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The Northern Gateway debacle: a national conversation turned sour

At the World Economic Forum last week, Prime Minister Harper said that it is a “national priority” for Canada to…

By Lucas Powers , in Terra Politik: Geopolitics of the Canadian Environment , on February 16, 2012 Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

At the World Economic Forum last week, Prime Minister Harper said that it is a “national priority” for Canada to begin diversifying our trade relationships, i.e. begin exporting oil to thirsty Asian markets. Along with chastising Europe for their egregious financial management and evangelizing about free trade, the underlying message of his bravado was synopsized when he said, “Western nations, in particular, face a choice of whether to create the conditions for growth and prosperity, or to risk long-term economic decline.”

As much as the speech has drawn criticism for it’s patronizing tone, Harper’s comment is aptly appropriate in context of the Northern Gateway decision on the horizon. The proposed pipeline plan is not without pitfalls, but at its core is an idea with considerable merit: we can leverage the oil sands to keep the economy afloat during a period of widespread financial turmoil. But this potent, and potentially unifying fiscal argument has been lost amid a discussion riddled with red herrings and poor communication on behalf of the federal government.  Alternatively, the government has managed to polarize Canadians on either side of a debate that is becoming increasingly ideological and convoluted.

The transparent and ill-executed “Ethical Oil” campaign, championed by a roster of talking heads conspicuously affiliated with the federal Conservatives, was a debacle from its inception. The effort lost all legitimacy following spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall’s disastrous appearance on CBC’s Powers and Politics, in which she refused to answer relentless questioning about Ethical Oil’s financial backers. The entire campaign only fueled distrust among the public. Compound this with the now infamous list of friends and adversaries in the pipeline battle; revelations about Harper’s long-time commitment to tapping Chinese markets (along with a recently confirmed upcoming trip in February); public statements by the PM himself and Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver employing incendiary language to describe environmental groups and the result is the distinctly un-Canadian paranoid stalemate we are witnessing now.

An especially baffling aspect of the federal governments attempts to garner public support for the NGP is their shortsightedness in addressing First Nations stakes. It is unwise to further alienate a demographic that could hold the key to long-term energy developments and economic stability. This is especially true in British Columbia, a province home to over 200 distinct First Nations, fifty of which are directly involved in the Enbridge negotiations.

These First Nations are preparing to challenge Enbridge in the courts, citing a lack of consultation in the pipeline’s planning process as a breach of their right to early and transparent consultation in developments on traditional territory. As noted in the Vancouver Sun, no such precedent exists to guide the outcome, and thus it is a case that could drastically change the balance of power in resource development should the courts side with BC’s First Nations.

It’s also important to consider that no colonial treaties were ever signed on mainland British Columbia, and thus aboriginal land title is alive and well. This also means that every natural resource in BC is technically on unceded aboriginal land. Hypothetically, the court challenge could lead to the Supreme Court having to more clearly define just what land title really means (a definition that has been elusive to date); if it goes that far, then the Harper government and Enbridge have made a powerful enemy of a potential ally. If it goes all the way to the SCC, the decision would have reverberations across Canada.

If Harper really hopes to reduce regulatory delays on development projects, as he also stated in his WEF address, his government has antagonized a growing coalition of First Nations that could alter the fate of Canada’s energy landscape in the long-term. If the feds are smart, they should be courting First Nations leaders and negotiating how to make sure there is mutual benefits in pipeline and resource development, rather than propagating the defensive posture that led us to this point in the first place. Without a progressive working relationship with First Nations, particularly in BC, there can no certainty in our energy future.