By Richard Forbes.

When the NDP’s John Horgan formed a laser-slim minority government last July in British Columbia, the fate of both the Trans Mountain extension and the Site C dam seemed under jeopardy. Since Horgan and his political bedfellows, the Greens, both strongly opposed the expansion of Trans Mountain during the spring election, naturally a flurry of op-eds warned uneasily their rise to power might undermine a fragile peace that had been reached on the national energy file. What was a common assumption six months ago, however = if not a political inevitability – has since returned as a source of surprise.

It’s as though after the uncertainty over the election’s results dissipated, there was a reassuring sense – especially after Horgan’s government decided not to cancel the Site C dam – that the BC NDP were prepared to disappoint core supporters if need be to avoid upsetting the political apple cart. And yet here we are. The fledgling B.C. government has announced its intentions to impose a (probably unconstitutional) moratorium on the transportation of bitumen from Alberta into Lotusland until the conclusion of an independent spill impact review. Indeed, no sooner had we thought Trans Mountain might not just be revisited after all than we learnt it most certainly would – if not hotly re-litigated at a constitutional level even.

Alberta retaliated with tough measures of their own: Premier Notley herself announced Alberta would suspend its discussions of purchasing hydro from BC, and that the Alberta’s Gaming and Liquor Commission would bar B.C. wine imports – a devastating blow to the B.C. interior where wine exports to Alberta amount to a $70M industry.

Having staked her government on the guarantee of new pipelines, Notley has nothing to lose by fighting a dogged fracas with her province’s westerly neighbor. The Trans Mountain extension, a twinning of an existing line from Edmonton to Burnaby, would nearly triple their daily import capacity. But for British Columbia, a Trans Mountain extension means tanker traffic multiplied seven-fold along its waterfront, with a subsequent increase of environmental risk – the extent of which is hotly disputed by Kinder Morgan and independent reviews that argue Kinder Morgan is downplaying and underestimating the risk of an oil spill. The City of Vancouver suggests the probability of a spill is as high as 16-67%, with both a Simon Fraser University study and Vancouver’s own study both projecting a cost of over $3B in damages to its environment and to the city’s international brand and reputation.

A view of the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area where the Trans Mountain extension crosses through to the Westridge Terminal. (Photo: Ann Jarrell.)

Truth be told, I find myself disappointed in most of the characters in this particular drama. For starters, while it’s become the norm since Christy Clark for B.C. to dictate terms for pipeline projects despite lacking the authority to do so, Horgan and his government have taken those demands a step further. In setting terms for the realization of Trans Mountain that leave less room for negotiation than Clark’s five conditions did, they’re helping to obstruct the possibility of a peaceful resolution to this particular crisis. As a result, a simple revenue-sharing agreement that helps compensate B.C. for the economic and environment impact of the expanded pipeline won’t necessarily fulfill the hard-line, the B.C. government has taken in this latest proposed moratorium.

Meanwhile, Notley’s retaliation threatens to set the principle of free internal trade back thirty years amongst the provinces, especially for alcohol and liquor; momentum has been ‘brewing’ these past few years in favour of trade liberalisation to put an end to cross-border disputes over the alcohol trade blighting our country since confederation. In light of that, Notley’s own invocation of confederation seems deeply rich; during one conference, the Albertan premier argued B.C.’s disrespect for the constitution risks rendering Confederation, “meaningless.”

What Notley, among others, is missing is that Trans Mountain is hardly an intercontinental railway: the original raison d’être for Confederation among the western provinces. The benefit of the Canadian Pacific Railway was widely dispersed, making it an attractive prospect universally for both Alberta and British Columbia. Alberta, in rejecting the National Energy Program (NEP) though, rejected the redistribution of oil wealth – expecting the other provinces instead to bare the brunt of its oil and gas industry’s risks to marine life out of the goodness of their hearts, constitutional obligation, and/or sheer patriotic spirit. It should come as no surprise that other provinces are uninterested in helping Alberta enrich itself, with their wetlands, their drinking water, and their waterways shouldering the risk. Trans Mountain is a train for Alberta that British Columbia, in some senses, is expected to pay for. We Canadians may be nice, but nobody should be that kind…

The Albertan position on the constitutionality of British Columbia’s moratorium is oozing with hypocrisy. Canada has evolved since Confederation into a deeply decentralized country and Alberta has helped spearhead that decentralization. Alberta hasn’t seen a policy jurisdiction it hasn’t wanted to devolve to the provinces – save, of course, for the issue of pipeline approval on which it is uncharacteristically centralist. We long ago decided this country is a decentralized one; the constitutional and political reality – where provinces laying out their own conditions is precedented even if not de jure – is far more important than the written constitution.

