Naheed Nenshi is the mayor of Calgary.
For the past few springs – when the rest of the country celebrates the arrival of warmer weather – many of us in Calgary have held our breath. We’re watching the snowpack, dreading every spring shower, not taking any pleasure in the blooming of trees and flowers.
This worry lingers every year because the federal regulatory system for major projects is failing.
The memories of the flood of 2013 are still fresh, even all these years later. It was, at the time, the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history: Five lives were lost, about 75,000 people were forced to abandon their homes, and the damage and losses in Southern Alberta totalled about $6-billion.
In a way, though, we were lucky: It could have been much worse. And the next one may well be – we still don’t have the protection needed on either of the two rivers that flow through our city and flooded it six years ago.
But this nightmare is avoidable. The Alberta government has committed to building dams and upstream mitigation on both the Elbow and Bow rivers, at the Springbank dam and a location currently being determined. Four premiers from three different political parties have agreed on what is needed.
But we can’t get what we need built. And the blame can largely be laid at the feet of the federal government, through its inability to get the regulatory system for major projects right. In July, for the third time in two years, the regulator responsible for reviewing the project said the application needs just a little more work.
Sound familiar? It’s the same argument we often hear about pipelines. Even after tough decisions are made, projects are caught in an endless cycle of regulations, court cases and infinite assessments.
My Premier is fond of calling Bill C-69 the “No More Pipelines” bill – and he’s right. But there is much more to it than that. It’s not entirely the fault of the Liberal government. C-69 is an attempt to fix a flawed system created by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The Northern Gateway pipeline, to cite only one example, was thrown out by the courts because the old system was inadequate. I’m worried that C-69 will make things even worse.
I want to be clear: With a project of this scope, a thorough regulatory system should be in place. From consultation with First Nations to the effects on groundwater, a lot of things need to be considered. But, despite the tens of thousands of hours of work and millions in public money spent trying to save lives and protect Canada’s third-largest city, the federal assessment agency continues to move the goalposts.
What if, in order to turn on your furnace, install a fire extinguisher or fix a window in your home, you had to write an essay to the government, only to have them tell you months later that it wasn’t really what they were looking for? What if your employer was unable to do business with an eager local customer because of a complaint received from someone on the other side of the country? What if the hillside around your city was collapsing but the reinforcements needed the go-ahead from a joint review panel?
The system needs certainty – a road map that shows governments and industry what they need to do to satisfy the federal regulator’s responsibility to review a project for safety and impact. The system we have now is not going to do that.
On Oct. 21 Canadians will head to the polls, and we’ll vote for whomever we think should lead the country. Individually, we may not like the result of the election, but we understand the system and consent to its rules and consequences. Our regulatory system needs to operate with the same principle. It needs to provide a set of conditions. If those conditions aren’t met, the project doesn’t move forward. If they are, that needs to lead to approval. The target must be clearly identified. How else can we aim?
This certainty matters to Calgary, of course. But it should matter to all Canadians, no matter where you live. For you, it could be natural-disaster mitigation, constructing needed utilities or building infrastructure projects that will lead to innovation and prosperity.
Canadians need to tell the federal parties that this matters to them, and we need to know what their plan is to fix a broken system. No one should have nightmares like mine every time it starts to rain.
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