Reconcile with Indigenous peoples. Make elections fairer. Invest many more billions in public transit and green infrastructure. Take climate change seriously.
Those are just a few of the things that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party committed to in the lead-up to the 2015 election, offering up a fairly stark contrast to the decade of reign by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. And on Oct. 19, 2015, almost seven million Canadians voted for that Liberal platform. In his victory speech, Trudeau spoke of “real change” and “sunny ways” and “positive politics.”
Fast forward almost 500 days.
Many major promises have been broken, and sentiments seemingly abandoned. Frankly, it’s getting rather difficult to keep up with the amount of backtracking and shapeshifting happening in Ottawa.
Most recently, Trudeau formally abandoned his repeated commitment that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system” by issuing a mandate letter to the new minister of democratic reform that included the statement that “changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate."
What follows is a breakdown of some of the other stunning reversals made by Trudeau and the Liberals in recent months, with a specific focus on commitments made to climate change, environment and Indigenous rights.
Modernizing Environment Assessment Processes Prior to Approving New Pipelines
In 2012, Harper and the Conservatives overhauled the way that major resource projects are assessed in Canada, gutting the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act.
Among many other things, those changes resulted in the National Energy Board (NEB) being assigned exclusive responsibility to conduct federal environmental assessments for major pipeline projects.
It’s something that many voiced serious concern about: the NEB has been often accused of being a “captured regulator,” with a high concentration of staff members having worked in the oil and gas industry due to its head office being located in Calgary and legislation from the early 1990s requiring all permanent members to live in the area.
The Liberals pledged in its platform to “make environmental assessments credible again” and “ensure that decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence, and serve the public’s interest.”
And in August 2015, during a campaign stop in Esquimalt, Trudeau specifically stated the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain project wouldn’t proceed under existing processes.
The list of criticisms of the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan project is long: there was an absence of oral cross-examination of evidence, many people were arbitrarily denied intervenor status and potential climate impacts of the project weren’t considered.
Dozens of municipalities and Indigenous communities voiced serious opposition to the project.
But the Liberals didn’t call the review off. Instead, it created an ad-hoc environmental review panel, which was explicitly intended “to ‘complement’ rather than review or redo the NEB process.” Despite allegations of serious conflict of interest in its members, the panel produced a report posing six major questions about the proposed project that should be answered before making a verdict.
But none of those questions were answered.
As a result, the cabinet decision made on Dec. 29 to approve Trans Mountain and Enbridge’s Line 3 was ultimately based on an NEB recommendation made under Harper-era processes (the B.C. government also oddly accepted the flawed environmental assessment as its own, despite having the opportunity to order its own).
The path forward was clear: modernize the NEB, and repair the trio of acts that were gutted by Harper in 2012 prior to proceeding with new projects that will have major impacts on climate and local environment. Maybe that would have been just too “positive.”
Phasing Out Fossil Fuel Subsidies
Between 2013 and 2015, oil and gas producers in Canada received an annual average of $3.31 billion in subsidies, with $1 billion via the Canadian Development Expense and $1.2 billion from Alberta's Crown Royalty Reductions. This arguably makes the impacts of climate policies less effective.
That’s possibly why the Liberals pledged: “We will fulfill our G20 commitment and phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry over the medium-term.”
No further details were given about what “medium-term” means in the context of a four-year mandate.
In November 2015, B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced that the Liberals had assured they would be maintaining Harper’s tax breaks of $50-million over five years to the province’s struggling liquified natural gas (LNG) sector. In March 2016, Carr said it’s “not the moment” to phase out subsidies.
An August 2016 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development noted: “So far, the government has been quiet about the details of its plan. As part of its G20 commitment, Canada has said that it will eliminate “inefficient” subsidies. But that hasn’t been clarified—nobody knows which subsidies will or won’t be considered inefficient.”
That’s still the case.
Grant Indigenous Nations “Veto” Power Over Resource Projects
One of the most compelling elements of Trudeau’s pre-election rhetoric was his repeated emphasis on establishing a “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous peoples, and working towards the lofty goal of “reconciliation.”
Specifically, the Liberals pledged to "enact the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, starting with the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."
It was also a significant pledge, given that Article 32 of the UN Declaration (which is commonly referred to as UNDRIP) stated “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources” and require states to obtain “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous peoples “prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories.”
Many people interpret that article as acknowledging the “veto” power of Indigenous nations, meaning they could refuse projects including pipelines, oil and gas extraction and mineral mining. And when asked on the campaign trail if “no means no” in reference to veto power, Trudeau said “absolutely.”
After winning the election, Trudeau emphasized in mandate letters to ministers that “no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.” In May 2016, Canada formally removed its objector status to UNDRIP, with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett stating: “We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution.”
That was about as clear as you could get. Or so you would think.
Less than two months later, Bennett said the Liberals “do not believe this is an outright veto.” Then Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould stated that implementing UNDRIP was “unworkable.” Trudeau rounded out the betrayals by stating in December 2016 that “no, they don’t have a veto” in reference to three Indigenous nations who vehemently oppose the Kinder Morgan project.
The Liberals have also been criticized for approving the Pacific Northwest LNG export terminal, Site C dam and the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline without the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples. In a recent video for CBC News, Mi'kmaq lawyer and professor Pam Palmater told Trudeau that "you betrayed us."
It would be difficult to draw much of a different conclusion.
Justin Trudeau participates in a town hall meeting in New Brunswick. Image: Prime Minister's Photo Gallery
Repeal ‘Problematic Elements’ of Surveillance Bill C-51
Remember Bill C-51? That controversial “anti-terrorism” legislation that resulted in massive protests, petitions and condemnation from academics?
