Napoleon Bonaparte learned the hard way: don’t fight on more than one front at once.

Stephen Harper is a keen student of history – you can bet he’s absorbed this political lesson. Another thing to know about Harper: the most important thing to him is that the Conservatives continue to win elections. Though his office door says “Prime Minister of Canada”, Harper makes decisions based on how they will help or hurt his party. That goes for decisions on pipelines, too.

Right now signs point to a debate high up in Harper’s inner circle. The question is, would approving Northern Gateway win the Conservatives enough political capital to balance the backlash it would trigger in B.C.?

Should he lead the party into a fifth election campaign, Harper knows he has to demonstrate two things to win: stability and control. Most importantly, the battle must be fought on a single question: which leader is best qualified to manage Canada’s economy?

Unfortunately for Harper, he might not get to choose the ballot question this time.

On April 7, voters in Quebec will decide whether to give Parti Qubcois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois a majority government. She wouldn’t have triggered the current election if she didn’t think she had a good chance at winning. This week she got a boost from multimillionaire media mogul Pierre Karl Pladeau, who put on the PQ jersey and jumped into a race north of Montral.

You can read more about Pladeau and his Quebecor empire at the Tyee, where I explained just how much cultural and political power he wielded during my time as Quebec City Bureau Chief for CTV. The media outlets that Pladeau controls basically set the agenda for debate in French-speaking Canada. They’ve shown repeatedly they’re not above cheerleading for the boss.

So what happens if Marois wins a majority? Well, she’s already 65-years-old. Like Harper, she’s looking for a political legacy. With Pladeau as her obvious successor – and the might of his media empire at her back – she’s going to start organizing for a referendum.

The latest Harper can push back the federal election is October 2015. But the longer he waits, the more time Pauline Marois will have to make the case for sovereignty. Again, Harper can win elections when the ballot question is on the economy. But if Canadians are looking for a Prime Minister who can hold the country together, they might well turn to bilingual, bicultural Justin Trudeau.

There’s a reason Harper was benched by the federalist team during the last referendum in 1995. His base includes the kind of hard-core Prairie conservatives and suburban Ontarians who love to goad Quebec nationalists into a frenzy. Go ahead, separate. Canada would be better off without you. Harper will need to muster all of his political energies to keep his own troops in line – and deny Marois the fuel she needs for a referendum.

One thing’s for sure. “Last Prime Minister of Canada before it fell apart” is not the epitaph Harper wants on his political tombstone.

Meanwhile in British Columbia, the federal cabinet has promised a decision on Enbridge’s pipeline and tanker proposal by the middle of June. That’s barely three months away. Harper knows Justin Trudeau has him outflanked here, too. That’s because the Liberals (along with the NDP and Greens) oppose Northern Gateway – knowing full well that shoving the pipeline through B.C. would be the political equivalent of Napoleon trying to invade Russia.

The Province of British Columbia, the Union of B.C. Municipalities and 130 First Nations governments all oppose Enbridge’s proposal. As Premier Clark said in 2012, “… it would be a national political crisis. Whether or not people supported the pipeline, they would band together to fight the federal government if they decided to intrude into British Columbia without our consent.” (The Globe and Mail, October 22).

One recent poll found two thirds of British Columbians feel Canada as a country is going in the wrong direction. That’s a bad place to start when you’re an 8-year-old incumbent government trying to defend 21 seats. Again, Harper needs to project stability and control. And he needs the next election to be fought on the economy. Triggering a chaotic showdown on his Western flank accomplishes neither.

Harper knows as well as you do: the day construction gets underway, communities along Enbridge’s pipeline route route will erupt in conflict and strife. Take what happened last fall in Elsipogtog and stretch it out from the Rockies to the sea. You don’t have to condone civil disobedience or angry confrontation to know that both are highly likely. The protests could last for years.

Ultimately, like everything else this government does, this is a political decision that will be made primarily as it relates to winning the next election. Right now I guarantee there are voices in Harper’s inner circle saying, it’s too late for Enbridge. Throw them under the bus. Focus on Quebec.

The odds that the federal government will green-light Northern Gateway seem close to 50-50. Despite the enthusiasm it engendered in the pro-pipeline press, the federal joint review panel’s recommendation of the project carries very little weight. It’s a technical study of a theoretical pipeline, by unelected panellists who never held any decision-making power. The final call was always up to cabinet.

Neither does the Crown’s last-minute consultation with First Nations indicate the feds are building a case for approving Northern Gateway. It’s just as likely the audience for these talks is the energy industry itself. Gentlemen, we bent over backwards for Enbridge. We fast-tracked the review, gutted environmental laws and held nation-to-nation talks on their behalf. It’s not our fault they screwed it up by acting like cowboys.

If Enbridge’s proposal is rejected, a long line of groups will step forward to claim credit. Deservedly so – it’s the combined efforts of thousands of British Columbians organizing over the last decade that has made the pipeline such a political minefield. But the decision must also be understood in the context of the Quebec election and the federal campaign to follow.

One day Kinder Morgan will also be up for approval by cabinet. Larger than Enbridge’s proposal, feeding twice the number of crude oil tankers, right in the heart of Metro Vancouver – this is a proposal that Justin Trudeau supports at this time, while Tom Mulcair’s NDP is playing wait and see.

British Columbians have to realize that as long as oil sands producers see easy profit in shipping raw crude to our coast, these proposals will keep on coming. We need a democratic solution.

What would happen if British Columbians were actually asked for their vote on these proposals? Seems like something worth finding out.

We can wait for federal politicians to ride to the rescue, or judges to side with our communities, or CEOs to have a change of heart. Or we can stand up and exercise our democratic rights as citizens. I’m talking about going right back to the political building blocks and organizing our friends and neighbours for a vote.

Our province is armed with a legal tool that exists nowhere else in the country: the citizens’ initiative. With the support of 10 per cent of eligible voters, any ordinary British Columbian can bring a law on oil tankers forward to the provincial legislature. MLAs can then choose to pass the law themselves, or send it back out for a special vote.

Call it a democratic insurance policy in case our elected leaders let us down. Starting this week, my job at Dogwood is to help dedicated and passionate organizers across the province bring together an alliance big enough to coll
ect at least 400,000 signatures. It will take a huge amount of effort, but the “Fight HST” campaign is proof the citizens’ initiative can succeed.

If you think that sounds better than waiting for Stephen Harper to flip a coin, then I’d love to work together.

As a first step, please click our pledge button to say you’ll sign the initiative when the time comes. If you decide you want to help out in your neighbourhood, I’ll put you in touch with the closest organizing team.

As they say in Quebec: Vive la democratie!