Justin Trudeau Liberal Leadership Bid Sees Him Square Off Against Ghosts Of Western Alienation

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Quebec MP Justin Trudeau at Free the Children's We Day event in Toronto on Friday, September 28, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu
Quebec MP Justin Trudeau at Free the Children's We Day event in Toronto on Friday, September 28, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu

CALGARY - When Justin Trudeau arrives in Calgary today to begin his bid for the federal Liberal leadership, he'll find Alberta's beef with his family name has grown beyond his father's link to a long-expired national energy program.

Instead, says Alberta Liberal Laurie Blakeman, he will discover that "Pierre Trudeau and the NEP" has morphed over three decades into a universal shorthand, a warning to stand on guard to slap the mitts of anyone trying to poach the province's black gold birthright.

"The NEP has taken on an iconic status that it doesn't deserve," said Blakeman, a five-term Liberal in a central Edmonton riding.

"Most people in Alberta today don't even know what it was. They couldn't tell you what the three initials stood for.

"But it is representative of things that they're unhappy with — other people trying to take what they believe is theirs."

The national energy program, launched in 1980 by Pierre Trudeau when he was prime minister, was aimed at spreading Alberta's burgeoning oil wealth to the rest of the country.

Peter Lougheed, Alberta premier at the time, called it "a declaration of war" and cut oil production in retaliation.

When the program was phased out years later, Alberta figured it was out billions of dollars and blamed the policy for increased mortgage defaults and business closures during lean years.

It was considered just one grievance that turned the country west of Ontario into a Liberal wasteland in the early 1980s. Westerners suspected that big-government Trudeau initiatives were but a stalking horse to boost the fortunes of Central Canada. The Liberals won only two seats, both in Manitoba, in the 1980 election. In 1984, when the Liberals lost the election with new leader John Turner, there were, again, only two seats west of Ontario.

Anne McLellan, a rare Edmonton Liberal MP and deputy prime minister a decade ago under Paul Martin, said the younger Trudeau will be ready for the fight and, with his winning smile and elan, could capture a lot of hearts first, with minds to follow.

"He's not unaware of the fact the name Trudeau is both a liability and an asset in Western Canada. He's lived with that for 40 years," said McLellan.

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She noted that Trudeau has "deep roots" in British Columbia, given that his mother was born there, his grandfather James Sinclair was a longtime B.C. MP and Trudeau spent five years teaching on the West Coast before entering politics.

Political scientist Doreen Barrie said that for young people the Trudeau name carries the hope of a return to honour in a profession that has become devalued by partisan personal attacks, scripted questions and vapid talking points.

"My students are so cynical and so turned off politics because of the tone of the debate," said Barrie of the University of Calgary.

She said she expects Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives will soon launch attack ads to burn into voters' minds an image of Trudeau, who has said little on major policy issues, as a pretty-boy air head not ready now — if ever — for the big chair.

And they will tie him to the national energy program.

"For the Conservatives, it will be the NEP all day, every day and they will try and exploit that."

But Barrie said the West has changed, too. It's more multicultural and much younger, more sure of itself.

"So many young people don't even remember (the NEP) unless they're reminded of it — and that's what the Conservatives are going to do."

McLellan said her personal meetings with Trudeau have shown her a man of energy and zeal who knows how to listen and organize and isn't afraid of a fight.

But to be successful, she said, he needs to ignore his press clippings.

"(Justin) needs to take advice not from what I would call the sycophants — people who will tell him what he wants to hear — that he's the saviour of the party.

"I would like to believe that people of intelligence in the Liberal Party of Canada know that there are no saviours, and that this is about hard work."

And hard work it will be. There have been outcrops of Liberal red in the West in the last 10 to 15 years, but in the 2011 election, which reduced the party to rump status, it managed only two seats in B.C. and one each in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There are none in Alberta.

Blakeman said the old energy program is a nurtured grievance that is still passed on to children.

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Campaigning this spring in the provincial election, which the provincial Tories won for the 12th consecutive time, Blakeman said she didn't hear about Trudeau and the NEP at every door, but "it came up often enough that I remember it."

Some critics were born long after the NEP died, but still said they hated it.

"They said they felt that way because their dad told them."

The feeling that Alberta has to fight to protect what it has from interlopers has been political legal tender for decades.

In 1987, Edmonton-born Reform party founder Preston Manning rode the phrase "The West Wants In" all the way to Parliament Hill to ultimately transform both small-C and large-C conservative politics.

In 2001, future prime minister Harper and other conservatives penned an open "firewall letter" to then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein warning him to take steps to prevent fresh advances by Ottawa on the province's wealth.

In 2012, that same sensitivity looms over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would ship bitumen from Alberta's oilsands through ecologically sensitive wilderness and waterways in B.C. to tankers heading to Asian markets.

B.C Premier Christy Clark wants a larger share of the economic benefits. She has been careful not to say she wants royalties, but that hasn't stopped Alberta Premier Alison Redford from vehemently denouncing it as a resource grab.

The Northern Gateway pipeline (NGP) is likely to be a tricky topic for Trudeau should he choose to engage.

A hard line on the proposal could mean a wave of support in B.C., but could realienate an Alberta population hair-trigger sensitive to a slight by anyone named Trudeau.

Maybe the son of the so-called father of western alienation will ultimately forge his own cautionary tale.

Son, climb up on my knee. Did I ever tell you about Justin Trudeau and the NGP?

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

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