Trudeau’s lacklustre approach to pipelines means direct action is (still) our best hope

Image description: A person (presumably Vanessa Gray) is led away from a pipeline shutdown action by two police officers. Caption reads: ‘”The tar sands projects represent an ongoing cultural and environmental genocide. I defend the land and water because it is sacred.” – Vanessa Gray, Anishnaabe’

What Mr. Harper has consistently misunderstood about what happens in the 21st century is you cannot make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy. Mr. Harper continues to say oh, we can’t do anything on the environment because we’ll hurt the economy. And not only has he not helped our environment, but he’s actually slowed our economy. He cannot get our exports to market because there is no public trust anymore. People don’t trust this government to actually look out for our long-term interest. We – he hasn’t convinced communities of the rightness of his – his pipelines, of the proposals he supports. He hasn’t been working with First Nations on the kinds of partnerships that are needed if we’re going to continue to develop our natural resources. Canada will always have an element of natural resources in our economy, but the job of the Prime Minister is to get those resources to market. 

– Justin Trudeau, Maclean’s leaders’ debate, August 7 2015

Numerous times throughout this year’s election, Justin Trudeau tried to position himself as the candidate who could do what Stephen Harper, for all his efforts, never could manage to accomplish: get major tar sands pipeline construction projects approved. With a cavalier well-of-course-we’ve-gotta-exploit-the-tar-sands attitude, he insisted, again and again, that the flaw in Harper’s approach wasn’t that his government was pushing fundamentally flawed, dangerous, and ecocidal proposals, but instead was an issue of tone, of building public trust, of performing the proper consultations, of going above and beyond to assuage local safety concerns.

In some cases, that’s meant publicly opposing major proposals, like the Northern Gateway pipeline, which Trudeau’s Liberals oppose on account of its traversal of the Great Bear rainforest. But in other cases, it’s meant picking up right where Harper left off, as with Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion’s spectacularly ill-timed renewal of the Harper government’s advocacy for the Keystone XL pipeline literally one day before U.S. President Barack Obama announced the project couldn’t go forward. And let’s not forget that one of Trudeau’s campaign co-chairs, Dan Gagnier, was simultaneously working as a lobbyist for TransCanada, that the Liberal Party knew about this lobbying work, and that Gagnier was advising the pipeline company on how best to lobby the new government before the election was even over.

And a lot of the time, it’s left the now-PM sounding spectacularly ill-informed to folks who are aware of the latest climate science, as when Trudeau insists that if Canada must improve our environmental reputation if we want to continue pushing tar sands projects. There exists a broad international consensus that a majority of fossil fuel reserves, including upwards of 85% of the tar sands, absolutely need to stay in the ground if the world is to avert the worst effects of runaway climate change.

This isn’t, like, some kind of secret or something. But our Prime Minister pretty much refuses to acknowledge this fairly basic fact, insisting instead that “you cannot make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy.” His critique of tar sands and pipelines pretty much begins and ends with process and tone – the Harper government didn’t do enough to reassure communities and stakeholders and First Nations that pipelines were in their interests; the National Energy Board (NEB) pipeline approval process is flawed; we don’t need to be such unapologetic assholes about spewing megaton after megaton of CO2 into the atmosphere.

As for that NEB process, as I wrote a few weeks back, Trudeau’s reforms of the (completely captured) regulatory body are already disappointing. One glaring omission is additional consultation of affected First Nations, a major sticking point for nations like the Chippewas of the Thames, who are appealing the NEB’s decision on Enbridge’s Line 9B to the Supreme Court due to lack of proper consultation.

Now we have further indication that the Trudeau government is not truly committed to reforming this inherently flawed process. Line 9B had already been approved by the NEB when Trudeau took office, so I could concede, for argument’s sake, that there is a case to be made for his government to decline to reverse or intervene in the decision. But recently, the government indicated to Kinder Morgan that despite the reform of the NEB process, they will not need to restart their application for their highly controversial Trans Mountain pipeline, which will now proceed to the final hearing stage, with a final recommendation to cabinet expected by May of next year. This is a decision that, as far as I can tell, will also apply to other major ongoing NEB applications, including Energy East and TransMountain.

