Alberta to open new office in Ottawa on Monday amid growing federal-provincial strife

Envoy to head outpost says his mandate is “to raise Alberta’s profile and stature, and the understanding of Alberta” in the country.

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Almost nine years after shuttering its office in the nation’s capital, Alberta will open a new one in Ottawa next week.

On Monday, Premier Danielle Smith will travel to Ottawa to officially open the new three-person mission, with James Carpenter heading the office as Alberta’s senior representative to Ottawa — a post he’s held since September.

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Carpenter, who is from Olds and previously served as chair of the Central Alberta Economic Partnership, said Friday his mandate is “to raise Alberta’s profile and stature, and the understanding of Alberta” in the country.

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“Often, I think, Alberta can be misunderstood,” he said Friday in an interview.

“We want to play a key role in identifying and organizing contacts, conveying provincial key messages to high-level business and government decision-makers (and) influencers. We want to seek federal partners to advance solutions . . . We want to strengthen relationships. And my job is to help build those relationships.”

That could be a big task, given the wide chasm between the federal and provincial governments on an array of issues, from pensions to energy policy.

Carpenter said the office, located in downtown Ottawa about an eight-minute walk from Parliament Hill, will also support provincial missions and secure meetings, including with cabinet ministers and civil servants.

The premier, who is also travelling to Toronto and Washington next week, is expected to meet with several federal ministers while in Ottawa, including Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

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Alberta currently has 16 international offices — south of the border in Washington, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis and Dallas — as well as missions in Mexico, Europe and Asia.

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said there’s an argument that establishing an office in Ottawa will save provincial officials from having to travel back and forth to the nation’s capital, while it will put provincial “boots on the ground.”

Yet, with more meetings taking place virtually, it doesn’t seem necessary, he said.

“I don’t have a problem with our foreign offices. Those are for trade purposes and, in many cases, they are in the embassies. But it’s another thing to establish an office in Ottawa,” Bratt asked.

“Is this just a growing sign of autonomy and that Ottawa is the enemy . . . treating Ottawa as a foreign government — and this is the way you establish autonomy, sovereignty and all of those things?”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith
Premier Danielle Smith speaks to media at the McDougall Centre in Calgary on Thursday, February 1, 2024. Smith is to travel to Ottawa Monday for the opening of a trade office to fly Alberta’s flag in the nation’s capital. Photo by Brent Calver/Postmedia /Brent Calver/Postmedia

Alberta’s new presence in Ottawa comes amid turbulent times between provincial and federal governments

The trip and the office opening come amid ongoing conflict between the two levels of government on key files.

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The Smith government is studying a potential withdrawal from the Canada Pension Plan and creating a provincial alternative.

On the energy and environment front, the two governments have clashed frequently. Alberta has threatened to take the federal government to court over the Clean Electricity Regulations and the incoming oilpatch emission cap.

Alberta considers both moves unconstitutional as resource development falls under provincial jurisdiction.

Earlier this week, federal Health Minister Mark Holland said he was disturbed by Alberta’s plan to ban hormone therapy for children aged 15 and under, and for gender reassignment surgery for children under 17 years old.

“There’s no shortage of disputes,” said Bratt.

“I don’t know (if the relationship) could be worse. The issues just keep changing. Now, we are moving off of energy and the environment. Then, the pensions came up. Now, health care is on the file . . . Would this lessen the tensions, or exacerbate the tensions?”

Alberta has a lengthy history of opening — and closing — offices in Ottawa.

In 2012, then-premier Alison Redford unveiled plans to open a provincial bureau in Ottawa, which came at a time when the federal Conservatives were in government.

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“Real decision-making happens politician-to-politician. I think these offices are great early warning signs for us if there are issues coming up . . . but nothing will take the place of the hands-on work that the premier of the province and the minister of international and intergovernmental relations minister will do,” then-Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith said in February 2013.

However, by 2015, the Prentice government said that its office in Ottawa, along with two other missions, would close in a bid to save $3.1 million. The Ottawa office had a budget of $845,000 in 2014-15. (Provincial officials didn’t immediately respond Friday to a request for comment about the cost to operate the new Ottawa office.)

Similarly, an office in the capital was established under former premier Peter Lougheed but closed in the 1990s.

In 2020, the province’s Fair Deal Panel, created under then-premier Jason Kenney, recommended Alberta strengthen its presence in Ottawa. It pointed out the province had already announced its intention to re-establish an Ottawa mission and recommended it “be given a significant mandate to defend and promote Alberta’s interests in Ottawa.”

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“Certainly, there will be challenges. It will cost Albertans money to assure this level of presence and proactive role in Ottawa. Measuring the value of an Ottawa office may be difficult,” the report stated.

It recommended that the office’s effects be evaluated like other international trade offices operated by the province.

Alan Ross, who held the position of Alberta’s representative in Ottawa a decade ago, said Friday it makes sense for the province to re-establish the office. He believes it will provide value to the province by helping it connect with investors, the business community, politicians and senior civil servants.

It may also help with the relationship between governments, acting as a channel for information, communication and potential collaboration.

“It provides an opportunity to have influence on policy as it’s getting developed in Ottawa,” Ross said.

“Anytime you have somebody on the ground forming relationships and bonds, even with people that may have different perspectives, I think that can be quite helpful.”

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