Dispatch from the Front Lines: Alberta may be going nuts, but Toronto is a bit dumpy
Jen is not loving her latest jaunt to the Six. Matt would like to pay more taxes. Alberta, Trudeau on a Train, and more!
Hello! We are back! We’ve returned to work but we’ll be publishing at a lower rate this summer — there just isn’t as much news happening. But we will continue our dispatches, and publish articles as warranted by events. We hope you are enjoying your summer!
Let’s get to it!
Our Line videos are back. Forgive the low quality of this one — both Jen and Matt are away from home this week, relying on improvised recording spaces and mobile internet connections. We hope the content offsets the quality of the production. (Jen’s kids sure are cute, though.)
Your Line editors continue to be both simultaneously gobsmacked and amused by the Alberta UCP leadership race, which is shaping up to be the best political drama in Canada, federal Conservatives be damned.
We are not entirely astonished to report that after a few weeks in the race, the clear front runner appears to be Danielle Smith, the former Wildrose leader who seemed to lose everything after an ill-advised floor crossing to the PC party, which set the stage for the 2015 NDP majority government.
Smith went on to become a radio host and podcast producer, and there seemed quite content until her re-entry into political life when the UCP leadership opened up post Jason Kenney. Call it her Redemption Run. Smith's key plank is a promise to pass a Sovereignty Act, which, she suggests, would allow the provincial government to ignore pesky federal court rulings, laws, and regulations that it decides it doesn't like.
When she first announced this scheme, we called it dumb and declined to take it at all seriously.
Since then, UCP MLA Jason Nixon has even suggested that the party would simply decline to pass such an absurd bit of ham.
"To present to Albertans in any way that there is some magical solution that the legislature could pass tomorrow that would somehow make all these problems go away is not factual.
“The No. 1 way to make Albertans mad at us would be to promise that you can do things with certain legislation that you cannot do and then not deliver. That will make them very, very, very upset," Nixon noted in the Calgary Herald.
Well, this government would know a thing or two about making promises and then failing to deliver. In practice, what Smith is proposing is only slightly dumber than the Equalization Referendum, which was supposed to force the federal government to renegotiate equalization in Alberta's favour. Remember that one? Oh, sure, its drafters conceded, it was really all a bit of political theatre, but the mere power of the vote was supposed to provide a powerful bit of leverage for Alberta.
And when is that meeting happening again?
Any day now, right?
Anyway, point being that no one in the UCP can claim to be virgins at this particular orgy of stupidity. Meanwhile, if Smith is the frontrunner, we suppose we're going to have to give the Sovereignty Act more than its due.
Firstly, it should be pretty damn obvious that a province can't just pass a law that allows it to not enforce laws that fall under federal jurisdiction. There have certainly been examples where that jurisdiction has been contested, and in a federation, those matters are settled by interprovincial diplomacy at best, and in the courts, at worst. The matter of the carbon tax instantly comes to mind, with the Supreme Court essentially deciding that the feds were within their rights to impose one.
There are all sorts of things that Alberta could do that would fall well within its jurisdictional ambit; this province has long discussed creating its own police force, pension plan, taxation collection, and perhaps even immigration targets. None of this would be aided by a Sovereignty Act like the one Smith is proposing.
In fact, at a recent forum, it seemed pretty clear that the entire goal of this legislation is simply to provoke a constitutional crisis.
Which ... okay. But, then what?
What does Alberta imagine is going to happen once the crisis is invoked? Does it think that the rest of Canada is going to be so put back on its heels that it will settle down and, what, hand over more cash? Build more pipelines? What, specifically, is the plan of action being proposed, here?
Smith has implied that the Sovereignty Act would allow Alberta to reject COVID-19 dictates from the federal government, preventing Ottawa from ordering third doses, or demanding shots for kids.
But, like, how, exactly? Even at the height of the pandemic, the federal government didn't go door-to-door taking people out of their homes and forcibly injecting them. And, as far as we can tell, our governments lack the physical capacity to do so even if it wanted to. The problems the Sovereignty Act is proposing to prevent are a nightmare fantasy.
What the federal government did do was impose vaccine mandates to travel by plane or train, and to work in the federal government. Spell this out for us; how, precisely, would an Alberta Sovereignty Act stop the federal government from requiring vaccine mandates to travel to other provinces? How does Smith plan to enforce that? How is her act going to protect the jobs of federal workers in Alberta?
Oh, and while we're here, Albertans have a bad habit of forgetting that other provinces and actors get to play these games, too. How smart is it for Albertans to pass a law undermining the authority of the federal government? Let's put aside the possibility of new pipelines; what happens if other provincial governments decide that they don't like living in a federation, either? What if they decide to pull the permits of existing pipeline infrastructure, like TMX? The only entity Alberta would have to appeal to in such a scenario would be the, uh, federal government. Oops.
