by David Korzinski | January 15, 2019 5:30 pm
January 16, 2019 – Against the backdrop of an election year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing increasing pressure amid calls to move faster and more forcefully to complete a new oil pipeline in this country.
That pressure is underscored in new public opinion data from the Angus Reid Institute that shows six-in-ten Canadians say the lack of new pipeline capacity constitutes a “crisis”, while half say the Trudeau government has done “too little” to ensure new capacity is built.
This latest polling finds Canadians polarized along regional lines, with residents of Alberta overwhelmingly taking the view that the situation is a crisis. Where British Columbians are divided, Quebecers take an opposite view.
Regional and provincial divisions are also evident on questions of whether provinces west of Ontario are seen to have an adequate amount of influence and power in confederation.
These questions – and more – are canvassed in a wide ranging, four-part study exploring and measuring the nature and dynamics of Western Canadian identity, the way people in different parts of the country view each other and their institutions, and the depth to which feelings of alienation in certain parts of Canada are felt.
The debate over resource and energy projects has unfolded differently in jurisdictions across the country. For Alberta, the conversation has been about getting the province’s struggling economy moving by increasing its capacity to move product, whether east or west. For British Columbia, the discussion has hinged on the cost versus benefit in environmental protection and economic growth of both pipeline expansions and new liquified natural gas projects. In Quebec, Premier François Legault recently stated an unwillingness to entertain new pipelines at all, choosing instead to focus on hydro electric projects.
When Canadians are asked about provincial priorities, the eminence of the energy and resource file is not as clear. Provincial issues vary widely, and while energy and pipelines are atop the list in Alberta (with 63% choosing this as a top issue) and tied for top priority in Saskatchewan, the issue drops substantially in most other regions. In B.C., four-in-ten (41%) choose ‘cost of living’, while 17 per cent say energy, resource and pipeline issues. In Quebec and Atlantic Canada, health care rises over four-in-ten while the number choosing energy concerns drops to single digits.
The value of the resource sector is more apparent when considering the economic priorities of the nation as a whole. Looking at the various sectors of the economy through this lens draws into stark relief the perceived importance of that industry alongside agriculture. Both have a majority of Canadians choosing them as critical to the country’s success, with oil and gas at the top of the list – propelled by nine-in-ten Albertans (91%) and significant majorities in both B.C. (65%) and Ontario (64%).
Canada’s oil reserves rank among the top three globally, and the industry was responsible for approximately 11 per cent of gross domestic product in 2017. Agriculture, meanwhile, represents a far smaller amount in the nation’s GDP, at about 1.5 per cent.
The priorities of Canadians are largely similar when asked which of these sectors they believe should be receiving more consideration from the federal government, but regional splits are notable:
The theme that has dominated the news cycle in Canada over the past year when it comes to natural resources has been the cost and benefit of new pipeline construction. Proponents of construction argue the inability to build new capacity is hurting investment, production, and ultimately the Canadian economy. Many opponents argue Canada’s economic development should not focus on increasing traditional oil production but focus instead on shifting priorities and expenditures to new industries.
The argument that the inability to build new pipelines is a serious problem, even a crisis, is one that resonates most Canadians in the current climate. Indeed, every region other than Quebec agrees with this sentiment, though B.C. residents are divided close to evenly:
For the motivating factors behind such a strong level of agreement, one need only look at the perceived impact of the industry. As noted above, Canadians regard the oil and gas industry very highly in terms of its important to the Canadian economy. Thus, a majority of residents in all provinces outside of Quebec say that the restriction of new pipeline capacity would have either a major or considerable impact on their own province’s economy. Nearly all Albertans say this (96%), while majorities agree everywhere else:
And while fewer Canadians say their household will be directly affected, they are more likely to say that their concern extends past their province to the national level, in terms of the potential impact that the resolution of this conflict could have:
The two projects at the centre of the pipeline turmoil in recent years have been the TransMountain pipeline expansion that carries crude and refined oil from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., and the Energy East pipeline, which has been proposed to carry oil products from Alberta east, as far as New Brunswick.
The $15.7 billion Energy East project was cancelled by TransCanada in 2017 largely due to delays in the approval process. Some now hope to revive it.
While each project has its own bureaucratic hurdles and challenges, a majority of Canadians (53%) say they support both. This, compared to one-in-five (19%) nationwide who say they oppose both. A handful of Canadians support one or the other, while another one-in-five (17%) say they remain unsure:
As has already been shown, the outlier on this issue is Quebec. Support leans heavily in the direction of building both pipelines in every region outside of that province. Inside, a plurality oppose both projects (36%).
Divisions emerge when looking at the role of the federal government in the ongoing pipeline saga. A significant proportion of the population – about half – say that the government has not done enough in order to procure these projects and ensure their completion. TransMountain, in particular, has been a source of difficulty for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after the federal government stepped in to purchase the pipeline to ensure its expansion. The project has since re-entered the National Energy Board review process.