Well, it’s still very much law.
That includes the powers to arrest people without a warrant if someone "may" commit a terrorist attack, increases data sharing among government departments, grants significant powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and expands the definition of “security” to include anything that undermines “the economic or financial stability of Canada.”
The latter point led especially to fears among environmental activists and Indigenous defenders, given the potential arbitrary use of state power to suppress protesting.
The Liberals unanimously voted for C-51. During the election, they promised to “repeal the problematic elements of Bill C-51, and introduce new legislation that better balances our collective security with our rights and freedoms.” The new legislation would “guarantee that all Canadian Security Intelligence Service warrants respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” and “ensure that Canadians are not limited from lawful protests and advocacy.”
Maybe you can guess what happened next.
Trudeau and the Liberals haven’t kept their promise.
The proposed bill to establish an all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee is still only in the report stage. CSIS is under serious fire for a decade-long storage of illegal metadata. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr was recently slammed for implying that pipeline protesters would face the “rule of law,” which was interpreted by some as a veiled threat to use police and military against protesters in a similar way to the Oka Crisis.
Take Climate Targets Seriously
Credit where it’s due: the Liberals did manage to pull off the Pan-Canadian Framework.
That included national $50/tonne carbon pricing by 2022, regulations to cut methane and HFC emissions, a phase-out of coal-fired power by 2030, new building codes and the "intention to develop a zero emissions vehicle strategy and a Clean Fuels Standard."
But the federal approvals of the Pacific Northwest LNG export terminal, Enbridge Line 3 pipeline and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline seriously undermine the already underwhelming federal commitments to cut emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and 80 per cent below 2005 levels by 2050.
Sure, commodity prices may never rebound thanks to President Donald Trump’s plan to massively expand domestic oil and gas development. But everything could also change if he decides to start dropping bombs on Iran and takes four million barrels of oil production off the table. Either way, it’s a big gamble.
But one thing is known for sure: if the newly approved projects are indeed constructed, they will result in “carbon lock-in” for decades to come that will make it extremely difficult for Canada to meet its climate targets due to increased political pressures on future governments to avoid introducing legislation that seriously impacts profit-making abilities.
There’s a quiet push by the federal government to use international emissions trading to help it reach its 2030 target. Solid economic arguments accompany this option. However, some fear the required capital outflow associated with the mechanism will make it more difficult for Canada to reach its 2050 target, to say nothing of the lofty goal of phasing out all fossil fuels by 2100 (both of which will require fairly radical transformations in transportation, industry, electricity, agriculture and buildings).
There’s also little evidence for the math behind the government’s plan to reduce a massive 44 megatonnes of emissions reductions (which represents more than half of all the emissions from oilsands extraction and refining in 2015) from “public transit, green infrastructure, technology and innovation and stored carbon.”
The Pembina Institute’s Erin Flanagan kindly put it that “additional policy work is required to close [that gap].”
Trudeau’s got his rhetoric down when it comes to this subject, often referencing the need to “balance” the economy and environment. Frankly, there’s little evidence that his government is taking 2030, 2050 and 2100 climate targets seriously.
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) February 11, 2017
Big-League Investments in Public Transit and Green Infrastructure
It was supposed to be the “largest new infrastructure investment in Canadian history.”
Specifically, the Liberals pledged $125 billion in public transit, climate change mitigation and adaptation projects, social housing and water and wastewater infrastructure. The big problem?
That $125 billion would be invested over the course of a decade, well beyond the four-year mandate the Liberals won in 2015. Between 2016/17 and 2019/20 — you know, the party’s actual mandate — the Liberals only pledged a total of $17 billion. That was broken down into $5.65 billion for each of the three categories: 1) green infrastructure; 2) social infrastructure; and 3) public transit.
It might sound like a lot.
But the infrastructure deficit in Canada is staggeringly large — one estimate pegs it as high as $570 billion — which is the symptom of decades of serious underinvestment by the federal government in its cities. So how have the Liberals lived up to their measly platform pledge?
They didn’t even meet it.
The funding commitment to public transit is $1.1 billion less than what was promised ($3.4 billion over three years, instead of $4.5 billion). Meanwhile, the commitment to green infrastructure is short, with the budget allocating $5 billion over five years (instead of $5.65 billion over four years). It’s only in 2021/22 that investments are predicted to increase to levels promised in 2015/16.
There’s been no explanation for this.
Instead, the government pitched a private infrastructure bank, which will attempt to “leverage” four to five dollars from the private sector for every single dollar invested by the government. The $15 billion for the latter will be “sourced from the announced funding” for infrastructure, so subtract that amount from the original total.
Sure, the Liberal platform did outline the idea of a Canada Infrastructure Bank “to provide low-cost financing for new infrastructure projects.” But there was no mention of privatizing it.
This fact has resulted in serious concern voiced by some economists given the possibility of privatization doubling the cost of projects over 30 years than if built and operated by the government.
In addition, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has indicated that private investors won’t be interested in investing in smaller municipalities given their desire for high returns. All this led Laurentian University’s Louis-Philippe Rochon to recently dub Trudeau a “privatization czar” and note that he “has gone places even Mr. Harper never dared to go.”
Given the Liberal pledge to reduce the federal debt-to-GDP ratio to 27 per cent by 2019-20 — and the fact it’s currently predicted to hit almost 32 per cent by that time — it seems doubtful the Liberals will even pretend to meet this promise.
Sunny, sunny ways.
Image: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enters a town hall meeting. Image: Prime Minister's Photo Gallery