06/05/2012 08:01 EDT | Updated 08/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Before You Blame the Oil Sands, Look at the Facts

As a Liberal candidate during the 2011 federal election, many people insisted that I take a firm stand against Alberta's oil sands. I simply wouldn't do that. I urged voters to think about what they were asking me to do. Why were people ready to insist on such a radical and destructive position when they had very few facts at their disposal?

If Canadians have learned anything from the recent musings of Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper's consistent abuse of democracy, it is that these two politicians are quite deliberately aggravating the fault lines that are unavoidably inherent in our vast country. This underscores the need for a renewed and revitalized Liberal Party of Canada that represents the sensible centre of Canadian values and traditions.

I have written elsewhere about Thomas Mulcair's dubious handle on economic reality. In doing so, I gave him the benefit of the doubt; I did not want to assign crass political opportunistic motives and tactical wedge politics of the kind Stephen Harper uses to such impressive, if cynical, effect. But I was wrong. Mulcair is clearly not a uniter -- critical to successful national leadership -- he's a divider. And Canada certainly does not need another one of those.

As a Liberal candidate during the 2011 federal election, many people insisted that I take a firm stand against Alberta's oil sands. They wanted my commitment -- written in blood -- that, should I be elected, I would call for their immediate shutdown of Alberta's tar sands. I simply wouldn't do that. I urged voters to think about what they were asking me to do. What, I asked them, would they propose to do with our commitments under NAFTA? Or how we should replace the 500,000 jobs dependent on the oil patch? How should we deal with an Alberta economy that would be decimated overnight by such a move? Not to mention the profoundly negative impact on the entire country as well as myriad legal and constitutional issues that would surely follow.

Their response was that the "government" should employ all those people to clean up the "mess" made by the "big oil companies." And who should pay for that, I asked? The government should, of course! How much do they think that would that cost and what would we do with those 500,000 people after they have cleaned up the mess? In all cases, my questions only elicited blank stares. This is not a fictitious exchange -- it really happened. Many times.

Whenever such an exchange took place, I wondered what I was missing. Why were people ready to insist on such a radical and destructive position when they had very few facts at their disposal? Why was it that provincialism appeared to trump the national interest? Why did so many appear to so abruptly disregard the well-being of another part of Canada?

Liberal leaders, the most recent of which was Michael Ignatieff, have devoted their lives to a strong and united Canada. They would never think of exploiting regional tensions for political gain. Quite the contrary. How easy it would have been for Ignatieff to slam the tar sands. He never did, nor would. And for that he paid a heavy political price.

If critics were honest about it they would acknowledge that even the dreaded -- and ultimately deeply misguided -- National Energy Policy was the consequence of sincere Liberal thinking about what was the best course for Canada as a whole. The commonly accepted mythology is that the NEP was some diabolical scheme to "screw the West". No it wasn't. Liberal governments were early supporters of the "tar sands". So while the NEP was bad policy, that's very different than deliberately sewing the seeds of division as a political strategy.

We should be sticking to the facts. Canada has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia. Today, we are the fifth-largest energy producing country in the world. As Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Prize, Daniel Yergin writes: "If the oil sands were an independent country, they would be the largest single source of U.S. crude imports." Alberta's oil and gas industry supports more than 271,000 direct jobs and hundreds of thousands of indirect jobs in sectors such as construction, manufacturing and financial services, to name a few. It is a massive contributor of Canada's Gross National Product and a source of wealth for all Canadians.

Today, we appear at an impasse. Positions are entrenched and hardening and the stakes are substantial. Yet, on an issue of significance to Canada's national interest, our political leaders have not made any serious attempts to find a reasonable accommodation of interests, but have played to their political base and fueled tension and division. This is far from constructive.

In the past several years, regional factionalism has intensified at a disturbing rate in Canada. We've witnessed skirmishes between Newfoundland and Quebec over hydro electricity; cleavages with Ottawa on a national securities regulator; a widening chasm between jurisdictions on health care; a growing chorus of discontent on equalization; the unprecedented spectacle of premiers of various provinces at the climate change talks in Copenhagen attacking our national government on foreign soil; and more recently, a nasty debate about opening up Canadian markets for B.C. wine, rather than having a broader discussion of ever-present inter-provincial trade barriers.

The cumulative impact of a poor management of these seemingly isolated dossiers is tearing at the fabric of the country.

We must have an informed and rational discussion about the options for our future -- which includes strengthening Canada's economic and social union and diversifying our overwhelming economic dependence on the United States. But for that to happen, our mental model must change. It is the job of leaders to lead and constructively engage in that discussion.

To her credit, Alberta Premier Allison Redford is filling a gaping hole in a national leadership vacuum in her call for a national energy strategy for Canada for the 21st century. Worldwide demand and consumption of fossil fuels will continue to be strong for the foreseeable future. That is clear evidence that developing countries have been and remain on a strong growth path. For example, demand for energy in the next 25 years is forecasted to increase over 35 per cent.

The Pacific Rim and India will be among the largest consumers. They also need potash, coal, iron ore, timber, natural gas and wheat, as well as oil. Canada should be a major supplier -- not only to the United States -- but to world markets. It is vital to Canada's strategic and economic interest that our national leadership play a facilitating role. Sadly, they are not.

The question we should be asking ourselves is how do we get those needed products -- which includes product from Alberta's oil sands -- to a global market that wants and needs them, and how can that be done in an environmentally safe fashion? Mulcair's notion that Alberta is an environmental catastrophe that rides roughshod over current laws and regulations is an affront to the truth.

The other key question I believe we should ask ourselves is this: in light of that demand, can we tie that indisputable fact to a much broader economic development agenda for Western Canada? If we frame the question in that way, it opens up an entirely different set of possibilities that we should explore. Worldwide demand and consumption of fossil fuels and other commodities will continue to be strong for the foreseeable future. Canada is blessed with an abundance of resources that the world needs. This is not only a matter of building Canada's economic future, but sharing our bounty with a world. Particularly sharing with developing countries whose own desire for prosperity depends on our capacity to provide them with the materials they need to build infrastructure and power their economies. This is in Canada's strategic and economic interest.

We need a constructive conversation that doesn't pit Canadian against Canadian. At its core this conversation should be a matter of nation-building at its most fundamental and about Canada's contribution to the world. In their quest for political advantage, Conservatives and the NDP have lost sight of their ultimate responsibility to the national interest. It should serve as a reminder to Liberals that the ideals of national unity and centrist compromise in the drive to build a strong economy that epitomize our party are more relevant -- and urgently indispensable -- than ever.