Ottawa — Canada's western provinces have for the moment replaced French-speaking Quebec as the country's sore spot. But the western four -- British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba -- are far from unified in their battle with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau over energy and constitutional issues.
The province of Alberta, flexing its economic and political muscle as Canada's main producer of crude oil, is the undisputed leader of this sometimes disorganized charge in opposition to the central government in Ottawa.
Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, a longtime foe of Trudeau, recently reacted to Ottawa's new energy policies by laying plans to cut back the province's shipments of crude oil to the eastern region next year. This action, raising the specter of energy shortages in Canada's heavily populated area, is the most provocative step in a long and deeply divisive quarrel between Trudeau and Lougheed over which government should control oil and natural gas resources.
The likelihood that Alberta might back down under pressure from Ottawa seemed more remote this week after Ronald Reagan's election victory in the United States. There was speculation that Lougheed's Conservative Party government in Alberta would take heart from the existence of a similarly rightist administration running the US in contrast to the more interventionist, sometimes left-leaning Trudeau Liberals in Ottawa.
If so, this may not be the only drawback of a Reagan presidency in the minds of some Canadians. Commenting Nov. 5 on the US election results, Canadian External Affairs Minister Marc MacGuigan said his government "will have to be prepared to have some difficult negotiations" on trade matters with the new US administration.
But the Trudeau government may be pre-occupied with its own problems unless it finds a way out of the increasingly explosive confrontation with the western provinces.
After Lougheed announced his plan to turn down the oil tap, Trudeau responded with a promise of more negotiations. The outlook for an early breakthrough, however, is not bright. The two governments remain far apart over the issue of how quickly domestic oil prices should rise toward the world level and over the distribution between them of oil and natural gas royalties and other tax revenues.
The region's dissident posture seems more pronounced almost by the week as disputes over oil and gas come to a head. A poll taken by two Alberta newspapers in the wake of Trudeau's tough new energy policies found that almost one in four respondents favored separation from the rest of Canada.
Trudeau, long accused of neglecting the west, where his party won only two of 77 seats in the last national election, has seemed incapable of arresting this trend.
His most recent attempt at conciliation seemed, if anything, to have backfired. Speaking in Saskatchewan during a recent goodwill swing through the region, Trudeau accused westerners of "Hysteria" in the current national debate.
He also called the cause of western separatism "the kind of blackmail that no honorable government would give in to."
These comments caused British Columbia Premier Willaim Bennett to retort, "There's a lot of western opposition to the Trudeau view of Canada. He's fanning the fires I want to put out. I want to be the firefighter. Right now, the prime minister is the arsonist."
On Canada's other current battlefron -- a fierce debate over the elements of a new constitution -- Trudeau also faces stiff resistance in the west, though here again the region shows a conspicuous lack of unity.
The province of Manitoba, supported by Alberta and British Columbia, is spearheading the opposition to Trudeau's plan to write a new constitution, which includes measures binding on the provinces, without the consent of the provincial premiers.
In this action, Manitoba has the support of a majority of the country's 10 provinces, but a major chink in the west's armor on this issue is Saskatchewan.
Though critical of Trudeau's contitutional actions, Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney has refused to support a court challenge mounted by other provincial leaders. The Liberal government in Ottawa is desperate for Blakeney's support, which would give Trudeau much-needed legitimacy in the west.