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Trudeau on the wrong side of environmental history in BC

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

Photo by William Chen

And so it begins.

In the last few days, approximately 30 Canadian citizens have been arrested for opposing Kinder Morgan’s pipeline extension in British Columbia.

The project they oppose will trigger a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic through the Burrard Inlet. It was all done legally, of course. This is Canada.

Last week, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck granted the U.S. oil company a permanent injunction to keep protesters away from the construction zone.

A day after that, the Mounties moved in and arrested an unlikely group of villains — Indigenous leaders and “water protectors.” These are middle-aged moms and housewives worried about native rights and the environment, and the odd university student.

You know, the ones who are being funded by the Russians. There is no telling how many bats are flapping around in the dusty attic of Jason Kenney’s dark political mind.

Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau is in court against First Nations to oppose their efforts to stop Kinder Morgan. He didn’t await the legal outcome before allowing work to begin on the expanded pipeline — or to start arresting people. Perhaps that’s because the prime minister is also on record declaring that Canada’s Indigenous peoples do not have a “veto” on resource projects in this country.

At least that’s what he’s saying now. Back in 2015, while Trudeau was campaigning for the top job, he said governments may grant permits, but only local communities can give permission. On this, as in many other issues, the ‘Great Promiser’ changes his tune more times than a DJ at a wedding reception.

The fact is, the prime minister doesn’t have the support of the Musqueam, Squamish or Tsleil-Waututh nations. Nor does he have the support of elements of the Secwepemc nation, who do not want pipelines across their vast, unceded territories in British Columbia.

As reported in The Guardian, when the original Trans Mountain project was built in 1951, the Secwepemc nation couldn’t oppose because they were firmly under the thumb of the white establishment. First Nations people could neither organize politically, nor hire a lawyer.

But elements of the First Nations are not the only ones against Kinder Morgan. The project is also opposed by the province of British Columbia, the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby, Victoria, and 19 other municipalities, as well as 23,000 coast protectors, and a quarter of a million petitioners. That’s a lot of local rejection by anyone’s measure.

It is a much shorter conversation to say who is on Trudeau’s side: the U.S. oil company Kinder Morgan, which loses $5.6 million a month for each new delay in building Trans Mountain; 51 First Nations bands — ten of them in Alberta and forty-one in British Columbia — who have signed development agreements on the project; and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Notley is in a tough spot. Running for office, she was a New Democrat. In power, she looks like any other hard-back Tory carrying a 10 tonne brief for the oil patch.

With Jason “Mr. Curry-in-a-Hurry” Kenney breathing down her neck in the looming Alberta election, Notley has chosen pipelines over Paris, a choice some Indigenous leaders say leads to “climate chaos.”


Perhaps not.

But the premier knows, as does the prime minister, that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says you can’t have it both ways. Canada can’t meet its commitments made at the Paris Climate Summit and expand tar sands pipelines at the same time.

Notley also knows the political consequences if she were to refuse the role of ‘Queen of Dirty Oil,’ no matter what that does to the NDP’s credibility nationally on the great issue of our time. She is a little like the mayor of Asbestos, Quebec before the Jeffrey mine closed — desperately trying to market a product headed for the ash heaps of history. To understand Notley’s panic, check out what her province has already lost.

The Northern Gateway pipeline, which was supposed to take bitumen to tidewater in B.C., was stopped in its tracks in a court case brought by First Nations.

Then Trans Canada Corporation announced it was dropping its application for Energy East, a pipeline that would have taken bitumen thousands of miles across Canada to eastern markets.

The takers for bitumen are few and far between. That now includes some banks and investment funds. Two banks, French bank BNP Paribas and Dutch bank ING, along with Sweden’s largest pension fund, AP7, have stopped funding projects that violate the Paris Climate Accord, including pipelines carrying bitumen.

With all these cancellations and Keystone XL still in limbo, if Kinder Morgan were to be stopped, Kenney would hold the bat and Notley would be the piñata in next spring’s provincial election.

But as the late, great Stephen Hawking, scientist extraordinaire and master spirit of reason, might have put it, what is a politician’s fate compared to the destiny of an entire planet?

That is the saddest part of Trudeau’s stand on this project. No matter how he twists the truth, the science is not with him on this desperate role of the dice to save Notley’s political bacon. In fact, the science is not on anyone’s side, as internationally acclaimed Canadian scientist David Schindler wrote last week in the Vancouver Sun.

This is how complete the government’s ignorance is on the question of the impact of a major spill of diluted bitumen on the B.C. coast. According to Schindler, no one really knows if the stuff would sink or float. No one knows the actual effect on marine life. No one knows how long it would hang around in the event of a major spill. There is a reason. No one has conducted the ocean research.

“Canada has committed to taking a precautionary approach to resource management in international treaties …Yet our track record of minimizing harm when the effects of our actions are unknown and potentially catastrophic is hardly exemplary,” he wrote.

Schindler comes from a world where empiricism and predictive validity rule — a scientist. Trudeau is a politician who, like all of them, plays fast and loose with facts for political advantage when it suits his purpose. Here is what that means in the current circumstances.

Trudeau is resolving doubt in favour of a potentially catastrophic product for B.C.’s coast line, marine life and rivers. Because there is no indisputable evidence that a spill of bitumen would spell disaster for the environment, the prime minister is proceeding as if it is safe to do so. It is the oldest con of all.

We saw that with cigarettes, asbestos, Agent Orange and a host of other products, all of which were given the benefit of the doubt long after they were associated with grave human health issues.

Why? Because they were assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. And because they were important items of commerce.

Take cigarettes. Although the U.S. surgeon general concluded in 1964 that lung cancer and chronic bronchitis were causally related to cigarette smoking, the ban on cigarette advertising didn’t come into force until 1971. That said, you can still buy a pack at any convenience shop. What does that tell you?

Trudeau is on the wrong side of environmental history on this one, a political reality all the more damaging because he created high hopes that he stood for something better than that.

Canada can’t have it both ways on the environment and resource development.

Canadians know better.

It’s worth noting it was Schindler’s science at the Experimental Lakes Area that saved us from acid rain, not politicians.

In 2014, Imperial Metals sent 24 million cubic metres of mine waste and sludge into B.C. waterways adjacent to their Mount Polley gold mine — but it was the public who subsidized the $67.4 clean-up. Oh yes, the company “paid,” but then cashed in its tax break. After despoiling the environment on an epic level, Imperial faced no provincial charges.

All told, B.C. taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $500 million for the clean-up of contaminated mining and industrial sites across the province.

That’s why 10 per cent of residents are prepared to go to jail over Kinder Morgan rather than sit on the couch and do nothing. They want to save a unique environment that is already facing many other stressors that endanger this spectacular place for future generations. A major oil spill, in combination with these other stressors, could take the place over the edge.

If Trudeau doesn’t get that, perhaps he should think about something I was told by one B.C. environmentalist: “We feel the same way about salmon as Quebecers feel about their language.”

Environmental protection and reconciliation with First Nations remain admirable dreams. But giving Canada a Northern Standing Rock is not the way to do it.

Michael Harris is a writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker.

This article originally appeared on


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