The business case for Enbridge’s $5.5-billion, twinned Northern Gateway pipeline, which would send Canadian crude bound for Asia to the B.C. coast, seems sound: the project could inject $270 billion into Canada’s GDP while fetching $10 more per barrel than the oil gets when transported south, to the country’s current, lone oil customer. But politics, it became clear as an environmental review launched last week in Kitimat, B.C., may yet derail the pipeline dream—its importance to the country’s financial future notwithstanding.
Ottawa’s smoke-and-mirrors strategy of bashing the project’s foreign critics, which was timed to the hearing’s launch on B.C.’s soggy, northwest coast, allows Canadian politicians to avoid pointing fingers at what really stands in their way: British Columbia First Nations, empowered by a decade and a half of legal victories that have granted them a significant say over land in their traditional territories. The powerful Wet’suwet’en, who vigorously fought a land claim over 13 years, culminating in 1997’s landmark Delgamuukw ruling establishing the existence of Aboriginal title in B.C., are among dozens of bands that oppose the project, and call its proposed, 1,176-km route home. “It’s going to get ugly,” says Terry Teegee, vice-tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. “Battle lines have been drawn.”
Legally, experts say, B.C. bands have more clout than those outside the province, thanks partly to an accident of history. Few entered treaties with the Crown, unlike First Nations elsewhere in the country; and since they never signed away title, courts now require their input when resources are extracted from their traditional lands.
Look no further than 2007’s Tsilhqot’in ruling to understand what that means, even for projects the government considers fiscally necessary. The B.C. Supreme Court found the First Nation had proved title over 2,000 sq. km of valuable real estate northeast of Vancouver, stopping just short of granting it full ownership. That ruling put a stop, in the short term, to clear-cut logging plans, since they would interfere with the band’s trapping rights.
The decision’s longer-term impacts surfaced last year. Years ago, Taseko Mines Ltd., a mining firm based in Vancouver, applied to develop one of the country’s largest copper-gold deposits near Williams Lake, in B.C.’s struggling central interior. The proposed $3-billion mine, however, required the draining of Fish Lake, which the Tsilhqot’in consider sacred. Although B.C. approved the massive project, which received the backing of two premiers and promised tens of thousands of new jobs, Ottawa, in November 2010, rejected it because it would impact the Tsilhqot’in, and fish stocks. Legally, the government didn’t have much of a choice.
Contrast this with economic development in B.C.’s Treaty 8 area: one of the few corners of the province under treaty. The region, east of the Rockies, is crisscrossed with oil and natural gas pipelines, and has a 20-year history with the industry.
Given the pipeline’s entire proposed route is across untreatied land, and how disruptive and potentially harmful the Northern Gateway project portends to be, this battle, even if it receives the environmental okay, will inevitably be fought all the way to the Supreme Court, taking years to resolve, says Carleton University’s Rodney Nelson. Indeed, chiefs representing more than 20 First Nations contacted by Maclean’s acknowledge they’re planning to file suit if the project is allowed to proceed.
Litigating a multi-year court fight would be extraordinarily costly, but several front-line environmental opponents said their organizations and private donors are being lined up to help fund potential suits on behalf of First Nations. Direct action is also in the works. Supporters, along with “little, old grannies” from Aboriginal communities across the province have volunteered to be arrested, according to the Wilderness Committee’s Ben West; plans to erect traditional longhouses along the length of the proposed route are being readied. Clearly, B.C., which saw a grassroots uprising overturn the harmonized sales tax a year ago, is gearing up for its biggest environmental battle, an international cause célèbre that would make 1993’s epic fight for Clayoquot Sound look like child’s play.
This time, opponents say, the stakes are even higher. “One spill,” says Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, “would spell the end of life as we know it in the Great Bear Rainforest,” a wild, misty stretch of jagged inlets and moss-cloaked trees, rich with whales and wolves, running 400 km along B.C.’s coast to the Alaska border.
But a larger stakeholder than even the several thousand natives living in its path has yet to weigh in: Victoria. Perhaps the only question more complex than the legality of the megaproject is the tangled domestic political equation facing B.C.’s pro-development, pro-business, Liberal government. What seems an uncontroversial decision to Alberta, which stands to gain almost all the pipeline’s rich rewards, is tricky for B.C., which is being asked to swallow most of the risk—a tanker spill or burst pipe.
Premier Christy Clark, who is legally bound to go to the polls by next year, has yet to take a public stance. “We have to get the facts out on the table,” she said last week, claiming not to want to “prejudge the outcome” of the ongoing review. With three-quarters of British Columbians opposing oil tankers on the coast, it would seem a pretty safe place to ride out what promises to be a bruising debate.
Except Clark’s Liberals rely on a fractious alliance of federal Liberals and Tories. The coalition faces a surging Conservative party on the right, its greatest threat since the ’90s, when the so-called free enterprise alliance collapsed, paving the way for an NDP rout.
Happily benefiting from Clark’s absence, for now, is Conservative party leader John Cummins. The former Tory MP is heading up the pipeline’s local support squad, helping him pick off Liberal votes in hard-fought rural ridings where even a few hundred Tory ballots could tip the balance in favour of the Opposition NDP.
Liberals are “frankly terrified of Cummins,” says Simon Fraser University’s Royce Koop; the Conservative party has been polling at 20 per cent since he took over six months ago, up from single digits, where it languished throughout the past decade.
The right-wing bickering plays nicely into the hands of the NDP and its popular new leader, Adrian Dix, says University of British Columbia political scientist Michael Byers. The party, which opposes the pipeline, sits at 40 per cent in the polls, ahead of the Liberals at 31 per cent.
The Liberals took the last election by neutralizing the NDP; in implementing a carbon tax, they earned the support even of Greens like David Suzuki. This time around, the NDP, which is already putting out slick, direct mailers pairing images of rusty, hulking tankers with pristine coastline, is making sure the Green vote remains with New Democrats.
For now, Clark, seeking a rare, fourth term for the Liberals, is working on strengthening her position, without coming off the Gateway fence. In the last week, she named long-time Alberta Tory strategist Ken Boessenkool her new chief of staff, and announced a social conservative with deep Reform-Tory roots will contest a Fraser Valley by-election. She punctuated that right shift by bringing Stephen Harper to her son Hamish’s atom hockey game, highlighting their growing comfort.
Two days later, on CBC’s The House, Clark deviated from her carefully neutral Northern Gateway path, attacking the project’s critics as “foreign groups, coming in and meddling in our politics.”
The reality is that even as Harper suggests Canada is on the cusp of a boom, regional politics and Aboriginal opposition could mean he will be an old man before the pipeline proceeds. Consider the endless debates over the Mackenzie Valley pipeline through the Northwest Territories. There, too, the federal government was pushing hard for development, notes Byers, promising vast riches, if only Canada could get its gas to the international market. There, too, the greatest impediment was Aboriginal rights. Laws governing those rights have grown more, not less, complex since the ’70s. That pipeline never got built. It’s far from certain the Northern Gateway pipeline ever will, either.