Father's energy legacy haunts Canada's Trudeau as he seeks to heal rift with angry Alberta

(Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has an unusual challenge as he seeks to charm angry westerners who fear he will destroy the region’s oil and gas industry - the legacy of his father, who was reviled in much of the west for his energy policies.

FILE PHOTO: Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaches out to shake hands with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney during a meeting in Trudeau's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

Pierre Trudeau, also a Liberal prime minister, pushed through a series of measures in 1980 to artificially depress the price of oil and help the more populous and politically influential east, in what is now the fourth largest oil producer in the world.

People in Alberta, home to 80% of Canada’s oil production, saw the moves as an expansion of an effort to enrich the east by capitalizing on the west’s resource wealth, and drove around with bumper stickers that read: “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark”.

The memory of that era lives on in Alberta, which is now run by a right-leaning government led by Jason Kenney, an ambitious former Conservative defense minister who is in Ottawa this week to press Trudeau for more energy-friendly policies.

Kenney said last month that Trudeau’s government was “actively hostile” to the energy industry and its workers and ignoring all the revenue generated by oil and gas.

“They need to understand that they’re killing the golden goose. They have both fists wrapped around the throat of that goose,” he said in a speech in Ottawa.

Trudeau has seen a return of the enmities his father faced almost four decades ago, when he expanded a state-owned oil and gas company and introduced the so-called National Energy Program (NEP), which cut investments and jobs in Alberta.

“The anger is very similar, the alienation is very similar - I would argue it is actually deeper and broader than it was in the 1980s,” said Martha Hall Findlay, a former Liberal legislator now at the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation, a non-partisan public policy think tank.

Trudeau’s previous government introduced tough new environmental assessment rules for energy infrastructure. In the October national election, Trudeau lost his majority and failed to win a single seat in Alberta.

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Critics also charge that Trudeau, who has promised to make Canada carbon neutral by 2050, failed to expand a pipeline to the Pacific coast crucial to getting Alberta’s landlocked oil to international markets, even though the government spent C$4.5 billion ($3.4 billion) to buy the project to ensure it went ahead.

An Ipsos poll last month showed some 33% of Albertans backed the idea of separation from the rest of the country, up from 23% in September 2018.

Trudeau has said however that most Canadians voted in October for parties who promised to clamp down on emissions.


“The NEP is one of those instant memories available for people who want to rally the suspicions ... it never goes away because it’s useful,” said University of Alberta political science professor Roger Epp.

In a bid to repair ties, Trudeau moved key ally Chrystia Freeland - who was born and raised in Alberta - from the foreign ministry to the post of intergovernmental affairs, where she will be his point person with the province.

But a senior conservative in Alberta said while Kenney and other provincial premiers were prepared to work with Freeland, they would ultimately want to deal with Trudeau.

“A prime minister can’t fob off his relations with a premier on a minister,” said the source, who asked not to be identified given the sensitivity of the situation. Kenney is due to meet Trudeau face-to-face on Tuesday.

The NEP, which was killed off in 1985 after oil prices came down, hurt Pierre Trudeau, who stepped down in June 1984 after almost 16 years in power. Three months later, under his successor, the Liberals suffered a record electoral defeat.

Duane Bratt, a politics professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said Justin Trudeau’s predicament is more “tragic” because “he was much more aware of that history and has fallen into the same trap.”

The prime minister’s office did not address the historic parallels between father and son, but spokesman Matt Pascuzzo said: “We have been focused on delivering results for energy sector workers and communities, while taking real action to deliver a cleaner economy.”

With additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by Chris Reese