What the Harper budget means for B.C.’s coast

Most Canadians believe justice needs to be dispensed objectively, without fear or favour, regardless of identity, money, power or weakness.

The events of the first half of 2012 show Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has a different idea of justice – one based on an idea put forward by Plato that justice be based not on values of truth or fairness, but on what a powerful leader can impose on the people.

By demonizing Canadians’ participation in public hearings on Enbridge’s oil tanker and pipeline project, changing the rules part way through the regulatory review and taking an axe to Canada’s environmental laws (particularly protections for streams and fish), the Harper government has eviscerated the checks and balances designed to protect communities and the environment and threatened democratic participation and impartial decision-making.

However, the key question for No Tankers supporters like you is: does this change our path to victory? The simple answer is: Not really.

The path to stopping the expansion of oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s coast doesn’t rely on statutes and regulation – it relies on the legal and political power of the people of B.C., particularly affected communities and First Nations.

Stephen Harper’s desire for West Coast oil tanker and pipeline projects was clear long before the Joint Review Panel hearings began. That’s part of the reason why Dogwood Initiative has never relied on the review panel to stop Enbridge.

But this doesn’t mean the review panel should be ignored or that the people who signed up to present should not show up. It is a significant opportunity for British Columbians from all walks of life to put their views on the record. So far, the official record of strong opposition for affected communities is extraordinary. We need to keep that up and not let Big Oil win by self-censoring.

The decision to approve or reject oil tanker proposals has always been a political decision.  Now the Prime Minister, through an amendment in the Omnibus Budget Bill, has made it explicit – from now on the review panel’s decision can be overturned by cabinet.

The recent changes to the law may seem to give all the power to Harper, but it overlooks three independent sources of power that he doesn’t control:

  1. The power of the provincial government to reject various aspects of the project under their constitutionally protected areas of jurisdiction;
  2. The power of First Nations to decide what happens on lands they have title or rights in; and
  3. The power of the people, particularly affected communities and First Nations, to decide what risks they are willing to accept.

Although Harper has almost unchecked power over federal laws, this power has practical and legal limitations. If we continue to organize people in areas important to key decision makers, the No Tankers network can make a difference in the next provincial election and ensure that the next government of B.C. uses all available tools at its disposal to stop West Coast oil tanker and pipeline proposals. First Nation legal challenges can also kibosh attempts to jam through approvals.

The decision to approve or reject oil tanker proposals has always been a political decision.

Ultimately, West Coast oil tanker-pipeline proposals will be stopped because British Columbians and First Nations stand up and fight for a different future than the oil juggernaut envisioned by Harper and his Big Oil supporters.

Meanwhile, Harper’s aggressive oil-at-all-costs agenda may backfire on him – his popularity has already dropped by 33 per cent in B.C. since the last election – while simultaneously stiffening the resolve of his opponents. We’re hearing from canvassers and supporters that Harper’s aggressive actions have alienated a portion of the Tory base that doesn’t like the Prime Minister’s heavy-handed anti-democratic actions and is suspicious of how far he will go to advance the oil interests of the communist Chinese government.

That said, I don’t want to downplay the long-term significance of the anti-environmental provision of the Omnibus Budget Bill.

Going forward, big oil proposals will undergo much less rigorous review and will be subject to much less effective environmental laws. Although Enbridge’s oil tanker proposal has generated most of the buzz, the real impact of these changes may be felt on other projects, including Kinder Morgan’s proposal to bring more than 300 crude oil tankers through Vancouver Harbour and proposals to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic.

Many of the Tory attacks on the environment came following direct lobbying by oil companies. For instance, Harper removed protection for streams and fish in the Fisheries Act after Enbridge lobbied the federal government following a dispute between the pipeline company and scientists at many federal agencies.

Democracy requires eternal vigilance and the anti-democratic, anti-environmental siege the government has inflicted over the past six months has certainly been a low point for Canadians. Although it has been hard to watch, it doesn’t alter our path to victory in protecting our magnificent coast from oil tankers.

Ironically, it may catalyze the long-needed, but less-than-sexy person-to-person, riding-by-riding organizing that will fundamentally shift the balance of power and allow us to legislate protection of the coast and other reforms necessary for a just, equitable and sustainable province and nation.

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