There was a reason Justin Trudeau took pains, in a brief appearance announcing two pipeline approvals Tuesday evening, to spell out his B.C. bona fides. Greenlighting Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion through the province was the day’s most significant announcement, by a long shot. In B.C., of course, it is also deeply controversial. (The Prime Minister also officially rejected Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal—though it’s been out of play for years—and approved the company’s Line 3 proposal, which wasn’t remotely contentious.)
Trudeau noted that he grew up visiting family “on the coast”; Jimmy Sinclair, his maternal grandfather, was a well-known North Vancouver MP. And he spent years working in the province, he added, first as a snowboard instructor, then as a teacher. All of this helped him understand modern B.C., likely better than any elected prime minister in decades. Still, there are two major risks associated with this project the Liberal Prime Minister could be underestimating from afar: Dead whales, and the spectre of Clayoquot 2.0.
The approval of Trans Mountain represents “the probable approval of the extinction of the Southern Resident killer whale population,” says biologist Misty MacDuffee with the Raincoast Conservation Society, which opposes the pipeline.
For the 80-odd whales that make up the Southern Resident population, the problem is diet. They only eat salmon, whose returns have been rapidly dwindling in the last decade. The expected sevenfold increase in tanker traffic associated with the Kinder Morgan would increase underwater noise to something approaching the level of a Megadeth concert. “These killer whales hunt the same way herd predators do on land,” MacDuffee explains: “They isolate an animal, then go after it as a pod.” If they can’t hear one another, they can’t do that.
The threat to the whales is no insignificant hurdle. On the Pacific Coast, these whales loom large. Haida mythology depicts them as the ocean’s most powerful animals; to the Kwakwaka’wakw, they took sea lions for slaves and made dolphins their warriors. They also represent a major economic draw for B.C.—a half-million tourists took whale-watching tours in the last year alone, hoping to catch a glimpse of these and other cetaceans. Vancouver is cloaked in orca iconography.
Travellers arriving at YVR are greeted by a giant Richard Hunt killer whale carving. Doug Coupland’s pixelated “Digital Orca” leaps over the Burrard Inlet at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The Canucks’ logo is a breaching killer whale. Indeed, the whales have become practically synonymous with the province: They’re slapped on T-shirts, postcards, and backpacks, and they star in every local tourism campaign.
In the wider seas, killer whales aren’t threatened. But B.C.’s famed Southern Resident population was in poor shape long before the Trudeau government gave the new pipeline the go-ahead. They range the Salish Sea, the network of coastal waterways off B.C. and Washington state, and are regularly spotted from aboard the ferry to Vancouver Island. They’re closely tracked by a team of U.S. and Canadian marine biologists, and local whale tour operators, who know Kiki, Sonic and Tsuchi and the rest of the “J-Pod” by sight. When one of these whales dies, it’s front-page news in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle.
Now Trudeau, who’s been working so hard to fashion himself as a son of B.C., who owes his majority to B.C., will be perceived as putting them at risk. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be a political price.
But for Trudeau, the whales are just one problem. To David Anderson, a former B.C. MP who served as the environment and fisheries minister in Jean Chrétien’s cabinets, today’s announcement also marks the end of the Trudeau government taking climate change, once his flagship issue, seriously. This reduces recent moves to a “pro forma song and dance.” (Cutting coal by 2030, in particular, is “a joke,” says the Victoria native. There will “of course” be a Conservative government who can roll this back before then.)
Anderson believes today’s decision will help bolster the Conservatives in B.C. by pushing progressives away from the Liberals to the Greens and the NDP, splitting the vote on the left. He dismisses the idea that Liberal seat losses in B.C. could be made up in Alberta as “fantasy.” No one votes to “reward” a party, he says, “especially not for something they view as their God-given right, which is how Albertans view pipelines.”
Then there’s the looming spectre of protests. Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt believes Trudeau will face the same kind of “insurrection” his NDP government faced during the “War in the Woods”—the protests against logging on Clayoquot Sound in 1993, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. And Burnaby Mountain is hardly remote. You can get there on the SkyTrain.
“There’s a very passionate opposition to it: Local MPs are saying ‘don’t do it.’ Local First Nations don’t want it. The mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby say they don’t want it. You couldn’t pick a worse site. There will be a price for this. There are going to be serious protests.”
For the Liberals, the project’s timing could also prove ugly. If Trans Mountain isn’t hopelessly tied up in lawsuits from First Nations and environmental groups (the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh all oppose it) the project’s proposed construction timeline would have Kinder Morgan attempting to lay pipe on Burnaby Mountain in 2019, just ahead of the next federal election. That means week after week of ugly headlines as Indigenous grannies, global celebrities and political leaders like Green Leader Elizabeth May and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan are hauled off by Mounties, reminding progressives just what they voted for.
The Conservatives’ total vote count only dipped by 200,000 votes between the 2015 and 2011 elections. The Liberals won because they managed get an unlikely alliance of young people, Greens, soft NDP voters and progressives out to the hustings. Getting them back there in 2019 was never going to be easy. Doing it after arresting their heroes will be harder still.