August 29, 2014
Martin Regg Cohn
Quebec, Ontario relationship back on track: Cohn
Kathleen Wynne and Philippe Couillard have become a dynamic duo as Couillard says they share similar views on internal trade, energy and climate change
CHARLOTTETOWN—Quebec and Ontario are bonding again.
Overshadowing the annual summitry dance among Canada’s 13 shadowboxing premiers, Philippe Couillard and Kathleen Wynne are quietly forging a new “geopolitical” alliance of their own.
Their regular tête-à-têtes are driven as much by shared provincial interests as personal affinities.
“It’s a potential game changer,” the Quebec premier tells me after a day of meeting his fellow premiers that began with him seeing Wynne alone to compare notes and align strategies.
He describes the Ontario-Quebec rapprochement as a “very important geopolitical thing happening in the country right now.”
It’s not so much love at first sight as a belated bonding after years of tectonic drift and political shifts. The pas de deux between Canada’s two biggest provinces has gone back and forth for hundreds of years:
Split into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791, reunited into the Province of Canada in 1841, they joined the historic Charlottetown Conference (150 years ago Monday) that led to Confederation in 1867. In more recent decades Quebec flirted with separatism while Ontario fussed over national unity and a 2012 Parti Quebecois victory derailed the relationship yet again.
But the 2014 election season has produced strong Liberal majority governments in both provinces, led by two strong-willed premiers at the peak of their political strength. Now the relationship is back on track, and their fellow premiers are paying attention.
Couillard, the brainy neurosurgeon-turned-politician, was very much the star of this year’s Council of the Federation summit — hailed as the most unabashedly federalist Quebec premier in recent memory. But he shared centre stage with Wynne, the other Central Canadian premier to score a stunning upset at the polls this year.
As keen students of the political winds, the other premiers are always mindful of who is just passing through and who has staying power. Hobnobbing or huddling in the room, these seasoned politicians quickly took note of the new power dynamic — and dynamic duo — that Couillard and Wynne have become.
The two teamed up to push back against Alberta’s drive for a national energy strategy that emphasized production but overlooked pollution. Quebec and Ontario both insisted on linking increased energy output with abatement of greenhouse gas emissions.
“We saw that we were sharing the same point of view,” Couillard mused.
But these are early days. Can the shared creative and intellectual energies of the Quebec and Ontario premiers produce a more enduring legacy than the last fleeting attempt by their two Liberal predecessors?
A decade ago Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty cheerfully toasted their friendship and regularly convened joint cabinet meetings. The collaboration yielded little more than symbolic photo-ops.
Couillard and Wynne both insist they can take the revived relationship further, relying not just on chemistry but common purpose. Unlike Charest and McGuinty, who were professional politicians from a young age obsessed with optics, the two incumbents are late-onset premiers who have a shared world view and seriousness of purpose.
“It’s not only about style and photo-ops — it’s also about substance,” the Quebec premier says. “On most topics — whether it’s internal trade, energy, climate change — we see things quite similarly and I think the relationship between Mdme. Wynne and myself is quite solid . . .
“What I like is that we are both results-oriented more than process-oriented, and we can speak frankly to one another.”
In a later interview after their face-à-face, Ontario’s premier puts the accent on their businesslike approach, which goes beyond bonhomie.
“The first similarity that I notice is I believe we are both pretty practical people, we’re both looking for ways to solve problems in the most efficient and effective way possible,” she says. “From our first telephone conversation he and I had, that was my impression of him.”
At a time of diminished political tensions, they are talking about high-tension transmission lines to take advantage of Quebec’s hydroelectric surplus amid rising energy prices in Ontario. Can they do a deal that has eluded the two neighbouring provinces for decades — Quebec mired in political separatism and Ontario myopic about its own energy isolationism?
“First, when you want to make a deal you want to know what your customer’s needs are,” Couillard begins. “We have power available, we have surpluses . . . we also want to sell it to our neighbours.”
At their first formal meeting in Quebec this month, Wynne said she needed “une bonne deal.” Couillard counters that the price “will be right.”
“Look — we sell power in the U.S. and they are tough negotiators, and I think they had a good price,” he says. “I’m sure we can reach an agreement.”
Wynne wants to keep talking — and thinking about the potential energy synergy that has been taboo for decades: “What I do know is that the door is open and we are going to be able to at least have the discussion.”