David Dodge has never been known for hyperbole. The former governor of the Bank of Canada always fit the classic model of those who have held the position: cautious, prudent, not prone to alarmist rhetoric.
That is why his comments this week predicting extreme violence, including deaths, from protest clashes over the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion were so jarring and caught many off guard.
“We’re going to have some very unpleasant circumstances,” Mr. Dodge recently told the Bennett Jones law firm in Edmonton, according to a story in The Edmonton Journal. “There are some people that are going to die in protesting construction of this pipeline. We have to understand that.”
He went on.
“Nevertheless, we have to be willing to enforce the law once it’s there … It’s going to take some fortitude to stand up.”
In a follow-up interview with The Journal, Mr. Dodge declined to say just how he anticipates someone dying. Rather, he speculated that this unhappy fate is likely to befall those who are among the “extremist minority” of anti-pipeline demonstrators.
One can debate whether Mr. Dodge’s statements were responsible. Or whether they were inflammatory, over the top and designed to scare people, maybe the protesters themselves. However, I’m sure he is not the only person who holds the view that something awful could happen and wonders how far the federal government will go to get a new pipeline project built.
What if someone sustains life-threatening injuries? What if someone dies? Will Canadians maintain the same appetite to see this thing pushed through that they have now? Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Canadians support the project.
There is little question that Kinder Morgan pondered all this before it decided to sell the entire endeavour to the federal government last month for $4.5-billion. The possibility of something horrible occurring and public opinion taking a swift turn sideways was just too great a gamble for the pipeline builder. Now, Ottawa has assumed that risk.
While talk of extreme violence remains conjecture, one has to assume officials in the Prime Minister’s Office have run some scenarios, with physical hostility and serious, potentially fatal, injuries among them. What happens then? The truth is no one knows. It’s all fine for a government to say that it must uphold its own laws whatever the situation, but public sentiment often rules. This is Canada. Societal tolerance for violence, especially state-sanctioned or perpetrated, is low here.
But maybe there’s hope.
Environmentalists vowing an at-all-costs showdown with authorities over Trans Mountain often raise the spectre of protests held a couple of years ago in the United States over the Dakota Access pipeline. That months-long standoff involved the Standing Rock Indian tribe and led to clashes with police and security guards who set attack dogs upon the activists, reviving horrible memories of similar scenes in the south during the 1960s civil rights’ movement.
Police blasted the demonstrators with water cannons during stretches of extremely cold weather. They also used tear gas grenades, bean bag rounds and pepper spray among other forms of deterrents. Dozens of people were injured, some seriously. A member of the Standing Rock council warned that the tribe was preparing for mass casualties. But that never came to pass.
After Donald Trump became U.S. President, he signed an executive order accelerating a new environmental assessment that was holding up completion of the project. It seemed to take the air out of the opposition. The resistance collapsed and the pipeline was finished in the spring of 2017. It began delivering oil a few months later. Standing Rock had become synonymous with environmental opposition to pipeline projects, but ultimately failed to change anything.
I don’t see matters escalating to the point that anyone gets killed in British Columbia. I don’t see our police firing live rounds into a crowd to break things up. The death of a protester is the last thing anyone wants – the government or the oil industry. No one wants blood on their hands.
All that said, what happens on Burnaby Mountain or wherever protesters set up shop in the coming months could have repercussions for this country for years to come. People have the right to protest, but governments also have an obligation to uphold the law.
Mr. Dodge dramatically overstated the likelihood of fatalities linked to the protests. But he wasn’t wrong about the enormous test that awaits the federal government when it comes to accommodating demonstrations while ensuring the project is completed.