The Harper government has recently stated it wants to “diversify Canada’s markets.” Hence, its support of the Northern Gateway pipeline and the prime minister’s upcoming trip to China.
On the surface, pronouncements about finding new markets appear no different than what Canadian governments have said for years. In the late 1950s, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker led an entourage as far away as India in search of fresh markets for Canadian goods. Every Canadian government since has invested time, money, and political capital in trying to expand the country’s trading relationships.
The Harper government’s statements need to be understood in context, however. First, the Northern Gateway project has gained much of its traction as a result of the slowdown by President Obama in signing off on the Keystone pipeline. After November, the Canadian government’s gaze is likely to shift south again. But second, and perhaps most importantly, the term “diversify” as used by the Harper government is not exactly what past prime ministers have committed to.
There’s a big difference between diversifying the Canadian economy and expanding market access for asingle commodity, petroleum. Diversifying the economy is a worthwhile endeavour; and if we produced a variety of goods and materials, seeking out new pastures for all would equally be beneficial. But building pipelines is notabout diversifying the Canadian economy; it’s not about the Canadian economy at all. It’s about big oil, aided and abetted by conservative-minded governments, bent on getting oil out of the ground and sold before the Age of Oil closes out.
The fact is, Canada’s economic base is shrinking. You want proof? This past November, Canada’s economy declined by .1 percent, to the dismay of analysts who predicted it would grow by .2 percent. The cause? Maintenance shutdowns in Alberta’s oil patch.
What does it say about Canada’s economy that a maintenance shutdown, involving one resource, in one relatively tiny region of the country can threaten our stability? Meanwhile, Canada continues to shed the kind of good, full-time steady jobs that workers once relied on to raise families and build decent communities, 7,500 in Ontario in January alone. Canada’s economic landscape is looking increasingly like a First World War battlefield. On the high tech front, one may survey the remains of Nortel and perhaps mortally wounded RIM; while, on the manufacturing front, one may note Caterpillar among Canada’s latest casualties. (Not a whimper from the federal government at word that Caterpillar Inc.—a company that recently announced fourth quarter profits of 58 percent, a net income of $1.55 billion—was shutting down and laying off 465 hourly workers.) Rather than protect good jobs, and chart a course to Canadian economic independence and security, our political leaders instead are putting all their efforts into reinforcing what Canadian economic historian Harold Innis famously termed “the staples trap.” Prime Minister Harper likes to describe Canada as an “energy superpower,” but when it comes to the price of oil, Canada is a taker, not a setter.
Yet, even as the economy becomes more one-dimensional, our leaders want to double-down on building more pipelines. It’s a bad gamble.
The Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines are—excuse the pun—“pipe dreams.”
Forget for the moment the environmental costs of shipping raw bitumen down these lines. (I do not say “potential” costs because a pipeline rupture is not an “if” but a “when.”) Forget also the political costs, though these too are real enough: with few exceptions, democracy and oil do not mix well. Forget too the rancorous battles that the Northern Pipeline, in particular, has unleashed. Forget finally that the pipelines, once built, will likely become redundant within a short time as the world gets off oil.
Consider only the issue of jobs. The Canadian government has promoted the pipeline as creating thousands of jobs. But this is only during the construction phase. Enbridge’s own submission to the Joint Review Panel on the Northern Gateway pipeline suggests that the operations phase would create perhaps as few as 104 permanent jobs, and only 26 directly in Alberta. Give or take some other jobs involving regular maintenance and, sadly enough, dealing with environmental damages, Canada’s net benefit in shipping its raw bitumen seems negligible.
Canada’s oil wealth could and should be used as part of a bigger, bolder plan for Canadian economic development. But Canada lacks a strategicplan, one that will preserve and create jobs in this country. A study commissioned by The Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union suggests, for example, that as many as 26,000 jobs would be created if the bitumen proposed for the pipelines was upgraded in Alberta. But our politicians have turned a deaf ear to Canada’s workers. Instead, they hear only the siren sounds of the petro dollar.
Do any of Canada’s politicians really care about Canadian workers, about Canadian jobs? Hand wringing and promises aside, the fact is actions speak louder than words; and right now, for workers across Canada, whether in the private andpublic sectors, the evidence is clear that too many members of Canada’s political elite do not care.
Trevor W. Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and Director of Alberta’s Parkland Institute.