The federal government, in my view, hasn’t helped in drawing a line in the sand alongside Alberta. Both the energy minister, Jim Carr and the prime minister have argued Canada has an overriding national interest in the expansion of Trans Mountain: “No province can impinge on the national interest,” said Carr. But since when has a mere national interest excused a unilateral directive into a province? Whatever happened to “sunny ways?” That phrase itself wasn’t just flowery rhetoric on Laurier’s part, it carried with it an important historical lesson: that a soft touch and an offer of incentives go a lot further to making Canadian federalism work than ultimatums.

John Horgan,Andrew Weaver
Sharing similar goals, BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver (l) supported Premier John Horgan (r) and the BC NDP’s rise to power in British Columbia. (Photo: Chad Hipolito, CP.)

The Liberals are mistaken if they think anyone will reward them for this newfound appreciation for hardball federalism. Fort McMurray certainly isn’t going to be voting Liberal anytime soon. Whereas, I can only imagine how Quebec – where support for new pipelines is lowest in the country – will respond to the Trudeau Liberals if they argue Canada’s ‘national interest’ overrides Quebec’s provincial jurisdiction in the case of an Energy East -esque federal project. That is, assuming a Liberal government survived the furor at all. Ottawa’s tough talk on Trans Mountain only makes sense within the context of British Columbia – it’s a dangerous practice for intergovernmental relations to embrace and, no doubt, will make it more difficult to reach a resolution.

Conceivably, that’s why Carr himself has voiced his preference for a “calm” settlement, leaving the door open for federal incentives to be explored. A softer touch is what is needed to end this trade war; a heavy-handed approach may have the constitutional right-a-way, but it isn’t without its own independent issues. This is a time for bold diplomatic gestures, an invite to Rideau Cottage, perhaps; the same kind of intimate gatherings at Sussex Drive that helped hash out Canada’s Health Accord and patriation.

The larger question that all parties involved need to ask themselves is how can we, Canada – a disjointed patchwork of overlapping governments – make ‘social license’ work? That is to say, how can Alberta become B.C.’s climate parter and B.C., Alberta’s trade partner? Going the ‘hard route’ in forcing British Columbia’s hand, may accomplish Ottawa and Alberta’s goals, but at a steep cost: chipping away at Canadian federalism and undermining the vision that both Notley and Trudeau boldly presented to voters of environmental policy complementing, rather than opposing the development of Canada’s resource economy. In the event of a failure to reach a peaceful resolution, the main benefactors are the Kenneys and the Lisées, out to prove that ‘social license’ is bunk and Ottawa will strong-arm provinces over federal projects.

Discussions need to move beyond just Trans Mountain, where Horgan’s government has painted themselves in a corner, to consider the future of pipeline projects and the relationship between Alberta and British Columbia. The right deal would not just give Horgan the public face he needs to withdraw his opposition, but also set relations on a more constructive path forward. There are options available to those willing to consider them. A better harmonization of environmental policy in the far West for instance. And while NEB Modernization Expert Panel delivered its report last year, Ottawa could also agree to consider using an independent review on B.C.’s part to inform their efforts at reforming the NEB.

To that end, it’s telling that it’s Andrew Weaver, the leader of the BC Greens, not Horgan, that’s taking the hardline on CBC’s The House and denying a deal could be struck with the province that allows the Trans Mountain extension to proceed. If an impressive enough deal is struck, something Horgan and the NDP can hang their hat on, it’ll be Weaver that’s put on to the defensive. A story about provinces at odds with one another may soon reveal itself as a story about a government at odds with itself. If and when, the real work of mature, open-minded administrative diplomacy begins, it’s worth asking whether the informal coalition in Victoria can survive a victory.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes.


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