Alberta Politics
Brian Mulroney meets Pierre Trudeau, whom he would come to see as his nemesis for his role in undermining the Meech Lake Accord, in 1984 (Photo: Newfound and Labrador Historical Archives)

11 days from the brink, and Rachel Notley’s dice roll brings back memories of Mulroney and Meech

Posted on May 22, 2018, 2:05 am
9 mins

Rachel Notley, Alberta’s tough NDP premier who has clearly concluded her government’s survival depends on there being shovels in the ground building a pipeline by the time she asks the lieutenant governor to call an election next year, rolls the dice a lot like Brian Mulroney.

Well, not exactly like Mr. Mulroney. She is more disciplined and less garrulous than the old Irish-Canadian baritone from Baie-Comeau. The words “roll the dice” will never pass Ms. Notley’s lips. Nor will an admission, which she surely understands, that a pipeline to B.C. may never deliver the economic nirvana most Albertans have persuaded themselves it will.

Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Still, both Ms. Notley and Mr. Mulroney are former labour lawyers who know a thing or two about hard-nosed negotiations. There is more of Mr. Mulroney’s style in Ms. Notley’s approach than I imagine either she or he would be comfortable publicly admitting.

When Mr. Mulroney spoke the fateful words “roll the dice” in an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1990, he arguably unintentionally delivered the coup de grâce to his Meech Lake Accord strategy to revise Canada’s constitution and bring Quebec, officially and irrevocably, into the Canadian constitutional family.

In an interview on June 12 that year, 11 days before the Accord’s final deadline, Mr. Mulroney told the Globe’s Susan Delacourt that to win the game for Canada he waited to the final moment to “roll the dice” to get the Canada’s premiers to agree to his deal. As a tough labour lawyer and negotiator, he knew that sometimes that’s the only way to reach an agreement when two strong parties are at loggerheads.

Clyde Wells (Photo: The Canadian Encyclopedia).

Alas, his critics – who included Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Trudeau’s Quebec separatist foes, elected-senate enthusiasts from Alberta, Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells, and Indigenous Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper – seized on that undiplomatic phrase as evidence of the prime minister’s supposed recklessness and used it to scuttle the constitutional deal. It died on June 22 in the Manitoba and Newfoundland legislatures.

It’s a pity. The country would almost certainly have been better off had Mr. Mulroney succeeded. Unfortunately – unlike Ms. Notley, it would seem – prime minister Mulroney couldn’t keep his lips zipped. By failing to do so, to mix metaphors, he scored an own goal for the opposing team, many members of which here in Western Canada disputed the fundamental principle of Canada’s Confederation. The Charlottetown Accord and like things followed, also without success.

You’ll never hear Ms. Notley describe her non-negotiable bargaining strategy that the expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline must go through as anything like a roll of the dice, but that’s arguably what it is.

That was clear enough last night by Ms. Notley’s Tweeted announcement she won’t be attending no stinkin’ Western Premiers’ Conference in Yellowknife this week as long as B.C. Premier John Horgan, also a New Democrat, continues to oppose the pipeline (as the people who elected him demand).

Pierre Trudeau (Photo: Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada).

“It would be surreal and exceptionally tone deaf for anyone to think we could politely discuss pharmacare and cannabis when one of the players is hard at work trying to choke the economic lifeblood of the province and the country,” Ms. Notley said in a follow-up Tweet.

Mr. Horgan’s spokesperson responded that British Columbia is not a one-issue province, a good enough line under the circumstances. But it tacitly recognizes another thing that Ms. Notley knows but is too shrewd to say aloud. To wit: like it or not, Alberta is a one-issue province, and right now that issue is the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion.

Elijah Harper (Photo: Source uncertain).

I think Mr. Horgan has been surprised by how unflinching Ms. Notley has been on this file. Having watched this drama unfold, no one else should be.

With Texas-based Kinder Morgan Inc. threatening to pull out of the Trans Mountain project, 11 days from now as it happens if the company manages to get the plug out of the socket by June 1, Ms. Notley is prepared to roll the dice to get a deal. I imagine there’s some dice rolling in the negotiations with Kinder Morgan going on behind closed doors too.

If this were a labour negotiation, the price of failure would be a long strike, which, as one of the enduring clichés of labour relations has it, nobody wins. Of course, when there is an 11th hour settlement, almost everyone can hail it as a victory.

Ms. Notley’s dice rolling could be a tactic of desperation. It could be one of confidence. Win or lose, we may never know for sure – at least until the tell-all political memoirs are published long after the dust has settled. But if I were a betting man, I’d be betting Premier Notley is pretty sure she’s going to pull this off.

