Will Trudeau’s pipeline ambitions be thwarted by a superficial approach to Indigenous rights and environmental integrity, as Stephen Harper’s were?

During his recent announcement on three pipeline decisions, Justin Trudeau said that his government had listened to the views of First Nations. This week, Trudeau met with national chiefs at the Assembly of First Nation’s gathering in Gatineau, Quebec. It will be telling to see whether he is actually listening.

At the moment, Trudeau’s administration seems to be characterized by contradictions.

Last March, he said of the Energy East pipeline project, “Governments grant permits, communities grant permission.”  But he’s also underlined that “It is a fundamental economic responsibility for the prime minister of Canada to help get our resources to global markets.”

In Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett’s mandate letter, Trudeau said, “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.” The government made a commitment to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). A few months later, UNDRIP was described as “unworkable” with Canadian law.

There was the promise to uphold the Paris Agreement on climate change, but the approval granted to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansions shows that this is more business as usual.

It didn’t always seem this dire.

Trudeau was elected and supported by many people on the basis of those promises to usher in a new era of Indigenous reconciliation and environmental stewardship. Some of us were cautiously optimistic, but still guarded, thinking that his sunny promises may evaporate before reaching the ground.

My parents’ generation still remembers that Pierre Trudeau’s Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien introduced the original White Paper that led to massive national protests in the 1960s. I still remember not very long ago protesting Chrétien’s attempt to undermine Indigenous rights, the First Nations Governance Act, which was also eventually abandoned. But there was still some hope.

The decision on the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipelines (and to a lesser extent, Enbridge’s Line 3) was seen as one of the first big tests of Trudeau’s promises.

There had already been a first, smaller, project, which was a bellwether – the proposed Site C dam, which was expressly opposed by a number of First Nations in British Columbia. When asked to reconsider the project, Trudeau’s government declined to halt construction. Two First Nations continue with a legal challenge.

With the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines, the stakes are much higher.

First Nations and non-First Nations communities along the pipeline path have been concerned about the potential impacts of a spill. Coastal communities are worried about a tanker incident. Frontline communities in Alberta are concerned about water and air toxicity. People across the country are worried about the long-term impacts of fossil fuel development for the climate.

The government did manage finally to kill Northern Gateway, and this was used as a talking point by Trudeau’s government to demonstrate its affection for Indigenous rights and environmental science. Left unsaid was that the pipeline had long been left for dead, after a federal court overturned Northern Gateway’s initial approval, because the Harper government had failed to properly consult with First Nations, a Crown obligation.

Really, though, the rejection of Northern Gateway was also meant to provide cover for the government’s other major announcement — the approval of Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline expansion. Trudeau also made certain to spread some of the praise (and thus blame) to the Alberta NDP government and its climate plan, which he rationalized as the main reason why this pipeline makes climate sense. (He also implicated First Nations and environmentalists, implying they had supported the NDP’s climate change plan, and somehow should support this announcement.)

The glaring contradiction of approving a major oil sands related pipeline while trumpeting the need for the Paris Agreement on climate change emissions wasn’t lost on environmental groups. Immediately, his decision was panned by nearly every major group. They had every reason to call him out on this major contradiction.

For if, as Trudeau stated (parroting industry lines), capacity is nearly maxed out on current pipelines, then this pipeline seems a necessity. But if, as Trudeau also stated, Canada and Alberta’s climate plans are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a way that corresponds to climate science, then this pipeline is superfluous (especially with Line 3 approved).

So, he had to be lying to one of the audiences he was trying to appease. Unfortunately, everything seems to indicate so far that the lies are to those concerned with the environment.

The other factor is that the oil may never be needed. A recent large oil deposit discovered in the US may mean that the oil sands would remain economically unviable through the 2020s, eschewing the main economic reason offered for the pipeline. As with the approval of the Petronas LNG plant, this could see the government being a more optimistic economist than the oil markets.

But this doesn’t mean the fight is over. Far from it.

Environmental groups have signalled their willingness to fight Kinder Morgan to the last weld.  Many of the same groups now fighting Kinder Morgan spent years cutting their teeth on Northern Gateway, and have only grown bolder since winning that fight.

With Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson, the Green Party’s Elizabeth May, over 20 other municipalities and nearly 20 First Nations all stating their opposition to the pipeline, it’s easy to imagine a Canadian equivalent of Standing Rock breaking out — except it will be in or near a major city like Vancouver. First Nations communities, who have spent years and considerable legal resources fighting similar projects solo, must be feeling good now, knowing there are so many others willing to join their fight.

But before people are forced to put their bodies in front of the bulldozers, you can count on Kinder Morgan to receive a number of legal challenges, just as Northern Gateway did. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation has already indicated it intends to fight it in the courts, and West Coast Environmental Law signalled that it expects many more lawsuits to emerge.

It will be a great irony if Trudeau’s ambitions to pass a major pipeline, where Stephen Harper could not, are also thwarted by a similarly superficial approach to Indigenous rights and environmental integrity. He was counting on his charm and allusions to sober consideration to give him the political space to embrace all his contradictory promises and score a coup.

While Harper could barely hide his contempt for inherent and treaty rights held by First Nations, Trudeau promised to change that relationship. However, this announcement, along with his reneging on his promise to fully support UNDRIP, has shown that First Nations and other Canadians are right to be hostile toward a government that is proving itself just as willing to ignore environmental science and Indigenous rights to get its way.

Photo: First Nations communities protest pipelines projects in Prince George, British Columbia. Photo: Ben Powless.


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