Site C, LNG Break Trudeau’s Promise to First Nations

This article originally appeared on the Common Sense Canadian.

It all started off so well. Justin Trudeau launched his career as Prime Minister with big promises to First Nations and the growing number of Canadians concerned about the environment. He installed indigenous MPs in key portfolios like Justice and Fisheries; vowed a new respect for Aboriginal people and their rights; re-introduced the climate to Environment Canada.

But five months later, it appears former New York Governor Mario Cuomo was right when he famously said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” And the prose Justin Trudeau is authoring these days tells a very different story than it did on the campaign trail.

Tough Choices

It’s all frankly understandable. The forces behind major pipelines, hydro dams and LNG projects are considerable and deeply entrenched. It was always going to be a challenge for young Justin to appease two sides seemingly so far apart.

At the recent World Economic Forum, when he spoke of Canada shifting from “resources to resourcefulness” and joining the global green economy, he drew a mixture of ridicule and outrage from Calgary to Bay Street. Even as the rest of the world is getting it, we, as Canadians, clearly have a depressingly long way to go.

Yet there are some hard realities here which are simply unavoidable. And that means Prime Minister Trudeau has some very difficult choices to make.

Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat it Too

He cannot, for instance, ignore the pleas and court challenges of Treaty 8 First Nations on the catastrophic and treaty-breaking Site C Dam and still claim to be respectful of First Nations.

He cannot approve LNG projects and pretend to care genuinely about climate change.

He cannot keep approving and subsidizing heavy oil pipelines and pretend to champion the green economy.

These, unfortunately for Justin, are not grey areas. There is no room for “balance” or a “middle path” — simply because of a stubborn little thing called facts.

Just the Facts

Treaty 8, signed and adhered to beginning in 1899, guaranteed First Nations throughout the Peace Valley Region the right to hunt, fish, trap and practice their traditions on the land unimpeded by colonial settlement and development. Flash forward a century and it is abundantly clear this promise has been shattered.

Over two thirds of the region has been impacted by heavy industry — in many places multiple layers of development stacked on top of each other. Logging, mining, roads, power lines, conventional gas, fracking, pipelines, massive hydro dams. As for the latter, there are two already. Site Site C would be the third and, undeniably, the final nail in the coffin of this treaty and the lives First Nations have lived there for some 10,000 years.

In other words, you cannot sign off on Site C — or refuse, in this case, to revoke illegitimate permits issued by your predecessor on the eve on an election, literally — and declare yourself a friend of First Nations. These two realities are utterly and completely incompatible.

Wilson-Raybould Between a Rock and a Hard Place

And this is where it gets very messy for even the best-intentioned, brightest young stars of the Trudeau Cabinet.

I’m talking specifically about Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. The former B.C. leader of the Assembly of First Nations has run smack into a wall of political reality. She claims no conflict between her current role and her former. But here we must go back to what she to said to me and others 4 years ago at the Paddle for the Peace, where she took a passionate, unequivocal, legal, treaty-based stand against Site C.

See for yourself here.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould is the first indigenous person to be minster of justice in Canada. She is a smart, capable leader and she understands Aboriginal law perfectly well, as she attests to in the above video, noting:

The legal reality is that Aboriginal people have rights and treaty rights that must be respected…The country’s reputation is at stake with approval of these projects like Site C…running roughshod over Aboriginal title and rights, including treaty rights, is not the way to improve that reputation. 

But what good is all that if she can’t put it to use and do the right thing, legally, for the people of Treaty 8 territory, now that’s she’s finally in a position of real influence?

Suicide and Dams

Before leaving off on Site C, I want to direct readers to Emma Gilchrist’s poignant and accurate piece titled “Want To Reduce Suicide in Native Communities? Step 1: Stop Destroying Native Land.” Mr. Trudeau has recently come face-to-face with the tragic epidemic of suicides on native reserves in this country. If he’s honest about it, he will stop compartmentalizing this issue from that of environmental devastation.

This is no big leap. It is abundantly fair to connect these issues and it brings home the gravity of the decisions he now faces. There are, literally, many lives hanging in the balance. That’s a big responsibility for anyone to bear, but no one said being Prime Minister is easy.

The Dirtiest Fossil Fuel on the Planet

Next, we move onto LNG. And more unavoidable facts, which are as follows: B.C.’s LNG industry would require a massive increase in fracking in — once again — Treaty 8 Territory.

This is not Liquefied Natural Gas but Liquefied Fracked Gas (LFG). Fracking is far worse for the climate — not to mention water, local air quality, wildlife habitat, etc. — than old school “natural” gas. It’s also even worse than coal.

When you then take that fracked gas and pipe it to LFG terminals on the coast, in order to turn it into a liquid you can load onto Asia-bound tankers, you first have to chill and compress it. This requires the burning of copious amounts of additional gas to create the electricity for the cooling process. One plant alone, the proposed, Petronas-led Lelu Island project, would increase the province’s greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 8.5 per cent. 