John Horgan (Photo: David J. Climenhaga)

There was a day when Alberta’s conservatives used to tell party members in public they’d better pray the NDP never manages to get a pipeline built or their electoral chances would be considerably reduced – actually, “done for” is a phrase I once heard uttered in this context at a conservative fund-raising event. I’m sure they’re praying right now to their God of the Almighty Market that Ms. Notley fails.

Naturally, now that success actually may be within Ms. Notley’s grasp, the United Conservative Party has changed its tune on that prediction. But it’s likely they understand it may still be true.

What’s more, I’d bet they understand a tough labour lawyer who won “Canada’s Most Conservative Province” for the NDP of all parties is more likely to strike a deal like this than a blundering braggart whose big accomplishments have included leading a lobby group that solicits donations from seniors while towing a “debt clock” behind a truck, and getting repeatedly re-elected in a safe Calgary riding.

Even without the spectacle of Ms. Notley and Mr. Horgan facing off in Yellowknife, the next few days should be interesting!

19 Comments to: 11 days from the brink, and Rachel Notley’s dice roll brings back memories of Mulroney and Meech

  1. J.E. Molnar

    May 22nd, 2018

    Metaphorically speaking, if ever there was a hill to die on — this is it.

    Premier Notley by drawing a line in the sand, speaks to the urgency of nailing down the construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. There may never be another opportunity for pipeline construction originating in Alberta — or Canada for that matter — for various political reasons that have now emerged in the era of environmentally-fueled discourse over fossil fuel abandonment.

    Metaphors aside, the premier and the intemperate UCP know full well her electoral chances and Alberta’s economic wealth are greatly improved with the completion of Kinder Morgan, or at least work beginning toward that end. Just ask Jason Kenney how unsuccessful the Stephen Harper administration was in getting a pipeline to tidewater after 10 futile years in government. It was sink or swim for the Harper Conservatives — and they chose to sink — metaphorically speaking.

  2. Farmer Brian

    May 22nd, 2018

    David, both Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau have made Premier Horgan the boogey man in the Trans Mountain expansion dispute. Bill Morneau was very specific and said that the federal government will indemnify the project against delays caused by the BC government. There are numerous cases before the courts, some are from the BC government but there are also cases brought before the courts by more than one Indigenous group. These are never mentioned by either Notley or Trudeau. Can the pipeline proceed while these cases are before the court? Can and will the government indemnify Kinder Morgan against these legal challenges? I happen to agree with you that this pipeline will not create the economic nirvana that has been advertised but Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau have based their whole political narrative on bringing in a carbon tax and this will build public support for pipelines. Obviously this hasn’t worked. Those who were against pipelines still are but both Notley and Trudeau appear willing to do whatever it takes to push through this pipeline. If Premier Horgan is successful in stopping the pipeline he will do Canada a great service as he will shorten the political careers of both Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau. Enjoy your day

    • Ron

      May 22nd, 2018

      Premier Horgan (via the Indigenous challenges not the BC reference) will be successful in stopping the pipeline:
      * he will do Canada a great service Yes but don’t forget its the native people that saved our Butts (pun intended)

      in regards to ….
      * he will shorten the political careers of both Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau…..
      Once the UCP became reality, Notley was always doomed to a single term regardless of pipeline progress.
      Getting rid of Jr. Trudeau (the young fellow that showed so much promise but then disappointed most of us big time) might be harder …. He has very weak opponents (Singh & Scheer)

  3. David

    May 22nd, 2018

    I suppose all negotiations involving groups with strong views and opposing positions are difficult, so the current pipeline conflict has similarity to some labour negotiations or to Meech Lake.

    I don’t know if the country would have been better off with Meech Lake, but I think it sure would have saved us a lot of grief and trouble. In the end Harper and his Conservatives eventually seemed to go along with distinct society, so I think we more or less ended up in the same place anyways, just by a very roundabout way. I think if Meech Lake did go through, the PC party would have survived, we never would have seen the rise of the Reform/Alliance/Conservative Party and probably never would have had Harper as PM, but it is hard to predict things in such a hypothetical alternative universe. I think the phrase “roll the dice” by Mulroney was unfortunate, but characteristic of much of his verbal over reach, which in the end while somewhat impressive also turned off a lot of Canadians. I think we like our politicians to be like ducks, there may be some furious paddling beneath the surface, but we want to see mostly calm waters and Mulroney was often doing way too much splashing while trying to be impressive.

