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Fossil fuel capitalism rewards John Horgan

Clarke: The former premier has now moved on and his grateful corporate friends have welcomed him as one of their own

Canadian PoliticsEnvironmentIndigenous Politics

Former BC Premier John Horgan. Photo courtesy the Province of British Columbia/Flickr.

When former BC premier and NDP leader John Horgan announced that he is joining the board of a coal company, it was inevitable that some critical voices would be raised. Writing in the Prince George Citizen, John Steidle, was particularly sharp in his response, in which he made the rather telling observation that “If you actually worked for the people, I can guarantee you the corporate sector wouldn’t want to touch you with a ten foot pole.”

Steidle was focused, quite reasonably, on the general proposition that it’s improper for political leaders and bureaucrats to take plum positions with major companies after their years of so-called public service come to an end. In Horgan’s case, however, there is an additional question that needs to be asked. Why would the leader of a party that is supposed to represent the interests of working class people and champion social justice be invited to take a seat at the boardroom table of a fossil fuel company?

Place at the table

While Horgan made it clear that he wouldn’t be losing a lot of sleep if his new position with Elk Valley Resources upset some people, he did feel obliged to muster some perfunctory words of justification. The Globe and Mail reports that Horgan “will be making sure that the company is meeting its obligations to workers, to First Nations, to the environment and to shareholders.”

This is a formulation that doesn’t exactly radiate the spirit of Solidarity Forever. It actually sounds a lot more like something that would come from the podium at Davos during a recitation of the virtues of “stakeholder capitalism.” Unless Elk Valley Resources is a very unusual coal company indeed, we can be sure that it serves the interests of its shareholders with a lot more zeal than those of its workers, of Indigenous people and of the ecosystems in which it operates.

But Horgan’s marketability in the corporate world rests on rather more than some naïve attitude about the dominance of the profit motive. Resource extraction is no peripheral question in BC and his role in government makes it quite obvious why the former NDP leader isn’t viewed as a socialist pariah by the top echelons of fossil fuel capitalism.

On the environmental front, it isn’t necessary to turn to radical left critiques to find out why Horgan would fit in around a boardroom table. Even the mainstream media admit that he was a less-than-ferocious climate warrior during his time in office between 2017 and 2022. A CBC report from last year, notes that “His fiery criticism of many of the BC Liberals’ environmental policies… were trademarks of his approach to opposition. But once in government, many of the policies he staunchly fought against proceeded as before, especially after he won a clear majority in 2020.”

The report goes on to note that Horgan gave the green light to the Site C hydroelectric dam despite the opposition to the project.

In 2012, Horgan was photographed at the farm of Ken Boon, in northern BC’s Peace Valley, holding up a sign that read “Site C sucks.” Interviewed for the CBC article, Boon, whose farm was later expropriated, states that “We were only two years into the project when he took over. They could have done the right thing environmentally and economically. That did not happen under John Horgan. They put the hammer down and continued.”

In 2021, while making a statement on forestry policy, Horgan declared that “It’s absolutely vital that we do not repeat the colonial activities of the past and dictate to First Nations what they do on their territories.” In response, the University of Victoria’s independent newspaper The Martlet pointed to the struggle at Fairy Creek as evidence of Horgan’s hypocrisy about his government’s commitment to the reconciliation process, and to protecting old-growth forests. In claiming to respect Indigenous wishes, Horgan took his lead from the extractive companies. Hard-pressed band councils that, in the face of severe economic disadvantage, can be pressured into striking deals around environmentally destructive ventures are held up as legitimate representatives, while traditional leaderships and land defenders are disregarded.

This tactic was apparent in 2020, when Horgan toured the LNG Canada project site in Kitimat. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline asked the premier for a meeting but, with astounding colonial arrogance, he replied, “I’m not going to drop everything I’m doing to come running when someone is saying they need to speak with me.”

Unleashing the RCMP

The BC government has a service agreement with the RCMP and any suggestion that Horgan and his ministers shouldn’t be held accountable for the conduct of that police force simply lacks credibility. The Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN) drew up a disturbing report on the systematic abuses that land defenders and environmental protesters have faced at the hands of the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), a “secretive arm of the RCMP in BC” that functions as a security detail for fossil fuel and resource extraction interests.

The C-IRG isn’t a product of overzealous policing but an enforcement body for a very specific economic and political agenda. Those who seek to protect the environment or who uphold Indigenous rights in the face of this agenda are viewed as so many enemies to be forced aside. It’s been abundantly clear, as this struggle has unfolded, which side John Horgan is on.

This glimpse at the record provides a clear answer to the question of why John Horgan has found favour with major capitalist concerns that operate in BC but Horgan himself was just one player in a political operation that will continue in his absence. It’s worth noting that his replacement at the helm, David Eby, is unlikely to pursue a course very different from that of the man he has replaced.

As I have written elsewhere, while serving as attorney-general, Eby was “a key figure in both police operations and criminal prosecutions directed against Indigenous land defenders and environmental activists who challenged climate vandalism and other destructive activities by major companies.” When respected environmentalist, Anjali Appadurai, ran for the leadership of the provincial NDP last year, the bureaucratic operation that was deployed to disqualify her from the race and ensure Eby’s coronation showed that political continuity with the Horgan years was an absolute priority for the party apparatus.

The loyalty to destructive fossil fuel capitalism that NDP governments in BC continue to manifest, along with a great readiness to crush internal left opposition, raises broader—and indeed international—questions about the role of social democratic parties. In the post-war years, such parties were elected, with the support of trade unions and social movements, on progressive platforms. Tensions and even major confrontations emerged over the pace and scale of reform during these years, but the neoliberal era has seen social democratic governments that have been prepared, all too often, to embrace regressive agendas.

After several decades of “reformism without reforms,” expectations have been lowered to the point where any notion of social democracy as an extension in the parliamentary sphere of the struggles that we take up in our workplaces and communities exists only as nostalgic wistfulness. The harsh reality is that these parties function, at best, to give neoliberalism a more human face. Given that the needs of capital drive this process, it’s hardly surprising that subservience to fossil fuel interests has shaped the approach of the NDP government in BC.

Horgan is the personification of that acquiescence to corporate interests. When the environmentally destructive course he cleared the way for manifested itself in devastating heatwaves and at least 134 people died in Vancouver alone, he commented callously that “fatalities are a part of life.”

He has now moved on and his grateful corporate friends have welcomed him as one of their own. Those who struggle for Indigenous rights and who want to break the destructive power of fossil fuel capitalism (many of them NDP members) will be less tender in their appraisal of John Horgan and his political legacy.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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