OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and new Alberta Premier Jason Kenney put on polite faces for the cameras at the start of their first official meeting in Ottawa Thursday, but the cordial handshake and civil tone of their opening remarks belied the tension that exists between them.
Just hours before the two met, Kenney was down the street telling a Senate committee that Trudeau was threatening to tear the country apart.
Kenney said the Trudeau government's overhaul of environmental assessments for major construction projects, known as Bill C-69, "will in the submission of the Alberta government be a disaster for the Canadian economy and will seriously rupture national unity."
He emerged from that committee meeting saying it had gone "very well" but Kenney is still promising that if Trudeau doesn't agree to major amendments to the legislation, he will see him next in court.
Watch: Kenney warns federal assessment bill a threat to national unity
The legislation, which passed the House of Commons almost a year ago, is currently being considered by the Senate energy committee. It establishes a new process for reviewing projects with a national scope or in federal jurisdiction — things like pipelines, large hydro dams, interprovincial highways and rail lines. The federal Liberals say it is needed to restore confidence in the assessment process and finally get big projects built; critics say it gives too much political power to the federal cabinet to interfere and allows too much involvement of lobby groups that might not have any direct connection to a proposed project.
Kenney says the bill is a "flagrant violation" of Alberta's right to control its own natural resources and is threatening a constitutional challenge if the bill doesn't get major amendments.
A proposed list of the types of projects that would be subjected to the new review process was released by Ottawa one day before Kenney's visit, and it includes in-situ oilsands developments. Until now oilsands projects have been reviewed by the Alberta Energy Regulator.
Kenney wants all the amendments proposed by the former NDP government in Alberta accepted, including a hard two-year time limit for the whole process, less room for interference by federal ministers, and an exemption for in-situ oil sands projects in Alberta that are currently reviewed by the Alberta Energy Regulator. Similar amendments have been requested by industry associations, including the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.
Listen: 'Follow-Up' podcast talks Bill C-69 with senators
All of them, including Kenney, said the amendments have to be made as a package.
"This bill does not need a nip and tuck," Kenney told senators. "It needs major reconstructive surgery or it needs to be put out to pasture."
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna shot back that the former Conservative government — in which Kenney was a cabinet minister — pushed through disastrous changes to environmental reviews in 2012 that have led the country to the place it is in now. That is, unable to get pipelines built because court after court is finding the review process for them lacking.
"Under the current legislation, what we end up (with) is polarization, we end up in court and good projects are not able to go ahead," she said.
McKenna said the federal government has the jurisdiction to act because the environment is a matter of shared jurisdiction.
Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the problems currently faced by the Trans Mountain pipeline, which was proposed in 2013 but whose plans are still being refined to meet conditions set in court rulings, "could have been easily avoided" with a more transparent and open process.
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"We have not been able to build a single new pipeline to tidewater for the last number of decades," he said. "In order to build a pipeline we can't just ram it through. We need to have the process work. That process must look after the environment. It must include a meaningful way for Indigenous Peoples to participate. We need to fix that process otherwise we will be in the same position we have been in the last number of decades."
The two also expressed disappointment that Kenney was stirring up national-unity questions, calling that "irresponsible."
But Kenney said that since the cancellations of several pipelines, the delays to the Trans Mountain project, and now Bill C-69, support for Alberta to secede has more than doubled.
He said he thinks most people are just "blowing off steam" to express frustration, but contends that if support for seceding in Quebec were at 50 per cent, no federal government would try to pass a bill causing so much anger.
He dismissed any suggestions fanning the flames of national disunity is a dangerous game.
"I'm simply pointing out there is a deep and growing frustration in my province," he said.
With files from Joan Bryden