    I suppose intractable issues like the pipeline conflict are also best handled by a cooler more methodical approach, so perhaps Premier Notley has that advantage. In this case I also don’t see a roundabout way to get to the same conclusion, but I do see a lot of grief and trouble for Premier Notley, Trudeau and Kinder Morgan if they don’t succeed in this, so despite the negotiation that seems to be dragging on and perhaps not progressing much, I think they will come to some agreement in the next week.

  4. Bob Raynard

    May 22nd, 2018

    I remember those Meech Lake days. It was just a few months after Brian Mulroney introduced the GST and Mulroney was incredibly unpopular. I remember thinking at the time that all Brian Mulroney had to do to get the Meech Lake Accord to pass was to say that once passed he would consider his work done and he would resign.

    Brief history lesson for David’s readers without gray hair: The GST came into effect Jan 1, 1990. It left Mulroney’s government so unpopular that they were reduced to 2 seats even though Mulroney himself had left. The party never recovered, and was eventually swallowed up by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, which dropped the premise of ‘Progressive’.

  5. Albertan

    May 22nd, 2018

    It is possibly good poltical optics for Notley to be drumming for the Kinder Morgan pipeline. But it possibly/probably could be, that the fight isn’t with B.C… may well be, again, with certain First Nations land rights and their court action, the elephant in the room.
    Then, there is the matter of the Trudeau Liberals. Even Ujjal Dosanjh, former NDP B.C. Premier and even though he is a Liberal card carrier now, stated in a recent interview that the Trudeau Liberals have only themselves to blame re: this pipeline, not B.C.’s Premier John Horgan.
    There is starting to be more political commentary re: the First Nations court action results though.
    Time will tell. Again, if First Nations wins at the Federal Appeal Court level, the feds will have to start renegotiating with them. If they lose, they will likely take it to The Supremen Court of Canada. Both could be a lengthy process…..maybe enough to frustrate the Kinder Morgan Texans and giving them a good excuse to back out.
    Then everyone could say, “Well, we tried.”

  6. brett

    May 22nd, 2018

    I agree. I believe that Rachael Notley is doing an incredible job on this important file. She is the right person at the right time.

    I believe that it is time for all politicians to put aside their own personal interests and support her. Alberta politicians need to be united and need to appear to be united on this issue. It is too important for petty political gamesmanship.

    When this is concluded I believe that Albertans will look to see who added value to the discourse and who stood on the sidelines, or worse, actually detracted from the discourse for his/her own political agenda.

    As Albertans, we are all in this together.

    • Mary Nokleby

      May 22nd, 2018

      What we’re all in together, is the anthropocene. The last decades have been the hottest on record, and that record is increasing. People are dying of the heat in Pakistan; droughts, floods and wild fires increase daily. We’re all in this together?

      Pipeline supporters don’t mean that. What they mean is that Alberta wants the good old days to return. They aren’t going to.

  7. David Bridger

    May 22nd, 2018

    Albertans are in for a big disappointment either way the pipeline issue plays out. Tar sands oil is not going to either sell internationally or fetch a higher price because there is more than enough light sweet crude that is much less costly to refine.

    Additionally, by the time a pipeline gets built the world will be more worried about dealing with global climate disasters than using more oil to worsen the situation.

    • Lulymay

      May 22nd, 2018

      Even worse, there is a real possibility that the Orange menace south of the border will get us all into another unwinnable war with one or more Middle Eastern countries which will make a pipeline look like child’s play. The other issue is that, despite all the “good for Canada” rhetoric, little to none of this dilbit will be used by anyone here in Canada and yet the taxpayers will be subsidizing these ex-Enron bandits.

  8. Geoffrey Pounder

    May 22nd, 2018

    Premier Notley is acting like a petulant child.
    Notley was elected to represent Albertans on a range of issues — not just pipelines.
    In fact, Notley wasn’t elected on new pipelines at all. The NDP campaigned against dilbit export pipelines in 2015.
    Notley WAS elected on promises of climate leadership and getting Albertans a fair share in royalties.
    Notley broke both those election promises. Emissions will rise for years to come.

    Tone deaf? Notley is playing deaf, dumb, and blind to the dictates of science to rapidly reduce emissions.
    And now she refuses to sit at the adults’ table.

    • M. Nokleby

      May 22nd, 2018

      For those of us who take ‘science based policy decisions’ seriously….as something other than a political talking point to use during elections….it is unfortunate that Alberta has convinced a leader as principled and smart as Rachel Notley, that running a bitumen pipeline to our coast for another 40 years is key to Canada’s economic future.

