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Coastal GasLink – against which Wet’suwet’en supporters and First Nations members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, seen here on Feb. 13, 2020, protest – is supported, by all available evidence, by a substantial majority of the First Nations whose territory it will cross, including the Wet’suwet’en.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

For most of Canada’s history the guiding philosophy of its leaders was essentially triage. You dealt with problems in order of their urgency, the urgency of a problem being defined by the capacity of whichever group was involved to make trouble for the party in power.

It wasn’t necessarily the most enlightened form of government, but it was manageable enough, in a short-term way. Issues were kicked down the road until they either ceased to be issues or the party in power ceased to be in power. And what is the long run but a series of short runs?

Two things changed all that. One was the advent of governments proposing not just to manage problems, but to fix them – for a generation, for all time. Brian Mulroney promised to solve the Quebec problem, enabling the province’s government to “sign” the Constitution “with honour and enthusiasm.” Justin Trudeau came to power promising “reconciliation” with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

The second was the rise of respect as the defining issue of our politics. It had always been there, of course, but previously it had been bound up in a more transactional model of government: You had to be conscious of the sensibilities of your negotiating partner, to be sure, but only so you could reach the mutually advantageous division of the spoils that was the point of the exercise.

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Whereas today the issues that dominate our politics are almost entirely about respect: The hard calculations of interests that might once have made a deal possible have all but vanished. Which is how we have come to our present crisis, or crises, the country threatened on the one hand by division, and on the other by paralysis.

The striking thing about both Teck Resources’ Frontier oil sands mine project – approval of which has become a test of Canada’s respect for Alberta – and the Coastal GasLink pipeline project – rejection of which has become a test of Canada’s respect for Indigenous peoples – is how demonstrably ersatz they are, as nation-shaking issues.

The Frontier mine will in all probability never be built, with or without the approval of federal cabinet, premised as it is on oil prices, by the company’s own calculations, averaging US$95 a barrel over the next 40 years. Coastal GasLink is supported, by all available evidence, by a substantial majority of the First Nations whose territory it will cross, including the Wet’suwet’en.

And yet, each has provoked a seemingly inexplicable level of outrage. There are good reasons both to approve Frontier (the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, at about four million tonnes a year, could be contained within the province’s promised 100-megatonne cap), and to reject it (prior regulatory approval, as the economist Andrew Leach and law professor Martin Olszynski have pointed out, was contingent on the project’s other “significant adverse environmental effects” being outweighed by its economic benefits).

No matter. Only one answer is now permissible. Because this isn’t about a mine any longer, or the environment, or the economy: it’s about respect. Rejection of the mine, according to Shannon Stubbs, federal Conservative critic for natural resources, in one of the less intemperate interventions from the province’s political class, would mark the “final rejection of Alberta by Canada.” Final, mark you.

The protesters, likewise, who are now blocking trains and occupying intersections across the country are not, in any objective sense, defending the rights of the Wet’suwet’en people but of an entrenched local oligarchy. No matter. Once an issue becomes about respect, or the lack of it, the facts are more or less irrelevant.

The Trudeau government bears much of the blame for the trap in which it now finds itself, as condemned for allowing development as for preventing it. On the one hand, it has displayed a consistent tone-deafness with regard to Alberta, a province it neither understands nor, what is more important, needs.

On the other, it has recklessly raised expectations among First Nations about what was possible: suggesting that development projects required the “consent” of First Nations, for instance, rather than consultation, or accepting every one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations on the day they were released.

The government’s strategy had been to present the issues of climate change and resource development, the environment and the economy, as at worst a trade-off, at best a virtuous circle. This was tricky enough, given its own professed belief – in a resolution of Parliament, no less – that climate change was not just an issue, but an “emergency,” and that Canada’s participation in the fight against it was not merely a matter of doing our part in a battle that will largely be fought elsewhere, but existential.

But still: So long as, for most Canadians, the issue remained a trade-off between the two – a little more clean air, a little less GDP – it still had the potential to be managed, in the old-fashioned way. That possibility vanished once it became about respect – respect for Alberta and respect for Indigenous peoples.

For the nature of respect, that universal human desire, is that it does not admit easily to negotiation, or half-measures: You either respect me, or you do not. You either satisfy my demands, therefore – the conditions of my mollification – or you are not fully respecting me (and anything less than full respect is disrespect). Indeed, the closer you approach respect – reconciliation is another word – as an objective, in haste to atone for past sins, the faster it recedes. For without grievances, there is no leverage.

The triage model of governance, in short, has collapsed. The most important factor in this regard is undoubtedly the arrival of Alberta – its economy struggling, its major export seemingly walled in on all sides – as a respect-seeker, alongside the others. If it were just the usual claimants, it might have been possible to muddle through all this somehow, by way of the usual grubby deal, leaving Alberta discontented but distracted by its vast wealth.

But Alberta is no longer willing to play that game, and it seems the federal government has yet to come up with another.

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