By Andrew Stuckey
There appears to be a sense in the Alberta capital — and perhaps in Ottawa as well — that if pressure can be brought to change BC Premier John Horgan’s mind, the path will be cleared for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
In Edmonton, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who Premier Horgan calls a friend, is threatening to tighten the economic screws, including giving Alberta the ability to reduce domestic oil supplies to its western neighbour.
In Ottawa this morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is reportedly meeting to discuss how to resolve what media is characterizing as a dispute between Canada’s two western-most provinces.
But all of that high-level posturing — the angry rhetoric, all the wheeling and dealing and pledges to purchase stakes in the project — is just the side-show.
The fight for pipeline proponents is not with BC’s NDP government, it’s with the Pacific province’s rank and file.
And those people are pissed.
The 2015 Federal election gave the Trudeau Liberals the most seats they’ve held in British Columbia in 40 years — more even than Justin’s dad Pierre was able to swing when he was prime minister.
Seventeen of the 18 seats the Liberals now hold in the province are in the Lower Mainland.
Both the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipelines were big deals in BC in 2015, with a majority of British Columbians — especially those in the Lower Mainland — opposed to both.
It’s not a stretch to say that many of the seats the Liberals secured in BC came in some part on the promise the latest Trudeau made in 2015 to give local communities a much larger voice in the environmental assessment process.
“Even though governments grant permits, only communities grant permission and that is what the Liberal Party will stand for,” he said during a BC campaign stop.
Justin Trudeau even called out his predecessor, Stephen Harper, for marginalizing “environmental oversight” and pledged to overhaul the environmental assessment process “to make sure communities, that First Nations groups, that Canadians worried about the scientific and specific risks associated with various projects are part of the solutions and get their concerns heard and addressed.”
And then Justin Trudeau changed his colours.
BC communities — especially Burnaby — weren’t given a larger voice. First Nations weren’t consulted. And Canadians worried about the risks posed by the pipeline didn’t have their concerns heard and addressed.
The younger Trudeau, much like his father did in 1982, raised his middle finger — this time figuratively — to BC.
Communication professionals speak about the Situational Theory of Publics, which defines “publics” in a context of awareness and capacity to act.
For the most part, groups of people are “nonpublics.” They don’t have a problem with what’s going on in their lives and are content to let things be.
At the other end of the theory, however — after a problem develops and the people begin to know they have a problem — is the “active public.”
This group of people know they have a problem and, unless something is done to resolve it for them, determine to do something about it themselves.
That, in a simplistic nutshell, is the BC Trans Mountain protest.
Lower Mainland residents know they have a problem. BC’s First Nations know they have a problem. And the province’s environmental community — bolstered by national and international communities of similar resolve — know they have a problem.
All are determined to do something about it.
Even if this morning Premier Horgan called off the legal dogs — which right now is nothing more, as the Georgia Straight put it yesterday, than “asking for advice, seeking intervenor status in a court case affecting provincial interests, and promising to adhere to court rulings” — the protests will continue, the fight will go on and the pipeline will be threatened.
There are an estimated 4.85 million people living in British Columbia and reportedly almost half of them — likely more than half in the Lower Mainland — are opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
A poll conducted in February — commissioned by Burnaby South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart but undertaken by Insights West — suggests 23% of those opposed “are willing to risk arrest in acts of protest and civil disobedience to halt the project.”
That would suggest almost a half million people prepared to line up one by one at Kinder Morgan’s gates to or otherwise undertake a disruptive act to slow construction.
That’s a staggering figure and perhaps unlikely, but consider this: even if just one percent of the Active Public were to act out, that would mean more than 20,000 protesters and 20,000 acts of potential civil disobedience.
At a pace of even as many as 100 arrests a day, a cadre of organized protestors could hamstring Kinder Morgan’s efforts for at least 200 days.
Those numbers suggest there’s only two ways the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will ever be completed:
- The disobedience is quashed through extraordinary measures available to the federal government — much like Pierre Trudeau did by invoking the War measures Act in 1970; or
- The federal government recognizes the capacity of Trans Mountain’s Active Public to affect change and stays the project for a period sufficient to undertake the proper environmental oversight and assessment he pledged before he took office.
Some might suggest a third option: imposed sanctions wearing down the province and its people.
But no matter what crippling measures Alberta, the federal government and even the national business community dream up, those committed to stopping Trans Mountain — especially the province’s First Nations people (remember the Idle No More movement) — aren’t going to change their minds.
In fact, as the recent BC wine embargo taught, sanctions have a way of entrenching resolve and bringing others into the fight.
With the next federal election two years away, the last thing the prime minister wants to do is get slap-happy with BC. His 18 seats would evaporate and no matter what he does his Liberals are unlikely to pick up seats in Alberta.
That leaves discussion — conversation well beyond the “you’re going to see things my way” variety — as the PM’s best route forward.
The sooner Justin Trudeau figures that out, sits down with First Nations, municipal and community leaders to contemplate a pipeline that better satisfies BC concerns and fears and delivers benefits worth the mitigated risk, the sooner the pipeline might go in the ground.