Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Geoff White

Carbon Province, Hydro Province: The Challenge of Canadian Energy and Climate Federalism

Douglas Macdonald

University of Toronto Press

336 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

The Government of Natural Resources: Science, Territory, and State Power in Quebec, 1867–1939

Stéphane Castonguay; Translated by Käthe Roth

UBC Press

240 pages, hardcover and ebook

It is a well-worn joke, but it still has some bite: Three students — one British, one French, and one Canadian — are assigned to compose an essay on the elephant. The British student drafts “The Elephant: A Product of Empire.” The French student writes “The Elephant: A Story of Love.” The Canadian comes up with “The Elephant: A Federal or Provincial Responsibility?”

Obsessions with jurisdiction are even more pronounced during crises like the pandemic. Over the past twenty months or so, Canadians have been both witnesses to and subjects of a vast experiment in the exercise of federal and provincial powers. We have seen and experienced the sometimes clumsy, sometimes adept efforts to protect and inoculate us against the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus and its variants. And we have been reminded that, by necessity, these levels of government must work together when safeguarding our health and well-being.

COVID-19 may be the greatest hazard to public safety since the Second World War, but as Canadians endured a summer of unprecedented heat waves, accompanied by fires and tornadoes that killed, maimed, and dispossessed many, we are increasingly aware of an even greater hazard: climate change. As evidence mounts, our elephantine obsession becomes much less funny.

Without question, our ability to fight climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions depends on federal-provincial co­operation. And considering the sharply conflicting interests of the West, with its oil and gas, and of the East, with its hydro and nuclear power, the prospects of true collaboration seem almost non-existent. That is why Douglas Macdonald of the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment believes a federal-provincial agreement is imperative. And not just any agreement, but one that truly delivers the contributions that Canada must make to address a crisis.

The elephant in the policy room.

Karsten Petrat

Perhaps issues relating to Quebec’s status as a “nation” or even degrees of Indigenous sovereignty can be fudged, left in some kind of constitutional limbo. But, as Macdonald argues in Carbon Province, Hydro Province, a genuine national effort to stem greenhouse gas emissions leaves no room for such ambiguity. Examining five federal-provincial negotiations over the past four decades, he outlines in incisive detail the extent to which Canada has blatantly avoided concrete measures to curb emissions. While our governments have stated explicit goals, these have been used to paper over the glaring inadequacy of their policies and actions.

This tale begins with the National Energy Program of 1980. (The NEP did not address the environmental issue directly, but its focus on hydrocarbons and its imposition of hard measures make it especially relevant.) Then came the first and second national climate change processes of the Jean Chrétien government, from 1990 to 1997 and from 1998 to 2002; the Alberta-led Canadian Energy Strategy, from 2005 to 2015; and the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change that Justin Trudeau introduced in 2015. The proclaimed targets that roughly corresponded to these plans are painfully illustrative. First we were going to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by 2000. Then we said we would reduce emissions by 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. That changed to a reduction of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. More recently, we landed on a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 (a figure that’s since been updated to 40 to 45 percent).

To one degree or another, these targets were proclaimed by Ottawa and endorsed by most of the provinces, but they were founded on fallacious accounting with no methodological rigour. In effect, Macdonald writes, they were vague promises that disguised “the lack of will and effort needed to achieve an international commitment by focusing on a new target, some years distant.” The successive goals provided the government of the day with “environmental legitimacy by allowing it to appear committed to policy action while avoiding the conflicts and costs that must be borne to actually achieve a target.” Under the commitment made as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, Canada would reduce annual emissions to 513 megatonnes, down from 730 in 2005. But, Macdonald notes, there is no clear set of measures to achieve this goal; besides, it’s far too modest given that industrial countries must reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 to restrain global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. (The various numbers and projections of what appears to be a distracting shell game have always been difficult to grasp.)

To date, Canada’s GHG reduction plans have all been empty vessels, in that they have not explicitly tackled the issue of costs. And no genuine plan to cut emissions can succeed without a tough negotiation around the price of implementation and the various shares of the burden to be taken on by the federal government and each of the ten provinces. (Macdonald subsumes under “federal-provincial” the territorial governments and Indigenous representatives, both of which have participated in various rounds of talks. The territories also have set their own reduction goals.)

It may surprise some, especially those steeped in the culture of western alienation, that Macdonald considers the National Energy Program the most successful initiative to date. But the NEP succeeded because the real material interests of the principal negotiating parties — Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet and the province of Alberta, led by Peter Lougheed — were laid upon the table. Both jurisdictions wanted to reap the financial benefits of soaring oil prices; both were in pursuit of tangible, not abstract or aspirational, goals.