In other words, Trudeau argued (repeatedly!) that Stephen Harper was relying on a flawed process which alienated key stakeholders and communities to push his pipelines, and that this process was so inherently flawed that one of his government’s first priorities would be to reform it. And he then proceeded to exempt some of the most contentious and hotly-disputed infrastructure proposals of the century from these reforms.

Which has left some observers irate:

NDP Burnaby South MP Kennedy Stewart said that by not re-starting the pipeline hearing, Liberals were misleading the Canadian public.

“I would go as far as to say the Liberals lied all the way through the election about what they would do with Kinder Morgan,” he said.

Stewart said, because the new Trudeau government didn’t immediately table legislation this month to overhaul the NEB, it’s now too late. Any overhaul of pipeline review processes is not likely to be in place until 2016 or 2017, following consultation with environmental and Indigenous stakeholders.

There’s been a basic, a priori expectation on the part of the Prime Minister that, regardless of the process and regardless of the tone, eventually some of these projects will be approved, and Canada will get its tar sands onto the international market in much greater volume than it is currently capable of doing. And we can see this expectation implicitly in the types of reforms his government is carrying out, the types of actions it is prioritizing.

In short, if anybody was still keeping their fingers crossed that a change in government would mean that the tar sands would stop posing an existential threat to the human race, it’s time to abandon all hope on that front.

Fortunately, we have more options at our disposal than voting a few times a decade and hoping for the best.

And it’s beyond heartening to see direct, disruptive action against major pipeline projects continuing to occur.

I wrote a few weeks about the badass direct action in Ste-Justine-de-Newton, Quebec, which shut down Line 9B for a day. While I was on hiatus for the last week, that beautiful action was replicated in Sarnia, a city which, along with the neighbouring Aamjiwnaang First Nations reserve, is on the front lines of the struggle against ecocide due to its close proximity to roughly 40% of Canada’s chemical industry. (For a quality documentary on Aamjiwnaang, Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, and activist pushback, see this Vice investigative piece.)

Vanessa Gray, who was featured in that documentary, was one of three activists who shut down an Enbridge pumping station in Sarnia on December 21, two weeks to the day after the first such shutdown. The trio, like the Ste-Justine-de-Newton protestors, used the manual shut-off valve at one of Enbridge’s numerous pumping station to stop the flow of bitumen through Line 9. Their words on the action are powerful:

“It’s clear that tar sands projects represent an ongoing cultural and environmental genocide,” says Gray, a member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation. “I defend the land and water because it is sacred. I have the right to defend anything that threatens my traditions and culture.”

“The fact that Line 9 is currently in operation really just adds to the urgency for people to act,” says [Stone] Stewart. The tar sands are a major factor in deforestation in the world and permanently contaminate over seven million barrels of water every day. In Sarnia the local Aamjiwnaang experience skewed sex ratios and high rates of respiratory illness because of nearby petrochemical refineries.

“The Crown is failing in their obligation to consult with First Nations about pipelines,” [Sarah] Scanlon says. “As settlers it’s our responsibility to respect Indigenous land rights and support those protecting the land and water on the frontlines.”

A few things should be clear at this point.

First of all, Trudeau is quite right in his estimation that a lot of folks find the NEB process fundamentally flawed. But this doesn’t go nearly far enough. Many folks also find the whole concept of tar sands extraction and export to be patently ridiculous – and these folks happen to have science on their side.

Secondly, for First Nations more than anybody else, resisting pipelines is a matter of life and death. In Aamjiwnaang, for instance, the rates of rare cancers and birth defects are already sky-high; the addition of a diluted bitumen oil spill into their water supply would be disastrous.

Thirdly, shutting down projects like Line 9 is ridiculously easy. All it takes is a set of bolt cutters, some heavy-duty bike locks or chains and padlocks, and a willingness to get arrested for a just cause.

Direct action is (still) our best hope of shutting down Line 9. If Trans Mountain and Energy East get approved by the NEB (and really, who expects them to get rejected?), then direct action will be our best hope of stopping those monstrous mega-projects as well.

Solidarity with pipeline resisters, frontline communities, and First Nations who are pushing back against these ecocidal industrial monstrosities!

ICYMI Monday is a weekly examination of newsworthy stories that failed to win the news cycle and were therefore grossly undercovered. You can reach me by emailing me at or by leaving a comment below.

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