Imposing an Oil Pipeline on Quebec

Commentary, Energy, Joseph Quesnel

During the recent French and English language debates for the Conservative leadership, one of the two candidates accused the other of wanting to impose an oil pipeline on Quebec without its consent. 

In this case, the Conservative MP for Durham was accused – after he articulated his vision for a national energy corridor throughout Canada – of ignoring that this may have to involve imposing such a corridor. 

If one recalls, this same charge was levelled at the previous Conservative leader during the previous campaign debates. 

The problem here is that these same politicians are encountering the realities of elected politics in Canada. Now all the candidates on the stage in this recent debate spoke eloquently and persuasively in favour of building pipelines in Canada. 

The Conservatives have accepted a claim – one that has been validated and affirmed by many court rulings including the Supreme Court of Canada – that inter-provincial pipelines are within federal jurisdictions and they are within the national interest right now. Confederation was designed to create an economic union from sea to sea, linked by national infrastructure that crosses provincial borders. Our national railway and our later highway systems were built along this rationale. 

So, yes, technically, the federal government could “impose” its will on Quebec – or indeed any province and territory – to ensure such a pipeline gets built. That is a legitimate and constitutionally sound policy option. 

But why can’t any of the Conservative leadership candidates actually just say that? There are a few reasons and they are all based on politics, not good policy. 

The reality is that every policy option carries implications and consequences. The immediate calculation for any federal politician or candidate in Canada is that Quebec represents 75 seats in the House of Commons, second only to Ontario at 106 seats. So, clearly, for any party, a path to winning a government passes through Quebec. For the Conservatives specifically, Quebec has always represented an area where they can grow support or potentially flip seats. 

Second, it is a matter that specifically involves Quebec. Quebec has a history of asserting its distinct national identity and has been very aggressive in dealing with those who seek to “impose” a federal vision. Like Alberta, they are eternally advocating provincial rights and a decentralized federation. 

Lastly, there is a perception – and this is a perception – that Quebec is against pipelines and hates the Canadian oil sector, especially the Alberta oil sands. 

Now, there is evidence that Quebec seems more motivated along environmental lines, but when it comes to pipelines, the most vocal opponents are politicians, not average voters. Quebec’s premier is famous for stating: “Regarding oil, there’s no social acceptability in Quebec”.

However, senior researcher Germain Belzile with the Montreal Economic Institute – released polling data from the firm Leger that paints a different picture. The data – from 2018 – showed that a large majority of Quebec respondents wanted their oil to come from Western Canada. Only a small percentage wanted it from the United States or anywhere overseas. 

The same poll revealed that 53 percent of Quebec respondents would prefer Quebec develop its own oil resources than continue to import its oil. 

This data demonstrates the gulf of opinion between political elites – including many cultural elites in Quebec – who act like Quebec is monolithic in opposing oil and pipelines. Like politicians in Ontario and BC, sometimes urban Quebec politicians assume metro Montreal represents all of Quebec, as those politicians think opinions from their provinces only come from Toronto or Vancouver. 

So, when it comes to the Conservative candidates – or in the case of any Canadian political candidate or politician who is promoting pipelines – there is a third option other than either arguing for no pipelines or saying Ottawa must “impose” its will on provinces. 

The third option is to speak past Quebec provincial politicians and pundits and address Quebec people directly, armed with data. While asserting the national interest over various provinces is a valid option, it need not be asserted when the public is already open to considering these pipelines. Given B.C.’s past intransigence on this issue, there is a better case for asserting Ottawa’s authority on that province. 

Canadian politicians need to recognize that. 

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org