Trudeau seeks to solidify support in B.C. amid anger over pipeline purchase

BURNABY, B.C. — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau sought to solidify his party's uncertain electoral prospects in British Columbia Friday and bloody Jagmeet Singh's nose at the same time by taking his election campaign to the NDP leader's riding — Ground Zero of opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Hours after holding a rally with throngs of cheering Liberal staff and supporters in downtown Ottawa, Trudeau touched down in B.C. for the start of what is expected to be a gruelling cross-country push to voting day on Oct. 21.

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The Liberals face a tough fight in Canada's westernmost province, particularly in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, where many voters are angry and frustrated with the Trudeau government's decision to purchase the Trans Mountain oil pipeline.

The federal government bought the existing pipeline and the unfinished expansion work for $4.5 billion last year, promising to get it past the political opposition that had scared Kinder Morgan Canada off proceeding.

While the Liberals say they are committed to balancing environmental protection and Canada's economic needs and will re-invest profits from the expansion into fighting climate change, the purchase has been widely criticized by environmentalists as well as the federal NDP and Greens.

Liberal insiders have acknowledged that voter intentions are volatile in the province, which has been governed at the provincial level by a New Democrat-Green partnership for more than two years.

Opinion polls suggest the federal NDP in particular has picked up some momentum in the province, which could result in New Democrat candidates winning some seats and splitting left-of-centre votes in others, which would benefit the Conservatives.

And with the Liberals and Tories still running neck and neck in national polls after more than a month of campaigning, every seat is likely to matter in deciding the make-up of Canada's next federal government.

Shortly after flying into Vancouver, Trudeau drove to a Simon Fraser University campus in the nearby suburb of Surrey, where he touted his plan to increase grants for post-secondary education and make it easier for students to repay their loans.

He also faced questions about pipelines, saying on the one hand that his government opted not to support the Energy East project — running from Alberta to New Brunswick — because "there is no public acceptability, no social acceptability for a pipeline in Quebec" even as he defended the Alberta-to-B.C. Trans Mountain project.

"We worked with the government of the time to move forward with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion," Trudeau said, referring to former Liberal premier Christy Clark's government, which was replaced by the NDP-Green alliance led by Premier John Horgan in July 2017.

The Horgan government has expressed concerns about the project and sought to challenge it in court without success.

Asked about the current government's opposition, Trudeau said only that he had had "many excellent conversations" with Horgan about climate change and improving the economy.

Later in the day, Trudeau held a rally with Liberal supporters in the riding of Burnaby South, which Singh has represented since first being elected into the House of Commons in March. It is the Liberal leader's second visit to the riding during the election campaign.

Burnaby is to be the terminus for the expanded Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which will result in more tanker traffic off the coast. The project has not sat well with local residents and politicians. Even the city government tried to challenge the project in the courts, but its challenge was rejected.

Trudeau didn't mention Singh by name during the rally inside a packed hotel ballroom.

Instead, the Liberal leader defended his record on the environment and continued his attacks on Andrew Scheer by warning a Conservative government would rollback the gains made by the Liberals over the past four years while cutting government services.

The Liberals have spent much of the election campaign warning progressive voters against voting for the NDP or Greens and to instead cast their ballots for the Liberals to prevent the Conservatives from forming the next government.

Trudeau did, however, take a not-so-subtle swipe at the NDP and Greens when he described the Liberals' climate-change plan, which proposes to plant 2 billion trees and commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, as the best — and most realistic — approach.

"A slogan isn't a plan to fight climate change," he said. "A real climate plan, a plan that will address the defining issue of our generation, needs to be both ambitious and feasible. And in this election, the Liberals are the only ones with a plan to match ambition with action."

While it's unclear how much that message is resonating with voters in Burnaby and across B.C.'s Lower Mainland, David Gill, who was on hand for Trudeau's visit to Simon Fraser University, said the threat of a Conservative government was enough to sway him.

Gill said he would normally vote NDP and opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, but plans to vote Liberal because his riding of North Vancouver has flipped between the Conservatives and Liberals over the past few elections.

The Liberals took the seat from the Tories in 2015.

"The pipeline is very important to me," he said, "but not having a Tory in that seat and not having a Tory government is more important to me."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 11, 2019.

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