Meanwhile, has anybody stopped to look at what percentage of Alberta's government revenue comes from federal transfer payments? What's the plan if the feds respond to this provincial constitutional crisis by cutting Alberta off?
No doubt, we expect the Sovereignty Act supporters to respond to a demand for specifics with the claim that Quebec is already doing all of this. To which we have to note: well, no, not quite. Quebec didn’t just pass a bill saying it would take its ball and go home. It has spent decades chipping away at Confederation from the inside, creating its own nearly autonomous state while ensuring it maintained enough political power within Canada as a whole to ensure that no political party had the spine to do anything about it. We don't pretend otherwise.
The fact that Quebec has more than double Alberta's population, making it the second-most populous province in the country, gives it a bit of an edge in this regard. What Alberta also forgets is that Quebec's secession shenanigans weren't bluffs; and they came at a significant cost.
The decades after the separation referenda were marked by a hollowing out of the province's economy and a relative slowing of its population growth. The scars of these decisions are obvious even today; Montreal, once Canada's great city, is now a shadow of its Anglo sister, Toronto.
Alberta has already lost virtually all of its major corporate head offices. Those aren't coming back as we head into a future in which the world is gradually becoming less dependent on the most marginal oil supplies. Is making Alberta a more politically unstable place — one with a reputation for flirting with backwater succession theatre — really going to bring back the glory days?
The screed above may be leading some of our Line readers to suspect that co-editor Gerson is eyeing the Alberta exits. Indeed, she admits she spent the last two weeks in Toronto and still likes it there more than she’d admit to her neighbours in Big Sky country. She likes the restaurants, the way the neighbourhoods are built around lots of transit, and the aesthetic of the old brick residential homes she definitely cannot afford.
Alas, it is not to be; despite — or perhaps because of — Alberta’s political absurdity, it remains her home. And, she’d like to add, she is still an evangelist for the province. For anyone trying to raise a young family, especially, no other big city in Canada can beat Calgary (and perhaps Edmonton) for affordable living, economic opportunity, and quality of life. We are just hoping Premier Smith doesn’t screw it up.
Besides, she will add, she could not help but notice that Toronto has its own problems; the city seems overstretched. Not only is housing hard to come by, but even the neighbourhoods boasting multi-million dollar homes seem run down and, dare we say, seedy. It’s as if even the wealthiest residents have put so much capital into simply living in Toronto that they can’t afford to keep their properties up.
And maybe it’s just the heat, but the streets are pretty trashed in a lot of areas; the bins are full, the transit crowded and the whole city gives the impression of being stretched too thin. It’s as if the city has simply grown too big for itself, and most of its residents are accepting too many compromises for the simple promise of living in the 416/647.
But, well, of course Gerson would think that.
All of the above gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about something announced this week. A few days ago, the Toronto Star reported that Premier Doug Ford is going to grant the cities of Toronto and Ottawa expanded mayoral powers. Currently, Ontario municipalities, which are “creatures of the province" and only have those powers downloaded to them by the provincial legislature, are run on so-called “weak mayor" systems. The mayor has convening powers — no, not in the sense of Mélanie Joly. They are the chairperson. They also have symbolic duties and certain rights, such as being automatic members of municipal committees. But they are simply one vote among the many of council. This can produce absurdities, like a mayor elected at large by hundreds of thousands of voters having a council vote equal to some ward-level representative who squeaks in with the slimmest possible plurality and only a few thousand in votes, total.
Ford wants to change that. We can’t really tell you yet what precisely he would do, because the Star got the scoop before the government was ready for the announcement. We’ll find out in a few weeks what the specifics of the proposal actually are. All we know right now is that the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa would be given expanded powers that could be overridden with a two-thirds majority vote at council.
And this seems, like ... basically fine? Worth considering? Potentially even good?
Some of our readers may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu reading this, because it certainly does echo Ford's surprise move in 2018. Ford used his provincial powers to dramatically downsize Toronto City Council. This was seen broadly (including by us) as punitive score-settling by Ford, who had had a pretty rocky relationship with Toronto City Council while he served on it during his late brother's mayoralty. Ford's 2018 move was particularly outrageous because he dropped the news on Toronto in the middle of a municipal campaign that was already underway, throwing races and plans into chaos. Whatever your views on the merits of a smaller council, something we generally would’ve supported, it was wildly inappropriate to spring it on the city in the middle of an election. (For what it’s worth, Ford’s move was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court as within his lawful jurisdictional powers. He had said he'd use the notwithstanding clause otherwise.)
