Skip to main content

Martha Hall Findlay, an MP from 2008 to 2011, is an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

The federal government's decision to give Northern Gateway the green light is conditional on the project meeting all 209 environmental and social conditions set out by the joint review panel of National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. The proponents must also engage in more consultations with affected aboriginal communities, and there are British Columbia's five conditions to be met.

Many environmentalists are now willing to accept the project, provided those conditions are satisfied. Many aboriginal groups also support the project, based on economic participation in the project and associated benefits to their communities. There remain, however, certain environmental and aboriginal groups who still threaten to do all they can to stop it. There are those who will just keep saying "No".

These challenges are nothing new. Other major nation-building projects in Canada's history were plenty controversial in their time. The CPR, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the TransCanada Pipeline, Churchill Falls and the James Bay Project each had its risks, its detractors and hurdles to overcome. Given what we now know about animal migration crossings and the contribution of cars and trucks to greenhouse gas emissions, some today would say "No" to the TransCanada Highway – but there is no denying its importance.

Every nation-building project in Canada has required negotiation, balance and compromise: Northern Gateway is no exception.

You don't build a nation by saying "No". You need to ask "How".

For our oil, access to the West Coast, and thus to global markets, has major economic implications for Canadians across the country. The United States is our only customer for oil, which causes a significant price discount, and they are approaching energy self-sufficiency more quickly than anticipated. We must diversify our customer base, and the opportunities that resource-hungry Asia presents are huge – and not just for Alberta. Manufacturers in Ontario and Quebec that supply the oil sands and pipelines with all manner of equipment and services – and they people they employ – will benefit. So too will scientists and technicians across the country developing more efficient (and environmentally-friendly) extraction processes. And the whole country benefits from social and other programs that are supported with the taxes that oil-related business activity sends to Ottawa.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s, John A. Macdonald saw the prairies as the (potential) breadbasket to the British Empire, with economic benefits for the whole country – but only if the grain could get to the sea. The government sponsored the construction of three transcontinental railways, including the CPR. People were needed, too, so Macdonald encouraged prairie farm settlement with the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. These efforts had their own controversies, and plenty of opponents and hurdles to overcome – but there can be no denying the importance and long-term value of such nation-building. It has ensured prosperity for many, and for generations.

Now, once again, we need access to the sea.

And we have learned a great deal from our mistakes. We have far better labour protection and workplace safety laws now than when the railway was being built. We understand the need for environmental sustainability – indeed, this is a huge opportunity. We can, and should, become the world leader in the technologies for spill prevention, spill containment and remediation, both land and sea. Although it has taken far too long, we now appreciate the importance of economic and social partnership with aboriginal groups. The irony is that the required social license should now be easier, not harder to achieve, because Northern Gateway, with the conditions met, will be more environmentally sound, more socially responsible and far better for the aboriginal groups involved than any other major nation-building project before it.

Northern Gateway offers an extraordinary, historical opportunity to provide economic benefits for the whole country. Done well environmentally, with the engagement and support of the aboriginal groups involved, it can also be something of which we can all be proud.

Interact with The Globe