Robert Skinner is an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary
Had the annexationists of Vancouver Island won the day in the 1860s, the people of British Columbia today would not have to worry about duties on B.C. softwood lumber imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump, for he would be their president.
But at the time, the West Coast colony was in deep debt after building railways to support what turned out to be a short-lived gold rush. So, in 1871, Canada being a club to which members have to be paid to join, Ottawa bailed out B.C. and persuaded it to enter Confederation. A transportation issue – railways – brought it into Confederation. And on Canada's 150th birthday, another transport issue provides a pretext for the province's testing of the very essence of Confederation.
Section 91 of the British North America Act of 1867 set out the powers of the national Parliament "to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada (including) … (2) the Regulation of Trade and Commerce." A long string of decisions since then placed the "threads that bind us together" – interprovincial works such as railways, shipping, gas and electric lighting businesses, road transport and eventually oil and gas pipelines – under federal jurisdiction.
The National Energy Board has served the country well for almost 60 years, tasked with determining whether works such as interprovincial and international pipelines would be in the public interest of Canadians. The board determined (subject to 157 conditions) that the twinning of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C., would be in the public interest. But this has upset many groups in B.C. because it was not what they demanded.
The recently announced NDP-Green Party coalition in British Columbia has committed to ignoring the federal decision and stopping the project. How they intend to do so is not clear. But the options range from further federal court challenges to simply frustrating it to death by offering support to local opponents along the line. Regardless, if they carry through on this commitment, they will have posed a challenge not to a pipeline, or to Alberta, but to Confederation itself.
The Constitution is clear: Projects such as Trans Mountain fall under federal jurisdiction. The NDP and Greens just don't care.
Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver speaks of the need for democracy. Mr. Weaver's version of democracy appears to be that if his position does not determine the outcome of a legal, democratically established process, then the process must have been undemocratic. Taken to its logical extreme, if every special interest group does not get its way, do we have not one but literally dozens or even hundreds of aggrieved groups seeking parallel power to govern the country? Do we degenerate into Canada becoming much less than the sum of its parts? That is, 13 nation states – most of which would be bankrupt?
Looming in the background of the Trans Mountain pipeline debate is a test of Canada – and thus for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This is not just typical B.C. politics. Distilled to its essence, this is a challenge to the federal government's jurisdiction and competence in regulating interprovincial commerce.
How far will the Prime Minister go? When his father was asked this question during the October Crisis in 1970, he said: "Well, just watch me." Pierre Trudeau saw the government confronting those "who would try to impose a parallel power" in Canada. Will Justin Trudeau see a provincial challenge to a federal decision as an attempt to usurp federal jurisdiction? More importantly, how will he respond? This will be a defining moment in his stint as Prime Minister.
Certainly the circumstances today are not as grim as in 1970. Canadians usually find a way to muddle through. We are noted for our ability to compromise or defer. The problem is that, while we are debating and deferring, we signal to the world a woolly uncertainty.
Yes, it may be crass to bring up the dirty matter of finance and investment, but uncertainty spells risk for those who would invest in Canada. Of B.C.'s $40-billion in international exports, almost two-thirds are forest products, metallic minerals and energy. Sixty-five per cent of B.C.'s softwood lumber exports currently go to the U.S. It is almost gratuitous to note the rank hypocrisy of B.C.'s opposition to the transport and export of raw commodities when the province's economy depends so heavily on it.
B.C. politicians might consider the ominous possibility that Albertans will come to the defence of western red cedar, the most spiritually important tree to the coastal First Nations, and oppose the transport of its "body parts" across the provincial boundary. Or, in the extreme, Albertans might suggest a return to 1867, when mail and goods from B.C. to Eastern Canada had to go via San Francisco.
That is the rabbit hole being dug by the BC NDP-Green Party coalition, and Canada is teetering precariously at its edge.