This time it’s a bit different. The move is being announced months before the next municipal election, and in any case, though significant, the proposal would have much less of an effect on ward-level races.
So we're left with simply the merits of the proposal. How quaint.
Much will depend on the execution. Ford is far too much a human wrecking ball to be given any benefit of the doubt. But just because something is his idea doesn’t mean it’s automatically a bad idea. Calls for a strong mayor system are hardly unique to the political right. The overtly progressive Toronto Star has previously supported such proposals. And despite a variety of bizarre evasive manouevres on Twitter this week, former Toronto mayor David Miller, a progressive's progressive, had also supported such notions (after opposing them).
Forgive us if we sound cynical, but we rather suspect that this is an issue where people will pretend to hold principled positions on the merits that actually have everything to do with whether or not the move will be instantaneously advantageous for them, or their rivals. In the former case, it's a good idea. In the latter, a terrible one. And they'll insist they're consistent on it.
Uh huh. Sure, guys. In any case, while we await the details of the proposal and will withhold a final judgment until then, your Line editors certainly agree that both Ottawa and Toronto need to be better governed. Neither of us are experts on Ottawa municipal politics, but we certainly paid attention during the convoy crisis in February. No level of government crowned themselves in glory during those weeks, but we really do think Ottawa’s city government took the prize for the most abjectly pathetic response. Local political leadership was epically overwhelmed, and quickly fell into infighting. As much as we wish to avoid writing Premier Ford any blank policy cheques, from what we saw in Ottawa, it would be very hard to make things worse.
And as discussed above, Toronto is something of a consistent mid-level basket case in terms of its municipal governments, and has been for years. We don’t find this mysterious. Toronto is undergoing a period of rapid growth and change. We aren’t shocked to see it struggling in many ways. Toronto is rapidly evolving into a true global metropolis, both in terms of its size, density, wealth and cultural power, but it is still being governed like a sleepy mid-20th-century central-Canadian provincial capital. It has simply outgrown its institutions, its political culture, and we think in many ways, its self image. This is a city that has enormous potential, but also faces enormous challenges that it is currently unable or willing to even begin addressing.
The premier could easily find a way to make things worse. Really easily. But no serious and credible person is advocating for the status quo. We'll hold off our final view until we see the proposal, but here's what we can say right now: something's gotta give. And we all need to be open to new ideas, even if we don’t like the guy proposing them.
It’s been two weeks now since Justin Trudeau, under intense pressure, decided to permit Siemens to return to Germany a turbine for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that was being repaired at a facility in Montreal. In a column earlier this week for The Line, Andrew Potter took the government to task for its shamefully two-faced approach to the decision. But while Trudeau probably thought he could swallow a few days of bad press and Ukrainian irritation and move on, it is starting to look like the troubles this episode has caused for the NATO alliance are only just beginning.
To be sure, the turbine itself is already back in Germany — it was apparently flown to Cologne from Montreal on July 17. This is notwithstanding a lawsuit filed in federal court by the Toronto-based Ukrainian World Congress seeking to overturn the decision, which it sees as a violation of Canada’s own sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Also, this past Wednesday, the Stanford-based International Working Group on Russian Sanctions, led by Obama’s ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, put out a statement demanding that Canada reverse its sanctions waiver that permitted the return of the turbine, and also called on Germany to block Siemens’ transfer of the turbine to Russia.
The statement was signed by a number of high-profile Americans, including former state department officials, former ambassadors to Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, as well as Francis Fukuyama, among others. The statement repeats a number of arguments that others have made, which is that the Russia was using energy as a way of blackmailing the West; that the missing turbine was not the reason why Russia had cut gas supplies through the pipeline; that the return of the turbine wouldn’t prevent Russia from continuing to choke gas supplies to Europe; and finally, that all Canada’s decision does is validate Russian blackmail and hand it a playbook for weakening the united front upon which the sanctions regime relies.
But the bigger problem, at least from Justin Trudeau’s perspective, is that German officials keep confirming the grounds for the opposition to returning the turbines in the first place, namely, that they were being blackmailed. Talking to a German media outlet on Wednesday, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said she told the Canadians: “If we don’t get the gas turbine, then we won’t get any more gas, and then we won’t be able to provide any support for Ukraine at all, because then we’ll be busy with popular uprisings.” That is to say: “The Russians were blackmailing us, so we blackmailed the Canadians.” Baercock quickly backtracked, saying that maybe she was exaggerating a bit. And after her comments were reported by the Globe and Mail, Germany’s ambassador to Canada called the paper to say no, they never threatened to cut off aid to Ukraine, and that Germany remains one of Ukraine’s best friends, etc.
