October 22, 2019 / 10:14 PM / a month ago

Canadian election stokes sense of alienation in western oil patch

CALGARY, Alberta/OTTAWA, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Canada’s federal election on Monday left the country’s western oil patch without any representation in Ottawa, furthering a sense of alienation in a region already deeply frustrated with the government’s energy and pipeline policies.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, who will form a minority government, failed to win a seat in either Alberta or Saskatchewan, the heart of the struggling oil industry. The party received just 13.7% of the vote in Alberta and 11.6% in Saskatchewan.

The Liberals will govern after taking 33.1% of the national popular vote, less than the Conservatives, who won 34.4% nationally and swept all but one seat in the two provinces. The Conservatives, who enjoyed the open support of some in the oil industry, won 69.2% of votes in Alberta and 64.3% in Saskatchewan.

The national results leave Canada’s energy sector, already hit by slumping capital investment and weak oil prices, worried about being ignored by decision-makers in the east.

“There will be greater alienation and it’ll be a challenge for Justin Trudeau,” said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

The term ‘Wexit,’ alluding to a western Canadian version of Brexit, was trending on Twitter after the vote on Monday night.

In his victory speech early on Tuesday, Trudeau appealed directly to Alberta and Saskatchewan, calling them “an essential part of our great country.”

But the prime minister’s need to rely on New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, who remains firmly opposed to a pipeline expansion to the Pacific coast and “fossil fuel subsidies,” may undermine the cause of the oil and gas industry.

When teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg marched with thousands of protesters in Alberta last Friday, a truck convoy of oil and gas workers staged a smaller counter-rally.

Mistrust of the Trudeau name runs deep in the province after former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the current leader’s father, tried to impose more federal control over the energy sector in the 1980s.

Right-leaning leaders, federally and provincially, are on a war footing, taking up the western cause in hopes it will help them defeat Justin Trudeau in the next election. Minority governments rarely last more than 2-1/2 years in Canada.

“There is a fire burning in the Prairie provinces,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told reporters on Tuesday. He said he wanted to meet Trudeau with a proposal to extinguish the fire, “and I’m asking him not to show up with a gas can.”

Moe challenged Trudeau to discuss restructuring equalization payments, which redistribute wealth among Canadian provinces, and sealing a “new deal” with the two provinces to get pipelines built. Alberta and Saskatchewan do not receive any equalization payments because of their oil and gas wealth.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said on Twitter he spoke to Trudeau on Tuesday morning and underscored that the “deep frustration expressed by Albertans is very real.”

“If the frustration and alienation in Alberta continues, it will pose a very serious challenge to national unity,” Kenney told reporters later.

‘HATRED OF THE WEST’

The sense of western alienation is most acute in Alberta, where the provincial economy has been struggling since the 2014/15 global oil price crash and unemployment is higher than the national average.

Business has slowed and costs for equipment have doubled over the past four years at the John Deere dealer in Bassano, Alberta, a small town southeast of Calgary, said employee Gary Lee, 64, on Tuesday.

“I’m a little disappointed that so many people voted with their hatred of the West,” Lee said. A minority Liberal government aggravates the sense of isolation already felt in rural Alberta, he said.

Energy sector growth is being stifled by long delays in building new oil export pipelines like the government-owned Trans Mountain expansion project, which the Trudeau government bought last year for C$4.5 billion ($3.4 billion), and TC Energy Corp’s Keystone XL.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer on Tuesday blamed Trudeau for making the country “more divided than it’s ever been.”

“Justin Trudeau has attacked our energy sector, has ignored the concerns of Alberta and Saskatchewan,” he said.

Levels of satisfaction in Alberta and Saskatchewan with the direction of the country and of the federal government are “off-the-chart bad,” said Frank Graves, president of polling company EKOS Research.

“Saskatchewan and Alberta are really the two most angry (provinces),” Graves said. “This is visceral discontent with the country they’re living in right now.” ($1 = 1.3089 Canadian dollars)

Reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary and Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Additional reporting by Jeff Lewis in Bassano, Alberta; Editing by Peter Cooney

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