LIMA, Peru – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will return to Ottawa on Sunday following a three-day trip to Peru hoping to calm tempers and find a peaceful resolution to the Trans Mountain pipeline crisis that has pitted Alberta and B.C. against each other.
The prime minister is scheduled to sit down with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and B.C. Premier John Horgan on Parliament Hill, marking the first time the three will be in the same room together to discuss the pipeline since Horgan threatened to block it.
The last-minute meeting was called as Trudeau left for Peru on Thursday to attend the Summit of the Americas, which was overshadowed by Syria and where U.S. officials suggested a new North American free trade deal could be only weeks away.
“It became very clear that the level of polarization around this debate required significant measures,” Trudeau told reporters in Lima when asked why he decided to call the meeting between Notley and Horgan after the government initially resisted the idea.
“I wanted to be able to sit down with the premier of British Columbia and the premier of Alberta together and discuss issues of the national interest and demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to getting this project built.”
One of the main questions going into the meeting with the premiers is what Trudeau can and will do to convince Horgan not to try to block the pipeline project, which will carry oil from Alberta through B.C. to markets in Asia.
Some, such as Alberta opposition leader Jason Kenney, have called for the Ottawa to take a hardline with B.C. by threatening to withhold federal funding from the province unless it backs down and allows the project to proceed.
Trudeau, who accused “some folks” of trying to divide Canadians on Trans Mountain, indicated that he wants to find a negotiated solution with B.C. and does not intend to ram the pipeline down the province’s throat.
“It’s important to highlight that this is not about punishing British Columbians. This is not about hurting Canadians,” he said.
“The federal government has a responsibility to bring Canadians together and to do things that are in our national interest. … We are looking to continue to bring people together and we will continue to do things that are responsible to get this pipeline built.”
Yet, the prime minister was also unwavering in his support for the project, saying: “The conversation I will have with the premiers (Sunday) morning will emphasize that we are going to get that pipeline built.”
While Trudeau prepares to hold what will be arguably one of the most important and difficult meetings since coming to power, he leaves Peru having seemingly rediscovered some of his mojo on the world stage following disastrous trips to China and India.
The prime minister avoided any gaffes as he met a variety of leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean, pushed for more free trade, spoke out against the crisis in Venezuela and encouraged businesses to invest in Canada.
Those meetings included face-to-face talks with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, who thanked Canada for supporting Friday night’s airstrikes against Syria and suggested a NAFTA deal could come in a few weeks.
“It’s not done yet, there are still issues that need to be resolved,” Pence told reporters after separate meetings with Trudeau and Pena Nieto in which North American free trade figured prominently.
“But we believe there is a real possibility that we could arrive at an agreement within the next several weeks for a renegotiated NAFTA that’ll be a better deal for the American people.”
The notably optimistic assessment followed a similar prediction by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Friday that a new NAFTA could be completed by the third week of May — a surprisingly specific date given past uncertainty about the talks.
Trudeau, however, refused to be drawn into any specific timelines even as he noted that both the U.S. and Mexico are facing elections in the coming weeks and months that have created “pressures” for both those countries’ negotiators.
“The imminent Mexican elections and the upcoming American midterms means that we have a certain amount of pressure to try and move forward successfully in the coming weeks,” the prime minister said.
“We will continue to work hard at the negotiating table, we will continue to negotiate in good faith, and hope to reach the win-win-win renegotiation of NAFTA that all three parties very much want.”
Negotiators from all three North American countries have continued their discussions in Washington over the weekend.
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.