Is Northern Gateway B.C.’s National Energy Program?

This piece originally appeared in the National Post, June 19, 2015.

It’s a program that has engendered distrust and alienation between Ottawa and the West: a symbol of the government’s bloody-minded determination to dictate energy policy from Central Canada.

No, not Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s National Energy Program – which was pitched in the 1980s as a plan to secure the country’s oil supply at Alberta’s material expense. These days it’s Northern Gateway that has become a symbol of imperial meddling: this time, at the environmental and financial expense of British Columbia, should anything go awry between the Rockies and the open sea.

Tethered to a series of unpopular moves on the part of the government, including cuts to marine safety, weakened environmental laws, and beefed-up surveillance against environmental protestors, Northern Gateway threatens not only relations between the province and Ottawa, it stands perilously close to creating the same kind of political wave that eventually swept the federal Liberals out of power.

Reform MPs like Stephen Harper fought against many of the same things British Columbians face today: a paternalistic federal government, deaf to regional concerns, hell-bent on promoting an energy agenda opposed by the people most affected. In this case, it’s the coastal communities and First Nations whose way of life would be erased by a tanker spill.

One year after being greenlit by the federal cabinet and the National Energy Board (with conditions), the project nonetheless looks shakier than ever. Eight First Nations are challenging the approval in federal court starting in October. Any one of those cases could hold up development of the line for years.

The constitution requires the government consult First Nations groups on projects like Northern Gateway. When infrastructure is set to cross unceded territory – lands over which Indigenous communities assert collective ownership – the legal implications become all the more complicated.

Meanwhile Alberta’s new premier, Rachel Notley, says she won’t fight for it. As of Enbridge’s last filing with the National Energy Board, not a single oil producer will sign a firm shipping contract.

But the project’s not dead yet. And, ultimately, it’s the federal government that has the power to approve or deny infrastructure projects like pipelines.

The courts may, or may not, stop construction, but as with the NEP, it’s political pressure on lawmakers that will prove decisive. There are early signs that a shift like this may already be afoot. Enbridge has become a liability for Conservative candidates in every B.C. riding touching salt water. Seat projections by have the Conservatives losing seven of their 21 B.C. incumbents, while being shut out of six new ridings created by redistribution.

Party whip John Duncan is ten points behind the NDP in his northern Vancouver Island constituency, according to a telephone poll of 300 local voters conducted by Insights West for Dogwood Initiative. When respondents were asked who they voted for in 2011, the numbers lined up with actual results. But as many as three in five former Tories in coastal ridings now say they plan to vote for other parties.

At the same time, a majority of 2011 Conservative supporters report disagreement with the federal government’s approach on oil tankers. Knock on doors anywhere from Comox to Deep Cove and the pattern becomes clear.

The desire for representation on this issue in Ottawa has British Columbians looking to opposition politicians, all of whom have promised to cancel Northern Gateway if they form government. But citizens are also counting on First Nations to defend local interests.

This week a fundraising drive has people across the province organizing events to help cover court costs for seven of the First Nations challenging the project approval. Called “Pull Together,” the campaign has raised more than $450,000 so far.

This alignment between First Nations and British Columbians is coalescing into a regional political movement with the potential to become as powerful as Reform twenty years ago in Alberta. Sooner or later, Enbridge will be defeated in B.C. The only question is whether the current government goes down with it.

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