The NEP was introduced in October 1980, following months of ineffectual federal-provincial talks, led first by Trudeau’s post-1974 Liberal majority and then by Joe Clark’s ill-fated Conservative minority. After Trudeau’s return to power, the program took on a radically audacious shape: It carved out for Ottawa a share of the oil and gas revenue pie with a petroleum and gas revenue tax and a natural gas export tax. It also began to dispense incentive payments to Canadian-owned oil and gas companies, with the aim of strengthening domestic ownership of the industry.

Following further negotiations, an agreement was reached in September 1981 to adjust the nationally set price of oil, to modify the petroleum and gas tax, and to turn over to Alberta the administration of incentives. The natural gas export tax portion of the NEP was struck down by the courts, after Alberta challenged it on constitutional grounds.

Initially, Ottawa took the necessary unilateral action to ensure a negotiation in which both parties were engaged to achieve a concrete and satisfactory result, a move that Macdonald argues was key. And both federal and provincial parties had to wield the various powers — to lead, to veto, and to countervail — with which they are endowed by the Constitution.

Macdonald notes the deep-rooted hostility toward the NEP that pervades the Alberta mindset to this day, and he contends that more careful diplomacy might have muted the reaction and the long-standing resentment. Grievances aside, the renegotiated program produced a pact that was stable until a cyclical decline in world oil prices undermined it. The durability of the NEP can be seen, ironically enough, in the enduring presence of firms like Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, and Suncor. (In 1980, no one anticipated that a domestic oil industry might one day be sitting on billions of dollars in potentially stranded assets; the Brundtland Report, which popularized the notion of “­sustainable development,” and the Rio and Kyoto summits were all yet to come.)

Jean Chrétien’s Liberals — fearful of reigniting the hostilities of the NEP years and the constitutional battles of the ’70s and ’80s — avoided any measures that could be seen as imposing on the provinces. Macdonald criticizes the former prime minister for refusing to consider a carbon tax, ostentatiously so in a speech before the Calgary Petroleum Club, and for ignoring earlier discussions with provinces when he announced Canada’s adherence to the Kyoto Protocol. He also notes that, several years later, Stephen Harper “had great difficulty enunciating the words ‘climate change’ let alone doing anything more.”

Alberta governments under the Conservative premiers Alison Redford and Jim Prentice, and more significantly under the New Democratic premier Rachel Notley, began to shift the policy conversations by acknowledging the need to take a reductions quest seriously, so that they could build social licence for further development. But the expressed good intentions of an individual province proved no basis for a national initiative.

It was only with the arrival of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals that the federal government sought to assert its authority, as it put forward a national plan predicated in part on the imposition of carbon taxes. Trudeau the Younger’s willingness to exert power, in a manner somewhat similar to Trudeau the Elder’s, passed a fundamental test in Macdonald’s view. To say so is to stir a hornet’s nest of resentment and grievance, but the move showed federal readiness to engage with real, tangible interests. Provinces would impose some form of carbon tax; if they didn’t, Ottawa would. Nonetheless, Macdonald admonishes, the move remains insufficient, as Trudeau’s plan will not come anywhere near meeting Canada’s internationally proclaimed target.

The costs involved in an effective national GHG strategy far outweigh those involved in the NEP, but they do settle on the same fault lines between the East and the West. A graphic on the cover of Carbon Province, Hydro Province helps illustrate the tale another way: between 1990 and 2017, emissions in Alberta and Saskatchewan increased by 58 percent and 77 percent, respectively, while they decreased in Ontario and Quebec by 12 percent and 9 percent. In 2017, Canada produced 716 megatonnes of GHGs, 49 percent of which came from Alberta and Saskatchewan. And while Alberta has committed to winding down coal-fired power plants, as Ontario did several years ago, that has done little to dent its overall GHG growth, which is primarily driven by the oil sands. Meanwhile, Ontario and Quebec, with 61 percent of Canada’s population, generate 33 percent of the emissions. The lopsided figures are grounds for deep discord and speak to the huge scale of the challenge.

The urgency of dealing with climate change is a given for Macdonald and is not to be denied with airy promises. The prescription to tackle the crisis will be onerous, and we must recognize the particular challenges that will face Alberta and Saskatchewan, which cannot easily shift away from their primary industries. “To put the matter bluntly,” Macdonald writes, “the carbon provinces are being asked to walk away and leave considerable potential wealth buried in the ground. That is a difficult thing to ask of anybody and it must be done carefully and with respect. In addition, it must include an offer to share the cost, material and psychological, of doing so.” The principle that no province or region should bear “an unreasonable burden,” which proposals of the 1990s frequently mentioned, is critical to a meaningful GHG reduction strategy.