      The science more than disputes that. The science says that if we aren’t essentially off fossil fuels by 2050 we can kiss our future goodbye. That Albertan’s continue to pin their children’s future on unconventional tarsands oil, is tragic.

      The science dictates a rapid move away from fossil fuels….not 40 years more of a dirty, expensive to extract and ship, junk fossil fuel. Not a nice roll of the dice Rachel….even if you refrain from calling it that.

  9. Geoffrey Pounder

    May 22nd, 2018

    “Rachel Notley, Alberta’s tough NDP premier who has clearly concluded her government’s survival depends on there being shovels in the ground building a pipeline by the time she asks the lieutenant governor to call an election next year…”

    Where is the evidence?
    Validate the premise — do not accept it uncritically.
    Does Notley’s fate in 2019 really depend on pipelines? Does the NDP really stand a chance against a united conservative party?
    Conservatives wouldn’t vote NDP even if Notley built a billion pipelines. Notley is alienating many of her green supporters.
    Gross miscalculation.

    Is Notley putting her own political interests ahead of Alberta’s?
    If the world takes real action on climate change, AB’s high-carbon, low-quality, expensive-to-extract-and-refine, sour heavy crude will be among the first barrels to be sidelined. Stranding billions of dollars in assets. The next global oil price crash will be far worse than the last.
    Future generations will not thank this generation for building more pipelines.

    History handed Notley a unique opportunity/responsibility to set AB on a sustainable course. Notley turned it down.
    Instead, she signed off on the oilsands industry’s expansion agenda.
    The house is on fire — and Notley wants to throw more fuel on the fire before calling the fire department.
    Worse than useless.

    Why AB dilbit will not be competitive in global markets:

    “The fatal flaw of Alberta’s oil expansion”

    “Ditched Bitumen Desperately Seeks True Commitment”

    “Outside the Bitumen Bubble”

    • Ron

      May 22nd, 2018

      Very true.

      When will Alberta realize that no one really wants or needs their dirty bitumen?

      Perhaps in 100 years, when we can use the dilbit to make neat stuff without CO2 pollution…
      your descendants will be doubly grateful if we leave it in the ground.

  10. Jerrymacgp

    May 22nd, 2018

    You can find expert analysis to support either side of the pipeline debate, so to the average voter, it all becomes so much noise. The bottom line is this: it doesn’t really matter whether buggy whips are truly obsolete and Alberta should rapidly transition its economy away from their manufacture, or if there is still a viable global market for our own buggy whips because the technology to replace them is still not mature enough for more than pilot-scale implementation. What matters is that tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of Alberta families see their livelihoods and their families’ economic security as being inextricably linked with the ability to seek non-US customers for our buggy whips, because we can’t get good prices for them selling to the States alone.

    No Alberta government could have even a faint hope of surviving if it weren’t a vociferous champion of Alberta buggy whip production. But the difference between the Notley NDP and a putative Jason Kenny UCP government, would be what it does in other areas of public policy outside of the buggy whip market. A UCP government would: repeal the carbon tax… halt or even reverse minimum wage hikes… revert to the flat tax… repeal the current government’s improvements to worker rights… roll back consumer protections in the housing and payday loan markets…. and slash & burn the public sector, increasing health care wait times and massively ballooning school class sizes. And, so much more. So, it’s not a debate about buggy whips or none. It’s a debate about buggy whips and what else, a progressive agenda or a regressive one.

    As an aside, I do wonder where we’d be, if Mr Horgan had qualified his “every tool in the toolbox” pledge, by saying “every legal tool… “. His actual pledge had the effect of seeming to condone extra-legal means to stop the pipeline, and gave comfort to the “never build anything” crowd.

    • Rocky

      May 23rd, 2018

      I would think a reasonable person would assume the idea of a “toolbox” suggests the tools were all legal ones, and probably legislative ones at that. Suggesting Horgan is part of a conspiracy to condone “eco-terrorism” or something is nonsense worthy of Jason Kenny and his UCP conspiracy theorists. As for giving comfort to the never build anything crowd, that would be most British Columbians if what you’re proposing to build is a pipe full of dirty bitumen with no market on either side of the Pacific.

  11. M.Nokleby

    May 22nd, 2018

    I think the historical comparison doesn’t really hold. A great deal has changed in the world since Brian, and this stand off is really about climate change, the rapidity with which our ecosphere is changing, and the questionable merits of building new infrastructure for a dirty unconventional oil, which Andrew Nikiforuk calls a ‘junk fuel’ due to the costs of mining, transporting, upgrading and refining it.

