A critical dialogue – Quebec’s negative attitude to Alberta is wrong

Ontario's wealth has been a thorn in the side of many Quebecers for a long time; they have often claimed that Ontario's industrial development was the result of unfair privilege from Ottawa and had in fact occurred at Quebec's expense.

Truth be told, Quebec's economy has always been significantly bolstered by our relations with our largest trading partner. Ontarians are the ones who traditionally subsidized Quebec and other poorer provinces, rather than the other way around.

Quebecers are now directing their negative barbs at Alberta and its oil sands. The arguments stem from the highest levels – Gilles Duceppe and Premier Jean Charest himself after the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change. They are based primarily on myths and do nothing to help Quebec's interests.

Both from an environmental and an economic perspective, Quebec should drop its haughty attitude to Alberta's oil sands. They generate only around 5% of the greenhouse gases produced in Canada, compared to 7% for agricultural activities. But we don’t vilify our farmers!

The transportation sector is Canada's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for 25% of all emissions in the country. Yet no one is suggesting that cars and trucks be banned, due to their obvious benefits. Instead, we are justifiably seeking to improve their energetic and environmental performance.

In the same way, the mining of oil sands generates undeniable economic benefits.

In 2009, for example, Alberta's citizens and companies contributed $40 billion in income and other taxes to the federal government, while receiving services and other benefits valued at only $19 billion. The balance, namely $21 billion (or $5,742 for every man, woman and child in Alberta), was distributed elsewhere in the country. The Quebec government received $8 billion in equalization payments, which enabled it to develop social programs that are more generous than those Alberta gives its own residents.

Last year investors reaped the stock market rewards of gas and oil, which together account for 25% of the TSX's total value. And a report from the Canadian Energy Research Institute says that oil sands will account for 292,000 person-years of work in Quebec over the next 25 years. Overall, it is estimated that oil mining in Alberta – while it lasts – will contribute a total of $1,700 billion to Canada's GDP.

Instead of jeopardizing those benefits, we need a shift in attitude that considers our mutual advantages. We should make an effort to understand the environmental challenges facing Albertans and support their attempts to overcome them. The recent appointment of a Quebecer to the head of Natural Resources Canada may well be a step in this direction.

In addition, Quebec’s political leaders would be well advised to abandon their short-term populist views, because the province could one day also become a significant oil producer. Oil exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is showing a potential similar to that of Newfoundland's Hibernia deposit, which is located along the same geological formation.

Albertans have long been Quebecers' natural allies, primarily in countering Ottawa's centralizing tendencies (real or perceived). Over the coming months and years we will need to commit to a constructive and realistic dialogue with the province – a dialogue I plan on personally contributing to, given its major potential impact on our economy as well as on the overall health of the Canadian federation.

* This is a translation of an article published in French.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute.

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