Plus all that dirty fracking to get it out of the ground.

Don’t take my word for it: listen to the world’s top independent experts, like Cornell University’s Dr. Robert Howarth.

Woodfibre Approval a Bitter Pill

Suffice it to say, you cannot be a friend of the climate and still approve LNG projects. No way, no how. Which is why it came as a huge — though not surprising — disappointment when, this past Friday afternoon, the Trudeau Government quietly approved the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant in Howe Sound. (PS you don’t make an announcement you’re proud of on a Friday afternoon).

Once again, this decision came with casualties, including the tarnishing of another bright new MP’s credibility — that being West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country’s Pamela Goldsmith-Jones. This just after she held a series of public meetings to discuss the climate impacts of the project.

My colleague Rafe Mair called bullshit at the time, noting that climate calculations can easily be fudged and admonishing Goldsmith-Jones for ignoring all the other issues associated with the project — like tanker danger and the millions of gallons of hot, chlorinated water that would be dumped into local fish habitat by the plant. Some called Rafe cynical for not giving Pam a chance. Well, though it gives me no pleasure to say in this case, my friend Rafe was bang-on.

Pipelines to Nowhere

Finally, a few more inconvenient truths on pipelines:

There is no market justification for them. As this recent study shows, Canadian oil sands producers are already getting the highest value possible for the resource — despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about getting bitumen to tidewater.

There is no growth in demand for fossil fuels. As our contributor Will Dubitsky has aptly noted in these pages, “according to the International Energy Agency, in 2015, an astounding 90 per cent of all global electrical power capacity added was attributable to renewables.” Global emissions have been flat since 2013 — which is really, really good news. The shift to the green economy is real and it’s happening right now — everywhere except Canada.

So instead of continuing our massive subsidies to the oil and gas sector and approving new pipelines, our prime minister needs to follow through on his bold statements about green energy and actually start supporting the stuff. That will lead to far more jobs, which will prove far more reliable into the future than would continuing to flog a dead oilsands horse.

Again, that is simply what the best available facts point to, so wherever you stand morally on these issues, if you care about jobs, then this one is a no-brainer.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

So where does Mr. Trudeau go from here? I’m happy to report it’s not all bad. Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo appears to be listening seriously to First Nations on the Central Coast of B.C. about the upcoming herring fishery. The commercial quota has been significantly cut back this year and tensions appear to be much eased compared with the fierce standoff I documented in these pages last April. Fingers crossed.

As for Site C, I know it’s messy. It’s tough for a new administration to reverse the policies of the old one — especially once they’re already in motion. Our new PM doesn’t want to run roughshod over B.C. Premier Christy Clark and this one is clearly her baby.

Yet Site C is still in its infancy. There is still time to reverse a very bad and politically unpopular decision — for taxpayers, ratepayers, farmers, fish, wildlife, and, frankly, all British Columbians. Make no mistake – this one decision will cast the die for Mr. Trudeau’s legacy with First Nations. That’s the choice before him, whether he likes it, recognizes it or not.

Lelu Decision Looms

As for LNG, Mr. Trudeau has already made the tragic mistake of approving Woodfibre. Still on his docket is the larger Lelu Island project that would, in addition to being terrible for the climate, also threaten our second biggest salmon run, the Skeena, and further alienate First Nations (I’m not talking about the band council that reversed its position on Friday, rather the clear opposition of the thousands of band members it represents who voted nearly unanimously against the project last year).

Mr. Trudeau received a letter from over 130 respected scientists slamming the government’s draft assessment of the project and urging it to protect wild salmon by turning down the permit. We shall see how the review panel finds and then how Mr. Trudeau’s Cabinet rules. But if they say “Yes” to this one, it will be exceedingly difficult to tell the difference anymore between Mr. Trudeau and his predecessor.

If that last line causes some to gasp, so be it. Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece titled, “Why Justin Trudeau may be more dangerous than Harper,” which touched a nerve back then. I take no pleasure in being right about such unfortunate matters. But my thesis then was essentially that Justin represents a better-packaged version of the same policy positions as Harper on many defining issues — trade deals, oil and gas, the environment, and foreign ownership of strategic resources.

The way things are shaping up today, I can see little justification for altering that assessment.

Here’s Hoping

I hope I’m proven wrong. I hope, sincerely, that Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Ms. Goldmisth-Jones, and all their well-meaning, bright-eyed Liberal colleagues find the courage to right the ship, even if that means braving rough political waters ahead.

It would be good for this country and the world if the next four years proved radically different from the last.

But, then, as they say, the proof is in the pudding.

You can click here to read more about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and climate change.

Image: Prime Minister's photo gallery

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues, especially relating to water,…

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