Justin Trudeau came to power promising reconciliation, resource development and carbon pricing. On present form, he may leave having achieved none of the three.
The past few days alone have seen deepening national divisions over the paralysis of the country’s rail system by protesters acting, so they claim, in the name of Indigenous rights; the cancellation of Teck Resources’ Frontier oil-sands mine proposal, the latest in a string of major energy projects to be killed, withdrawn or indefinitely delayed; and the rejection of the federal carbon tax by the Alberta Court of Appeal, signalling that the tax’s constitutional status, when it is finally determined by the Supreme Court of Canada, is anything but certain.
There is room to debate the Prime Minister’s particular responsibility for this state of affairs. Was he too quick to raise expectations among Indigenous people about the possibilities of reconciliation, too slow to deliver? Has his approach to environmental regulations been too heavy-handed in principle, too dilatory in practice? Was the whole strategy behind the carbon tax’s implementation, namely to dragoon the provinces into levying it on the feds’ behalf, too clever by half?
But for now it’s worth reviewing just where we have landed and how we got here. Whatever mistakes there were in execution, the basic idea – that reconciliation, development and carbon pricing, far from being mutually exclusive, could be achieved together – was sound enough.
Indigenous people, rather than being the helpless victims of development, could be partners in it, with appropriate mitigation of costs and sharing of benefits. Carbon pricing, instead of impeding resource extraction, could make it more possible, if not by purchasing social licence directly, then by encouraging the reductions in emissions intensity that would do so in the long run. In the decades to come, as the world moved away from fossil fuels, Canadian oil could continue to be extracted and sold as the last best barrel on Earth.
There was, in short, a balance to be struck between these objectives that could simultaneously meet the needs of Indigenous people, the energy sector and the planet. And there was a coalition to be assembled out of the more co-operative elements of each constituency – pro-development Indigenous leaders, socially responsible corporations, market-oriented environmentalists – on the basis that, though none would get all of what it wanted, all would get some of it.
Instead, the debate has been dominated by the most extreme, uncompromising, all-or-nothing voices. While an overwhelming majority of band councils have endorsed project after project, from the Trans Mountain expansion to the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the Frontier mine, a fanatical cult has grown up around the handful of Indigenous leaders in opposition to each.
While an array of business executives, not least within the oil patch, have endorsed carbon pricing as the cheapest and least-intrusive means of driving reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, conservative politicians have mounted their own barricades against it, while proposing vastly more expensive alternatives in its place.
While those with actual responsibility for governing have focused on encouraging more responsible development, including extensive consultation with affected Indigenous communities and the smallest possible carbon footprint, left-wing activists have demanded, with increasing absolutism, that no oil be drilled or pipelines be built anywhere.
So instead of everyone getting something, the growing probability is that no one will get anything. We seem not to care whether we get what we want, so long as we can prevent others from getting what they want.
As, of course, we can. There shouldn’t be any doubt that each side of this conflict can, should it feel thwarted in its ambitions, make it virtually impossible for the others to succeed in theirs. The problem is, so can they; everyone’s got a veto of one kind or another. Yet all seem to think that, while their position is impregnable, their opponents can be made to surrender. And it is this belief that, more than anything, has brought us to this pass.
People who think we can just send in the cops to dismantle all the barricades have not begun to think through how this could be enforced over thousands of miles of rail line.
People who think Canada’s territorial sovereignty can just be waved away, when the very courts on which they depend for enforcement of their rights have consistently ruled to the contrary, are blind to both legal and political reality. People who think we can just shut down the oil sands today have not remotely contended with the consequences, not only for the economy, but the federal union. People who think we can just do nothing about climate change make themselves permanent exiles from power.
But that, alas, is what too many people do think. Only when all sides dispense with the fantasy of total victory will there be a way out of this stalemate.