The rest of the population is divided into two groups – those who say the government has been too aggressive in pushing pipeline development (27%) and those who say the approach has been hitting the right marks (23%). Notably, the proportion of Canadians saying the government has not done enough is considerably higher in Alberta, and lower in other regions. In Quebec, half (48%) say that Trudeau and the Liberals have been doing too much on this issue:
The question of local opposition is one always close to conversations about these issues. That has recently been highlighted by recent events in Houston, B.C., where 14 people were arrested from a blockade designed to prevent access to a different pipeline project operated by Coastal GasLink. The pipeline is to carry natural gas through Wet’suwet’en First Nation territory on its route from Dawson Creek to Kitimat.
Views about the weight and importance of local opposition to projects of this nature are again most different in Quebec. Notably, a majority of B.C. residents (57%) disagree that local opposition should carry most of the weight in these debates.
One of the largest drivers of opposition or ambivalence on this issue is age. For example, younger Canadians, those in the 18 to 34 age cohort, are not convinced that the current pipeline quagmire constitutes a crisis. A slight majority say it is not, leaving them out of step with Canadians over the age of 35.
Further, while older Canadians are largely critical of how the federal government has handled the issue, this 18 to 34 group is just as likely to say the government has been doing too much as they are to say too little to get more pipelines moving. This leads to significantly lower levels of support for TransMountain and Energy East overall (38% support both).
On the question of which issue should be a top priority for their province, one-quarter of young women choose environmental concerns compared to just 6 per cent who say energy, resource and pipeline issues. Young and middle-aged women are also far more likely to say that cost of living should be the focus in their province:
Perhaps the best indicator of where someone in Canada will fall in this debate is based on their political affiliation. Canadians who are most likely to support the Conservative Party in the forthcoming 2019 election are more than twice as likely to believe that oil and gas should receive more support from the federal government. Meanwhile, those who lean toward the other two major federal parties are twice as likely to value the technology sector receiving further attention and investment:
The divide in opinion extends to the government’s current approach on pipelines and the perceived seriousness of any problem involving pipeline capacity.
Half of those who would support the Liberals if an election were held today (52%) say that the government has taken the right approach and a group of the same size say they do not believe the lack of pipeline capacity is a crisis (53%). Indicative of a possible emerging vulnerability for Trudeau however, about half are indeed sounding the alarm (47%). Would-be Conservatives, meantime, are overwhelmingly likely to say Trudeau and the Liberals have not done enough (86%) and that it is indeed a crisis (87%).
The pipeline divide is a potent example of the geographic segmentation prevalent across many facets of Canadian life today. On a host of issues – which will be discussed at length in future installments of this four-part study – Canadian society is fragmented. Alberta, and to an extent its neighbour Saskatchewan, represents a distinct voice within Canada; one in which not only politics and policy, but values, differ significantly from those of the rest of the country.
It’s worth noting, however, that while the current contours of the divide have emerged in the last decade or so, questions about western alienation from the rest of Canada are not new.
Residents of Alberta and other western provinces have long felt hard-done-by when it comes to federal policies, including – but not limited to – economic policies and management of the oil and gas industry.
In 1991, 58 per cent of Canadians living in the four western-most provinces told the Angus Reid Group that they believed Ottawa’s policies had hurt their province’s economy over the preceding years. Only 5 per cent felt their province had been helped economically by the federal government.
Today, little has changed. If anything, those in the four westernmost provinces are more aggravated by the current federal government than they were back then:
That said, not every province in Western Canada has moved in the same direction on this question over the years. In 1991, Manitoba was much more likely to say the federal government had hurt its provincial economy, and Saskatchewan was less so. Today, the reverse is true.
Likewise, Alberta and B.C. shared similar perspectives on this issue in the early 1990s, but have moved in opposite directions – B.C. slightly and Alberta greatly – since:
In the context of fractious battles over pipeline construction, the question of the west’s economic and political influence within Canada is a contentious one. Generally, Canadians feel Western Canada’s influence on the country’s economy and politics is either about right or too small.
That said, there are big divides on these questions between those living in Ontario and points east, and those living in the four western-most provinces.
As seen in the graphs that follow, residents of western provinces – led by Alberta and Saskatchewan – tend to feel their region has too little economic influence and political power.
Residents of more easterly regions, meanwhile, are inclined to say the west has the right amount of influence on these two spheres. Easterners are also several times more likely than westerners to say the west has “too much” influence on Canada’s economy and politics.
Coming up Next:
These current energy and resource-related issues underscore a longer simmering tension between the populations west of Ontario, and the rest of Canada. In the subsequent chapters of this series, we will examine the relationships that bond – and tear at – the Canadian federation. Coming soon, an examination of the friendships and tensions between provinces that further reveal a close relationship between Alberta and Saskatchewan and the relative isolation of Quebec.
The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.
For detailed results by age, gender, region, education, and other demographics, click here.
Click here for the full report including tables and methodology
Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey
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