Kinder Morgan Pipeline Canada

Why is it So Hard for Canada to Have a Real Conversation about Pipelines?

Reflecting on his long struggle against South African apartheid, Nelson Mandela said, “One effect of sustained conflict is to narrow our vision of what is possible. Time and again, conflicts are resolved through shifts that were unimaginable at the start.”

The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is not apartheid — let’s get that off the table right away. It’s a pipeline. But in its sustained, divisive nature, in the way in brings up hard constitutional questions and emotional responses while deepening political entrenchment, the very debate over the pipeline is worth considering in its own light.

“Debate” might not even be the right word at this point. When one side is being arrested for opposition while the other is worried about their ability to operate within the basic Canadian principles of peace, order and good government, this has become something deeper and less flexible than a debate.

How did we get here?

“What mobilizes or activates our defences is almost always that there’s enormous fear,” Renee Lertzman, an expert in the psychology of environmental education, told DeSmog Canada. “The tendency to go towards polar positions and black-and-white is a well-known defence mechanism.”

In the Kinder Morgan debate, the parties talk past each other like a bickering couple; the values and even the realities from which they’re speaking are driven further apart with each new rhetorical volley.

Andy Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, describes scenarios in which two opposing sides talk past each other as a “logic schism.”

“In a logic schism, a contest emerges in which opposing sides are debating different issues, seeking only information that supports their position and disconfirms their opponents’ arguments,” Hoffman told the University of Michigan Record. “Each side views the other with suspicion, even demonizing the other, leading to a strong resistance to any form of engagement, much less negotiation and concession.”

For Lertzman, the solution to the seemingly intractable problem of where to go from here — or at least how to talk about it — is to start by recognizing the fear and concerns others have.

“You don’t just start with attack, you actually acknowledge this might seem like the right thing to do,” she says. “Without that acknowledgment, it’s very hard to break through.”

So what is that fear?

Here’s a cheat sheet; it’s not a perfect representation of everyone’s fears within the groups, plus, there are subgroups, and there are entire factions that aren’t included. But if you’re firmly embedded in any side of this debate, take a moment to consider the following.

For some First Nations, the fear is that their constitutional right to decide for themselves how their land is used is being trampled upon and that their sources of food, water and cultural practices are being compromised as a result. It wouldn’t be the first time: we live in a country that has routinely ignored First Nations’ rights for its entire history and only now are many of their cultures beginning to recover and regain control over their lands and resources.

Many Albertans fear their ability to grow their economy and provide for their families is being limited by their intransigent neighbours. This is a province with a strong dependence on one resource, and which is only beginning to recover from an oil-price shock that devastated its economy in 2014.

Many British Columbians worry that their invaluable coastline and coastal economy is being put further at risk to benefit foreign corporations, while they have no say in what level of risk they are willing to accept. Many are also more wary of the impacts of climate change than Albertans are, and see the pipeline as a mechanism that will ramp up emissions.

For some Canadians outside of the affected provinces, the fear is that authority over important infrastructure is now more of a question than a statement; for others, it’s that growth of the oilsands, and its associated emissions, will be locked in for another 50 years at least.

What is the common theme? Agency. Everyone fears that the people and institutions they care about have no say in what happens to their resources, their livelihoods, their climate, their rights, their backyards.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that this pipeline “is going to get built,” in a distant echo of his father’s famous “Just watch me” moment during the October Crisis, he’s speaking as someone who is trying desperately to reassure Canadians that the government, at least, has agency over projects that happen within the country.

“That surprised me because it’s not the sort of thing politicians normally say,” Adam Kahane, a conflict-resolution expert credited with helping to end Colombia’s civil war, told DeSmog Canada.

“What’s interesting to me about all the people who are saying ‘it’s going to be like this’ is what is their power to impose the solution they want? Does the federal government have the power? Constitutional, regulatory, financial or, in an extreme situation, with security forces?

“Does the government of Alberta have the power, including through the trade sanctions that have been discussed? But similarly, do the opponents have the power — legal or political or through their willingness to protest and be arrested? Does anybody have the power to impose the solution they want regardless of the others? And if not, who is going to negotiate?”

In his latest book, Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People you Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust, Kahane outlines four choices when it comes to working with others: collaborate, adapt, force or exit.

Forcing a solution, either through legal, economic or even police or military means, usually doesn’t result in a stable situation, he says.

“That’s the problem with forcing, is it tends to be temporary. Eventually, the people who were on the losing side of it find a way to get back in the game.”

Kahane brings up the Mandela quote to illustrate that this doesn’t need to remain the way things are: gridlocked, escalating and fearful among all the parties, or, as he described them “wholes” with their own realities and concerns.

“There are lots of different ways to do things and I don’t know whether a solution that works for more of the wholes can be arrived at, but stating that it either has to be my way or no way doesn’t move us forward much.”

The debate isn’t going to return to normalcy on its own, and if Kahane is right, that’s especially true if the government decides to use forceful means to make it happen. It’s going to require a great deal of empathy, a cooling of rhetoric and an acknowledgment that most of the arguments flying around come from a genuine place of concern and of love for one’s home.

As Mandela himself put it, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

— With files from Emma Gilchrist


Jimmy Thomson is a freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe and…

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