Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Conservative politico Rona Ambrose took time out this weekend to call on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to approve the TransCanada Energy East pipeline as a means of getting the battered energy industry in Canada back on its feet.  In their remarks, both referred to Energy East as a “nation building project”.

This nation building rhetoric isn’t new.  In a speech to the Energy and Mines ministers’ conference in Yellowknife on Aug. 26, 2013, then minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver invoked nation-building as an argument in favour of expanded oilsands production and pipeline construction. Nation-building is not confined to our history, Oliver said, calling it Canada’s “obligation to the future.” To bolster his nation-building argument, he invoked the spirit John A. MacDonald, and likened pipelines to the building of the trans-continental railroad.

Oil pipelines as nation building? What nonsense.

In policy circles, “nation-building” is the process of using the powers of the state to create a national identity, a raison d’être. Historians and scholars have pointed out that nation-building is typically practiced in dysfunctional, unstable, or failed states; these countries often receive help in the form infrastructure, money, and dispute resolution tools to support their fledgling governments, and to increase social stability. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya are currently in the midst of nation-building exercises. Economic downturn aside, the suggestion that Canada has slipped back into nation building status is both insulting to our national history, and misguided in its lack of appreciation for the realities of policy development.

If Canada, and especially Alberta, really cares about resurrecting the energy industry, the solution is to actually focus on energy.  You see, the economy in Alberta ins’t about energy all. It’s all about oil and gas. These resources have been lucrative for the province, to be sure.  But to really move the province into the 21st century, now is the time to invest in Alberta as an incubator for research on, and development of a wide range of energy solutions. This means taking the skills and the ambition of a young and clever labour force and turning them loose on everything from new nuclear and renewables, to ideas that seem more like alchemy than science.

Around the world, nations are clamoring for solutions to their energy transition woes.  Wouldn’t it be nice if Alberta could finally put its money where its mouth is, and actually be the energy leader that it claims to be?