Sam Slick offers Canada a deal

Sometime after the American Revolution but before the 1867 British Act that put Canada halfway toward independence, a Nova Scotia judge created a durable literary character, Sam Slick, to represent "Yankee go-ahead."

Sam Slick came to mind recently when Vermont's governor, Richard Snelling, a businessman turned Republican politician, visited Montreal to promote his vision of accelerated hydroelectric development in eastern Canada. Under Mr. Snelling's proposal, US sources would provide the province of Quebec with up to uninterrupted use of up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity from facilities paid for by the US would revert back to Quebec.

The reasons Governor Snelling could advance a proposition that seem so advantageous to Canada are simple: New England power costs are higher than the US average; there is a great deal of political reluctance in the New England states to add to nuclear generating capacity; and the alternative, coal-fired plants, appear to be more expensive than financing the hydroelectric development in Quebec.

Nonethelss, Snelling will have more difficulty selling the idea on his side of the border than in Canada. There are at least 33 electric utilities in the six New England states, most of them investor-owned, and they currently operate in a legislative framework that makes it more profitable for them to build generating capacity than to import electricity. In addition, Mr. Snelling, the only Republican governor in New England, would have to form some sort of alliance with probably at least two Democratic administrations in the area's more populous states to swing such a deal.

By contrast, there need be only two actors in negotiations on the Canadian side: the giant public utility, Hydro-Quebec, and its owner, the province of Quebec, which, under the Canadian constitution, has responsibility for managing the province's natural resources. Mr. Snelling's proposal certainly merits careful examination on the Canadian side, although close scrutiny should be paid to the question of Quebec's own growing need for electricity over the next 25 years.

The Vermont governor is bing cautious about calling for Washington support in bringing together a more united New England front. He prides himself on his knowledge of Quebec politics, and he is aware that Quebec is nervous that any US federal effort in this regard might serve as an excuse for the Canadian federal government to implicate itself more directly in hydroelectric affairs, until now a jealously guarded provincial domain.

This points to a new trend in Canada-US relations. While President Reagan is calling for a North American energy accord, a de facto subnational energy diplomacy is developing between various Canadian provincial and US state governments.

Aside from the Vermont-Quebec discussions, talks have been held between premiers of Maritime provinces and officials in New England and the State of New york. The Province of Ontario sells electricity to its neighboring states. Links are being forged between western provinces and western states.

Last summer the governor of Utah led a large delegation from his state to Alberta to discuss that province's tar sands projects. the Western Governors Policy Office, headquartered in Denver, has been developing informal ties with some of the western provinces.

In some cases, Canadian provinces are using the US as a bargaining lever to resolve Canadian problems. Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford's discussions with the Power Authority of the State of New York regarding an under-the-ocean electrical connection provide an example.

The danger these growing north-south energy linkages pose for Canada is that they will weaken further the east-west economic ties that bind Canada together. Perhaps just as important, Canada now possesses a strong energy trump card --which might last for only a generation some economists say --in its bilateral relations with the US. Regional shortsightedness might prevent Canada, long an economic handmaiden of the US, from playing this trump to maximum advantage.

This is one reason (although by no means the only one) why Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is in the process of repatriating Canada's constitution from Great Britain along with an amending formula and a charter of rights without first obtaining agreement from the ten provincial governments. If Trudeau successfuly obtains his constititional package, one result will be a central government somewhat strengthened at the expense of the provinces.

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