Skip to main content

It has been rich, even comic, to listen to the Harper government blasting away at "foreign money," "radical groups" and Hollywood movie stars for interfering in the environmental review of the Northern Gateway pipeline that's just starting.

Of course, such people and their money have entered the fray in Canada. It isn't the first time (think of U.S. interventions against cutting old-growth forests in B.C.) and it won't be the last. We live in a global world, and we share a continent with the U.S. (and Mexico) where one country's decisions can affect the continent and planet.

Think back to last year, and the ones before that. TransCanada Pipelines sought U.S. approval for the Keystone XL pipeline to ship oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Regulatory hearings were required. Ultimately, the State Department (read: President Barack Obama's administration) had to decide.

To influence U.S. opinion, both at the level of legislators and the general public, Canadian companies poured untold millions into the fray. They papered Washington with lobbyists, including someone who was once high up in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination and two former U.S. ambassadors to Canada. The Harper government put Canada's entire diplomatic apparatus in the U.S. behind the Keystone campaign. The Prime Minister himself went to the U.S. and declared approval of Keystone a "no-brainer."

These "radicals" (that is, Canadian business-at-any-cost types) and "foreign money" (read: Canadian dollars) intervened directly in the U.S. regulatory and political processes, as "foreign" interests often do to further their economic advantage. So to hear Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper railing against "foreign" (read: American) intervention in the Gateway hearings is, shall we say, a bit rich. What's sauce for the goose really should be sauce for the gander.

The Harper government also took great public offence at the Obama administration's decision to delay its verdict on Keystone pending further environmental studies in Nebraska, despite proponents changing the route. Mr. Harper hinted darkly that, if Americans didn't want Canada's oil, then someone else – presumably the Chinese – would.

The Obama administration's decision was correctly interpreted by the Harper government as being all about U.S. presidential politics. Environmentalists had been very pro-Obama in the last election, and they'd been disappointed by his environmental record. The Keystone delay was largely about appeasing them, however temporarily. How shocking!

About as shocking as the Harper government's rejection of BHP Billiton's proposed takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. For a government committed to an open-door policy for foreign investment, whose Foreign Investment Review Agency had been a paper tiger under the Conservatives, what could possibly have persuaded the Harper government to reject the BHP takeover, and at the last moment?

Politics, of course. The then-minority Conservatives, facing an election, feared losing as many as half a dozen seats in Saskatchewan. To save those seats, the Harper government swallowed its principles and stiffed BHP. How shocking!

The government rightly decries the length of some environmental hearings. But the opposition to the Gateway pipeline isn't largely foreign inspired. That argument is a hypocritical diversion – hypocritical, given Canadian interventions in U.S. decisions. The main opposition comes from the multiplicity of aboriginal groups.

The National Energy Board will eventually rubber-stamp the project. It always does, but not until years of hearings – unless the Harper government changes the legislation. Even then, legal challenges will go all the way to the Supreme Court. That court has issued an opaque ruling obliging governments and private interests to consult aboriginals before using land to which they've claimed title.

Since B.C. aboriginals have claimed the entire province, sometimes with overlapping claims, and since the B.C. commission supposed to settle land claims has been almost a total bust, the Gateway pipeline has entered the impenetrable thickets of aboriginal politics, title and law – meaning it won't be built for a very long time, if at all.