    That Albertans hold out hope of returning to their advantaged days as a petrostate, based on bitumen production, transportation through other peoples watersheds and coastal waters, and export sale somewhere in Asia is a pretty accurate comment on how stupid 80 years of petropolitics can make a people. The best of our oil is gone…we’re mopping up now, with fracking and in situ bitumen extraction.

    Both processes costly if not dangerous to our water supply; both processes signs that the age of oil is winding down for Albertans. The question is, are we going to be stupid to the last drop, and take the climate with us when we tank?

    • Bob Raynard

      May 23rd, 2018

      Well put.

    • Scotty on Denman

      May 27th, 2018

      Better to keep history in proper perspective: it doesn’t always repeat and, when anybody tries, results can range from ironic to perverse. History takes place on this terrestrial stage, with lighting now from orbit, meaning that some histories simply cannot possibly repeat because our planet has been substantially and irrevocably changed by our industry and wastefulness.

      The storyteller—or historian—always looks for a milestone event to anchor electoral politics to, a tipping-point critical to narratives of fear and/or hope (the ‘plot-point’ of the screenwriter). It’s difficult to portray gradual processes as critical; about the best narremetric discovered has been: if we don’t curb GHG emissions by such-and-such a year, we’re hooped. Now that’s politic! Push it into another movie that one may or may not care to watch. There might be another plausible screenplay that simply denies climate change’s dangers and assuages the harried and distracted electorate. Now that’s a pitch!

      Let’s keep Mulroney in perspective, that is, with respect the bitumen controversy: he is important today because the principals in the bitumen controversy were born, as ‘t were, in the wake of Mulroney’s noble but failed attempt to contemporize or update his party, naturally the perennial problem of conservatism: by contriving a pan-Canadian PC party that partnered Quebec and the West with the economic heartland of Upper Canada he unwittingly handed factions within each of these regions the elements they needed to achieve their respective, parochial interests, and nothing sells or pitches a narrative better than a tale of injustice which of coarse each faction brought to the stage and eventually exploded monolithic Toryism, Thatcherism, Reaganomics and Mulroneyism—grandiose all—and divided the once mighty federal PCs into distinct cultural fiefs, each with its regional mojo: Reform’s proselytization in the West was almost immediate under the slogan “the West wants in”: The Bloc almost as immediately claimed the right in Quebec and expressed its fundamental resentments, too; Ontario, naturally, resented the challenge to its industrial hegemony in Canada. These base narratives of injustice or justifiable resentment simply opened the door for Geckoid neo-rightists to usurp nominally conservative parties across the Western world. This is a major, consequential change to the politics of the right which began with unified interests of Mulroney and ended with the special interests of, say, Big Bitumen in the West, or Quebec nationalism, or “Common Sense” Ontario.

      Since the TMX controversy has cast roles for all of these daughters of fossilized Toryism whose action is ‘constitutional crisis’, it’s legitimate to know who these characters are, what they need and how capable they are—and that all leads back to and makes relevant Mulroney’s final Progressive Conservative government. The neo-right stands in sharp contrast to Mulroney’s conservatism; grasping this through history makes it easier to filter out politcal rhetoric and reveal the truly different circumstances the TMX debate rages in: the principals are preoccupied with global markets, not Canadian sovereignty or unity.

      History also illustrates how confederation of small, remote regions of British North America was conceived as each contributing its particular strength to make the sum of federal parts stronger in order to, for example, ameliorate the viscisitudes of resource market prices—which can be contrasted with the opposite: provincial parochialism played by federal neo-liberals. In this narrative—the neo-right one—Alberta’s entire being and welfare depends on its tar patch alone, and the more alone and dependant it is upon bitumen development is handily availed by Big Bitumen which wants to be governed by stateless corporatism, not provincial or federal sovereignty with their potentials for electoral revolution. The difference of course is that corporate interests simply mothball unprofitable prospects whereas government can hardly write-off living, breathing citizens—not without creating deeper and more indelible problems down the road.

      Naturally, the history is absolutely drenched in ironies, not least that JT—who needed to portray himself with more gravitas as a rookie PM by way of so-called ‘national interest’ —persists in achieving the opposite, regional enmity and economic isolation. It’s as ironic as notions of being green whilst promoting the expansion of the highest GHG processing footprint of mining bitumen. All history is story and distorts reality for simple narremetric purposes. History is thus used profitably in politics.

      How else would one explain the sudden and increasingly frequent banter about BC separatism incited by Alberta’s sabre-rattling. How did it come to this?


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