Pri­vate off­shore in­ter­fer­ence in our pol­i­tics over pipe­line projects goes back decades where Lib­eral gov­ern­ments are con­cerned


What is it about Lib­eral Party fed­er­al­ism and pipe­line pro­pos­als that al­ways trig­gers a cri­sis? The dis­grace­ful fact that Tex­as­head­quar­tered transna­tional Kinder Mor­gan can im­pose a “cap­i­tal strike” against the demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ments of Canada and Bri­tish Columbia if we do not okay its Trans Moun­tain pipe­line ex­pan­sion by May 31 is a re­pug­nant act of ag­gres­sion.

But th­ese pri­vate, off­shore in­ter­fer­ences in our do­mes­tic pol­i­tics are noth­ing new where Lib­eral gov­ern­ments are con­cerned.

Go back 62 years to the great Pipe­line De­bate of 1956. Then, a pri­vate, U.S. com­pany – namely, Tran­sCanada Pipe­Lines, LP – needed gov­ern­ment ap­proval for its plan to build a pipe­line to carry Alberta’s nat­u­ral gas to On­tario and Que­bec.

Then, too, there was a dead­line. Then, too, there was op­po­si­tion from the Co-op­er­a­tive Com­mon­wealth Fed­er­a­tion (fore­run­ner to the NDP) as well as the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives, when they were Diefen­baker Red Tories, not pseudo-Repub­li­cans.

Back then, op­po­si­tion wasn’t based on en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns or re­spect for First Na­tions’ ju­ris­dic­tional claims, but on the ques­tion of whether or not the pipe­line would be Yan­kee-owned and con­trolled, de­spite fed­eral back­ing of the project with pub­licly funded loans. Sound fa­mil­iar? To en­sure that the U.S. firm’s dead­line was met, Louis St. Lau­rent’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment en­acted clo­sure to cur­tail the de­bate in the House.

The Lib­eral gam­bit was de­nounced as “un­demo­cratic,” and Dief the Chief’s Tories were able to use this “heavy­hand­ed­ness” to char­ac­ter­ize the St. Lau­rent Grits as “ar­ro­gant” (hav­ing then been in power for 21 years). Voter back­lash was swift, with the Grits ousted in 1957, al­low­ing the PCs to form the gov­ern­ment.

The pipe­line fi­asco, and con­tro­versy over Amer­i­can in­ter­fer­ence in Cana­dian de­fence pol­icy that fol­lowed shortly after in 1962, served to fuel the anti-Viet­nam War and pro-Cana­dian na­tion­al­ist move­ment of the 1960s70s.

It seems that the cur­rent fed­eral Lib­er­als are again bend­ing over back­wards to ad­here to the dead­line of an­other for­eign multi­na­tional, de­spite the ap­peals from many First Na­tions, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and the BC gov­ern­ment to re­quire court hear­ings, stricter re­views and greater Indige­nous con­trol over ter­ri­tory and par­tic­i­pa­tion in future pipe­line projects.

The lat­ter con­cerns lay at the cen­tre of an­other ma­jor pipe­line bat­tle that oc­curred 20 years after the one that brought down St. Lau­rent. This time Justin Trudeau’s fa­ther, Pierre El­liott Trudeau, was prime min­is­ter, and con­struc­tion of a pipe­line to trans­port nat­u­ral gas from the Beau­fort Sea through the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries to con­nect with the ex­ist­ing pipe­line in­fra­struc­ture in Alberta was at is­sue.

The P.E.T. gov­ern­ment com­mis­sioned Jus­tice Thomas Berger in 1974 to re­port on the en­vi­ron­men­tal, eco­nomic and so­cial im­pact of the pro­posed Macken­zie Val­ley Pipe­line.

The two-vol­ume Berger In­quiry re­port re­leased in 1977 was a his­toric doc­u­ment for its un­prece­dented con­sul­ta­tion with Indige­nous peo­ples, weigh­ing the po­ten­tial in­tru­sion on their cul­tures along­side the “na­tional in­ter­est” of mega-project free en­ter­prise.

The Berger re­port re­sulted in sev­eral key rec­om­men­da­tions on pipe­line con­struc­tion in the Yukon, in­clud­ing a recog­ni­tion of ecosys­tem fragility; that the eco­nomic ben­e­fits would be short-term and mar­ginal, and ir­repara­bly harm tra­di­tional in­come from hunt­ing, fish­ing and trap­ping; and that Indige­nous cul­tures and land claims had to be en­gaged re­spect­fully.

Berger also rec­om­mended that pipe­line con­struc­tion be shelved for a decade. The project re­mained mori­bund un­til 2010 when a new in­dus­trial con­sor­tium, in­clud­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal Pipe­line Group (with its one-third own­er­ship stake) re­sus­ci­tated it.

So, to­day’s Trudeau Lib­er­als need to de­cide where they fit on this con­tin­uum of pipe­line de­bates: will they re­vive the “ar­ro­gance” of the St. Lau­rent Grits, or re­pur­pose the med­i­ta­tive, con­sul­ta­tive ap­proach of P.E.T.?

Cer­tainly, it is more in the na­tional in­ter­est to as­sert the pub­lic in­ter­est over pri­vate ones; to al­low due process of law (in­clud­ing a con­sti­tu­tional de­ter­mi­na­tion of fed­eral/pro­vin­cial and Indige­nous peo­ples’ ju­ris­dic­tions); and the most strin­gent re­view of en­vi­ron­men­tal (and eco­nomic and cul­tural) im­pacts pos­si­ble.

If this means quick-to-pol­lute, slowto-clean-up cap­i­tal­ists have to re­visit their timeta­bles, so be it. Ge­orge El­liott Clarke teaches African-Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto. In 2016-17, he pub­lished Can­ti­cles I (MMXVI) & (MMXVII), a two-vol­ume, epic poem at­tack­ing slav­ery and im­pe­ri­al­ism. | @nowtoronto

Trudeau must de­cide where the Libs fit on the con­tin­uum of pipe­line de­bates: will they re­vive the ar­ro­gance of the St. Lau­rent Grits, or re­pur­pose the con­sul­ta­tive ap­proach of his fa­ther?

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