Canada lost the Keystone pipeline when Donald Trump lost the election. For Justin Trudeau, that’s not a bad deal
According to polls leading up to the U.S. election, Canadians were pulling for Joe Biden. Almost 80 per cent of us feared Donald Trump had led his country to the edge of “chaos that could have negative impacts on Canada,” according Ekos research late last summer.
An end to chaos, as much as anything, is what Canadian policy-makers were hoping for from a Biden administration. Under Trump, our government and diplomats came to expect the unexpectable from their biggest trading partner and closest ally. Trade wars by tweet. Tariffs on a tantrum. Unpredictability as strategy. Virtually every expert I spoke with about what Canada should expect from Biden emphasized predictability as the biggest positive change. Doing what he said he’d do, in a fashion that lines up with larger articulated policy goals, with a commitment to international collaboration.
Now, on his very first day as president, Biden did something entirely predictable. And in the immediate term, it doesn’t look so great for Canada.
What he did was drive a spike through the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would have carried Canadian oil to the American market. Barack Obama had refused to permit the project, Trump gave it the green light and — from virtually the start of his candidacy — had Biden promised to kill it.
There’s no doubt that it is a significant economic blow to Canada in the short term. Alberta has invested more than $1.5 billion in the project. Both the provincial and federal governments had a lot of energy-sector economic hope tied up in it. It isn’t just an abstract thing: layoffs were announced in Alberta as soon as Biden signed his order.
Environmentalists in Canada are celebrating — the Green Party of Canada issued a news release congratulating Biden — but our parties in power, and some important Canadian employers, are taking a hit here.
That led Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to call for war — a trade war, at least — on Biden’s first day. “We call on the Canadian government to respond with consequences for this attack on Canada’s largest industry,” Kenney said in a statement issued on Wednesday, just as Biden was sworn in. “That’s not how you treat a friend and ally.”
OK, deep breaths. It’s obvious Biden’s mind is not for changing on this: he made it a longtime commitment, he made it one of his first actions in office and it’s symbolic of his larger climate plan. So does Canada really want to kick off its relationship with the new president by going to the mattresses in a battle it knows it won’t win? Probably not.
Kenney, in particular, might feel the political need to be seen as trying to pick that fight. Trudeau appears to be calculating the math differently. “We are disappointed but acknowledge the president’s decision to fulfil his campaign promise on Keystone XL,” the prime minister said in a written statement. Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, echoed that sense of resignation. “He had made a commitment during his campaign and he lived up to that commitment,” she told the CBC. “I think we have to accept that and move forward.”
In other words, yes, it’s a dark cloud, but some days the rain is going to fall on you.
And there’s a silver lining. In spiking the pipeline, Biden did what he said he was going to do. It is part of his well-articulated commitment to decarbonize the economy in every area of his policy. It comes alongside orders the same day to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization.
In other words, it displays exactly the kind of predictability, commitment to larger principles, and commitment to international co-operation that Canada has been missing from a U.S. leader. It doesn’t like the decision, but the framework in which it was made is the kind Ottawa is hoping to see a lot more of from the new crew in Washington.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office told my colleague Tonda MacCharles as much this week about their hopes for Biden. “It’s a dependability, a sort of knowability of what you’re going to get,” one said.
This is a “first-the-bad-news” situation for Canada. Rather than breaking off a friendship over it, Trudeau will likely use their phone call this week to look beyond the Keystone decision to a more friendly relationship.