genuinely understands them and ‘feels their pain’. No lecturing. No advice. Just listening. Losing a job, missing mortgage payments, dealing with family breakdowns – these are tough moments and people don’t need to be told what to do, how to feel, or that everything is going to be ok. They need to be listened to and appreciated and valued. Avoid what Premiers Kenney and Moe are doing – emotionally extorting them for political gains. Cheap behaviour like that demonstrates a lack of leadership and always comes back to bite you.

Listening is not a one-off exercise either. It’s an on-going commitment that should include townhalls, telephone diplomacy and engagement. But there are other real, tangible, and immediate ways the Prime Minister can demonstrate his commitment to Western Canadians. The comprehensive response by President Macron to the gilet jaune challenge in France is a useful illustration of the power of listening.   

First, the Prime Minister should announce the federal government will make up for cuts to the education and technology sector from the most recent Alberta Budget. As he did with the autism cuts in Ontario, the Prime Minister should not be above taking advantage of a dumb political move. The support should extend to both the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) which helps transition workers from the oil & gas sector to emerging technology sectors.

Second, invest directly in other sectors that drive Western economic activity including manufacturing, agriculture, and construction. The AGgrowth Coalition, an alliance made up of large farm groups from across the country, are calling for increased investment in the agriculture sector. In one fell swoop the Prime Minister could accomplish three things – 1) support a key economic sector that needs a win 2) prove he cares about Western Canada and 3) turn a political foe to a friend – a political hat-trick if there ever was one.

Third, offer support to Premiers Pallister and Higgs, who in contrast to Kenny and Moe, acted like Premiers in the days after the election. For Pallister, a former teacher and strong advocate of education, the Prime Minister should support Manitoba's efforts to improve its education sector, an initiative near and dear to the Premier. For Premier Higgs, the Prime Minister should support New Brunswick’s mental health programs specifically ones targeted at young people. Not only would it be a reward for positivity but both efforts happen to be smart policy.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the Prime Minister should appoint Rachel Notley to Cabinet as Minister for Western Canada. Her remit would include overseeing delivery of the TMX project, the greening of the Western Canadian economy, and upskilling of Western Canadian workers. Ms. Notley is a proud Albertan, a champion for Canadian oil & gas, and a skilled politician. Not only would this demonstrate the Prime Minister’s real commitment to the West but would also help appease any rumblings from the Left. Ms. Notley has already warned Mr. Singh to stop making Albertan families anxious by pushing to cancel the TMX pipeline.

By following these four from Kenney and Moe who to this point have shown only one thing – that they’re all hat and no cattle.