Gov­ern­ments nearly got a pipe­line pro­ject right, but ...

In Cana­dian pipe­line pol­i­tics, noth­ing is ever truly set­tled

The Niagara Falls Review - - Opinion - THOMAS WALKOM

When plans were an­nounced last Oc­to­ber to build a $40-bil­lion liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas pro­ject in Bri­tish Columbia, Justin Trudeau couldn’t con­tain his glee.

“It is a vote of con­fi­dence in a coun­try that rec­og­nizes the need to de­velop our en­ergy in a way that takes the en­vi­ron­ment into ac­count and that works in a mean­ing­ful part­ner­ship with Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties,” the prime min­is­ter said in Van­cou­ver.

B.C. Pre­mier John Hor­gan was equally chuffed. “This is a spec­tac­u­lar day for Bri­tish Columbia,” he said. “I can’t stop smil­ing.”

In­deed, it seemed that the pro­ject’s pro­po­nents had man­aged to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate the shoals of both Indige­nous and en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­i­tics.

First Na­tion band coun­cils along the pro­posed nat­u­ral gas pipe­line route, from north­east­ern B.C. to Kiti­mat on the Pa­cific coast, had given their con­sent.

And while B.C.’s Greens, who hold the bal­ance of power in the provin­cial leg­is­la­ture, re­mained op­posed, they were not threat­en­ing to bring down Hor­gan’s mi­nor­ity New Demo­cratic Party gov­ern­ment over the is­sue.

Af­ter years of stale­mate over pipe­lines, it seemed that Canada had fi­nally man­aged to come up with an en­ergy pro­ject that could pro­ceed.

But as this week’s events have demon­strated, in the world of Cana­dian pipe­line pol­i­tics noth­ing is ever re­ally set­tled.

A few dozen pro­test­ers rep­re­sent­ing the hered­i­tary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en set up a block­ade on one part of the pro­posed pipe­line route to re­mind Canada’s gov­ern­ments that while their First Na­tion’s elected band coun­cil may have agreed to ac­cept the pro­ject, they had not.

By Thurs­day, the pro­test­ers had come to a ten­ta­tive agree­ment with the RCMP to tem­po­rar­ily lift their il­le­gal block­ade.

But the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions raised by their ac­tions re­main un­re­solved. Who speaks for Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties? What hap­pens when, as in the case of the Wet’suwet’en, elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and hered­i­tary lead­ers dis­agree?

And while the Supreme Court has ruled that Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties do not have a for­mal veto over re­source de­vel­op­ments af­fect­ing their lands, does the con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment that they be mean­ing­fully con­sulted be­fore­hand amount to the same thing?

Like many First Na­tions, the Wet’suwet’en have two par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal struc­tures. The tra­di­tional one is based on clans headed by hered­i­tary chiefs. The elected one, au­tho­rized un­der the In­dian Act, is demo­crat­i­cally cho­sen by all First Na­tion mem­bers.

In this case, the hered­i­tary chiefs ar­gue they have ju­ris­dic­tion over all unceded Wet’suwet’en land out­side the re­serve’s set­tle­ment proper.

The elected coun­cil clearly dis­agrees. The sit­u­a­tion is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the fact that no treaty has ever been signed be­tween the Wet’suwet’en and the Crown. The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the Wet’suwet’en re­tain Abo­rig­i­nal ti­tle to their tra­di­tional lands. But the scope of that ti­tle has never been de­ter­mined.

All of this came to a head last year over plans to con­struct a new pipe­line that would bring nat­u­ral gas to the B.C. coast. The gas would then be cooled to a liq­ue­fied form and loaded on tankers bound for Asia.

The so-called LNG scheme is deemed en­vi­ron­men­tally su­pe­rior to the pro­posed Trans Moun­tain pipe­line ex­pan­sion, which is de­signed to bring bi­tu­men from the Al­berta oil­sands to Burn­aby on the Pa­cific coast.

That’s be­cause any leak in ei­ther the gas pipe­line or tankers would sim­ply re­lease nat­u­ral gas into the air, leav­ing land and water un­fouled.

Pro­po­nents for the B.C. gas pipe­line won the sup­port of all 20 First Na­tions along the pro­posed route — or at least thought they had.

As part of the deal, Trans Canada Corp., the pipe­line’s builder, ten­ta­tively awarded con­tracts worth $620 mil­lion to var­i­ous First Na­tion busi­nesses in north­ern B.C.

But no one got the Wet’suwet’en hered­i­tary chiefs on side. And now the on­ce­lauded LNG pro­ject — Trudeau’s only en­ergy suc­cess story — has be­come a cause célèbre across Canada, painted by crit­ics as yet an­other ex­am­ple of this coun­try’s ill-treat­ment of its orig­i­nal res­i­dents.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based colum­nist cov­er­ing pol­i­tics. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @tomwalkom

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