(Jason Kenney, motivated by long-standing criticisms of equalization payments, has scorned the notion that taxpayers from across the nation should help each other out. Considering the costs of a national program that Macdonald envisions, and assuming oil-producing provinces would receive plenty of help from the others, one wonders if the premier may live to regret Alberta’s October 18 referendum.)

In perhaps his most innovative idea, Macdonald argues that the negotiations should start by asking how much each player is willing to have its economy pay for an effective plan. And any agreement should be based upon the principles of distributive justice:

Provinces would ask their citizens and factories to bear comparable reduction costs, even though, due to higher per capita reduction costs in the carbon-intensive provinces, resulting per capita reductions would vary. (A dollar spent on reduction in Ontario buys more reduction than does the same dollar spent in Alberta; what is proposed is that each spend the same dollar and we simply accept the fact that the resulting Alberta reduction is less.) Surely, promising Alberta and Saskatchewan that their per capita costs would not be greater than those borne by other Canadians can only help.

He describes the European Union’s application of a burden-sharing principle in its commitments, which allow individual countries to have different targets while achieving an average continent-wide figure. “The same thing could be done here, with provinces facing higher per-tonne reduction costs not required to reduce as much as others, provided that their per capita reduction costs were comparable.”

All in all, Macdonald has written a book of transcendent importance for the development of a genuinely effective climate change plan. His formulation of negotiating scenarios, in particular, offers a constructive path forward, one that moves away from federal-provincial stalemates and the easy agreements that avoid actual solutions. And his masterful grasp of Canada’s so far lame efforts in this arena is a major contribution to understanding where we have been and where we must go.

With the title of a 2013 book, Donald J. Savoie asked, “Whatever happened to the music teacher?” He’d had a conversation with a Nova Scotia businessman who marvelled at gleaming new provincial buildings but lamented that his village school could no longer afford music education.

Bafflement before the mysterious doings of large bureaucracies may be common today, but there was a time when administrative functions were plainer and more tangible. This was certainly the case during the period covered by Stéphane Castonguay in The Government of Natural Resources: Science, Territory, and State Power in Quebec, 1867–1939, published in French in 2016 and recently translated by Käthe Roth. As Castonguay describes, provincial ministries grew, from Confederation to the outbreak of the Second World War, through methodical incrementalism. And this, he argues, laid the foundation for a robust administration to exert comprehensive control over and management of natural resources.

In meticulously detailed chapters devoted to the development of mining, forestry, wildlife conservation, and agriculture, Castonguay shows how Quebec took control of its resources — so that the government was poised to become a powerful guide and partner of business in the postwar period. (By the turn of the twenty-first century, this would materialize in so‑called Quebec Inc.) As Castonguay would have it, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represent an era of functional achievements, when scientific knowledge and mastery of technique and engineering — what he refers to as “technoscience”— were greater driving forces than party politics. As a result, premiers and ministers make only fleeting appearances in The Government of Natural Resources.

In the 1930s, for example, “intensification of exploration went hand in hand with expansion of mining production.” This trend, Castonguay writes, “encouraged the Quebec government to open new offices to serve mine operators.” He also describes how the province’s forest service “pursued its reforestation activities on parcels of land laid bare by fire or intensive cutting,” with an aim to make the soil “productive again and to educate people about the importance of forest conservation.” Likewise, in the area of agriculture, officials supported “associations specializing in livestock raising, market gardening, and fruit growing.”

The Government of Natural Resources offers a seemingly exhaustive compendium of such actions, undertaken to manage Quebec’s lands in the early twentieth century. The book also makes extensive use of period maps, fascinating in their own right as well as indicative of one of the government’s core functions at the time: charting its territory and identifying the potential for its development.

Perennial themes of Canadian politics and federal-provincial power-sharing occasionally intrude in Castonguay’s history, sometimes in surprising ways. For instance, the Geological Survey of Canada was formed in 1842 to provide the basis of mineral knowledge in what would become Ontario and Quebec. After Confederation, however, its expertise had to be shared: “Survey personnel were further diverted from their initial field of investigation after the acquisition of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory in 1870 and, a year later, the entry of a new province, British Columbia.” That a federal institution would privilege the West ahead of central Canada might be another startling revelation for those used to reading events through the lens of western alienation.

Yet history is full of surprising turns. The basic lineaments of modern Quebec were laid down by 1939, but it was not envisaged at the time that the province would one day have to negotiate with Ottawa and the other provinces on the implementation of an international climate change agreement. Nor that its natural resources would become factors to be calculated as part of Canada’s overall emissions balance sheet.

Geoff White served as a diplomat for nearly thirty years, a period he describes in his new book, Working for Canada.