Sure, whatever. It doesn’t matter, since it is pretty clear that Russia doesn’t really care if it gets the turbine back anyway. Since the turbine arrived in Germany, the Russians have made no effort to get it back, to the point where the German economy minister said, “Sometimes one has the impression that Russia no longer wants to take it back.” It’s almost like the entire turbine affair was fabricated by the Kremlin as a way to crack open the sanctions regime, scare Europeans, and cause dissent amongst the NATO alliance. In which case, mission accomplished.
The upshot is that Canada got played, badly. The Kremlin is basically admitting as much. At this point, the only real question Justin Trudeau and the people around him need to be asking themselves is whether the Germans were dealing with Canada in good faith, but were themselves played by Russia, or whether Canada — and NATO more broadly — got played by a German/Russian good-cop/bad-cop routine.
Some of our readers may be familiar with The Hub, a fellow news and commentary website launched around the same time as The Line. We consider The Hub to be a friend of The Line. We know many of the people who run it. We like them. We also have some overlapping writers. They're something of a cousin to us, we think. We’re a bit more punchy, they’re a bit more wonky, but as far as we’re concerned, the more the merrier. Steve Lafleur, a policy wonk who has written for us here at The Line himself previously, had an interesting article at The Hub in recent days. He discussed some recent air-travel experiences that he and members of his family have experienced, and concludes that the very real problems afflicting Canadian air travel do not have an easily identifiable or convenient scapegoat or villain.
This is generally our view as well. Some of you will remember that Line editor Matt Gurney subjected himself to a completely unnecessary flight to and from New York City last month, purely to experience international air travel, and his conclusion broadly mirrored Lefleurs'. Some things are working well, some things aren’t, and both the public and private sectors are racking up both wins and losses in their areas of operation. We'd love for there to be a single bad guy or failing, but that's rarely how life works.
Or, as LaFleur said, "I’m not sure there’s really anyone to blame."
Indeed. We agree with that. But we also want to mention something that Lafleur‘s comments brought to mind. We think we spend too much time assigning blame. We need to start spending more time finding solutions. And if we have any one solution of our own to offer, it would be this: political leaders, and their partisan supporters, need to start admitting that the concepts of “blame" and “responsibility" are not interchangeable. Just because you can’t be blamed for something doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility to fix it. This isn’t fair, but anyone who seeks political power — indeed, invests huge amounts of personal energy and money into winning it — cannot then be outraged to be looked upon to lead.
On the specific matter of airports, not every issue presenting there is the fault of Justin Trudeau or the Canadian federal government. We do think there are some policies that they have been correctly criticized for, or steps that they could take that they were slow to, but the situation is much more complicated than a simple abstraction into “Gatekeeper Trudeau bad!" Insofar as Trudeau, any member of his cabinet or government, or any Trudeau supporter more generally wishes to assert that the airports are not his fault, broadly, we agree.
But they’re his responsibility. He’s the guy. Canadians are counting on him to fix these problems. If he doesn’t want the job, he can take a walk in the snow. So long as he continues to sit in the big chair, we’d like to see him move as quickly as possible to find some solutions here. Yes, we know, there’s only so much that he can do. Is he doing even that much?
It’s a different topic, we grant, but we had a bit of a laugh a few weeks ago when in response to numerous embarrassing stories, primarily the astonishing collapse of Canada's passport system, Trudeau, no doubt alarmed by the growing political danger, came out with the bold announcement of … a task force. Oh good. That’s what we needed. You all know the joke about everything looking like a nail to the hammer. We think this is a big example of that. What is the solution to any Canadian government failure? A task force! If that doesn’t work, maybe an inquiry. And if all else fails, appoint a retired supreme court justice to write a report about it, and then sit on that report for a few years, and then have another retired supreme court justice write a different report about it.
The point of these exercises isn't to solve problems. It's to create the illusion of progress and activity. The outcomes? Meh, we don't track outcomes in this country, we track inputs, because outcomes aren’t the point. The process is the point. The task force isn’t intended to improve customer service. It’s intended to give the government something to do that makes it look busy and engaged and serious.
We understand that many of the problems we face are being faced all over the world by other governments. We also understand the limits of federal power and influence. The prime minister is not a wizard. He can’t “Abracadabra!” our airports and passport offices back into good working order. But while we can't assign Trudeau all the blame, like it or not, he's got most of the responsibility.
Canadians need answers and solutions, not excuses and deflections. Or even task forces. A whole bunch of them need passports, too, come to think of it. Which reminds us. Weird how there’s been no updates from that new task force, eh? Wonder why that is.
Okay! That’s it. See you next week.'
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org