National Column: Will Alberta fires tip the pipeline debate?

by Tim Harper

After a week of debate over the link, or lack thereof, between climate change and the Fort McMurray wildfires, another reality emerges.

When the economic cost of this tragedy is tallied, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is going to be under renewed pressure to approve a pipeline and get oil to market from a province staggering under the weight of historic economic troubles.

Oil production in Alberta is down a million barrels a day – this in a province already coping with jobless rates unseen in 20 years, which bled 21,000 jobs last month before the fires, and now must cope with oilpatch shutdowns and international investor nervousness.

Beyond Alberta, the fires are going to have a huge impact on the Canadian economy.

Instead of a tipping point on the climate change debate – which has been tepid and inconclusive in the face of such suffering – it could be an economic tipping point on the pipeline debate.

Just days before the inferno, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley had made what she called her best case for approval of pipelines to Trudeau and his cabinet meeting in Alberta. She used statistics to stress the importance of Alberta to the national economy and she reminded the cabinet, in detail, of measures she is taking to reduce the province’s carbon footprint.

Tuesday, she was announcing that the oil industry will move as quickly as possible to getting the sector back to work, “rolling up their sleeves” and doing what they love. It’s a small step toward rebuilding the provincial economy and helping the Canadian economy.

It was left to her unlikely allies in the House of Commons, the Conservatives, to pivot and push on the pipeline question. But Trudeau gave no quarter.

“The only way to build pipelines in the 21st century is to demonstrate the community’s support, the partnerships with indigenous peoples, and the strong science that is going to demonstrate that we understand that environmental protection and economic development go hand in hand,”
Trudeau said.

Frustration in Alberta has been palpable but Trudeau has maintained that pipelines were not built under the Stephen Harper Conservatives because they did not seek the buy-in his government is committed to.

This week, though, they added another symbolic hurdle to resource development.

In removing the previous government’s objection to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, known by the unfortunate acronym UNDRIP, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett won a standing ovation at the UN.

It removes Canada as the lone outlier on a declaration the Harper government had labelled “aspirational,” but it carries no legal weight in this country unless it is enshrined in legislation and the government has shown no such inclination.

Yet it does contain language that spooked the Harper government.

Article 32 of the declaration says states shall consult and co-operate in good faith with indigenous people “in order to obtain their free and informed consent” prior to the approval of any resource development which affects their lands or territories.

No one is interpreting this as a veto, says Bennett, and such rights exist already under our constitution and according to our courts.

If a First Nations “no” does not necessarily mean a “no,” that is a climbdown from the Liberal position during last year’s campaign.

Four days before the federal election, Trudeau was asked about a veto for First Nations at a virtual town hall with APTN.

If First Nations communities say “no” to resource development in their territories, does “no mean no?” he was asked.

“Absolutely,” Trudeau said.

“We cannot have a government that decides where the pipelines go without having proper approval and support from the communities that are affected,” said Trudeau during that interview.

Since then, he has been much more circumspect in his comments, talking about nation-to-nation relations, respect for treaty rights and “meaningful consultation.” There was no hint of a veto.

As University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran puts it, First Nations already have stronger rights in this country than anything envisioned in a symbolic UN declaration.

“That’s what consultation does, it winnows the good project from the bad,” he says.

Industry applauded the Liberal action at the UN Tuesday. Signing on to the declaration may be largely symbolic, but it does add expectations and a moral obligation for the government, regardless of court decisions.

The expectations and moral suasion from Alberta will be even greater.

The pipeline-environmental-aboriginal axis on which Trudeau spins is about to get a lot more dizzying.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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