If you want to see what the future has in store for Justin Trudeau's pipeline dreams, just head to North Dakota. On a frigid stretch of prairie, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is waging an epic battle to stop an oil pipeline near its traditional lands. The protest has attracted a swelling tent city of indigenous people and environmental activists. Military veterans have vowed to act as human shields. The horses and the banners snapping in the breeze evoke another day and age – the Battle of the Little Big Horn comes to mind.
On Sunday, the Sioux won a major victory when the Department of the Army said it would reroute part of the pipeline. The war is far from over. But for now, the activists are celebrating as if they've slain Keystone XL all over again.
Trans Mountain's operators cheerily say they'll have shovels in the ground by next September. Good luck with that. The future will probably be more like North Dakota – a bitter, drawn-out battle fought in the courts and on the ground – only this time in the streets of Burnaby and Vancouver.
This time, it probably won't be First Nations who pose the biggest obstacle. B.C.'s 200 or so native groups are hopelessly divided, and many on the Trans Mountain route have already struck deals. The toughest opposition will come from the settler population of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, who are perhaps the most eco-conscious folks on the planet. These include Vancouver's mayor, Gregor Robertson, and some of the Prime Minister's own MPs. To them, the beautiful B.C environment is a sacred trust. Many of them believe that pipelines are an existential threat to life on Earth.
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For these people, there is no hope of compromise. Better consultation processes won't change their minds, and better safety measures won't reassure them. No carbon taxes or renewable-energy investments will ever be good enough to gain the "social licence" that Mr. Trudeau has been counting on to gain approval for new pipelines. They don't care about Premier Rachel Notley's stringent new regulations or tough new carbon taxes in Alberta. As they see it, they are being made to sacrifice their environment on the altar of Alberta's economy, and they think that's a lousy deal. How to manage this impassioned minority will be Mr. Trudeau's greatest challenge.
Mr. Trudeau's idea of "social licence" has been central to his strategy of linking the environment to economic growth. To most Canadians, it's a reasonable one. Most people are willing to sacrifice (a bit) for the environment, so long as they don't have to sacrifice prosperity and jobs. They want the economic benefits of pipelines, but they also want them to be built and operated safely. Trans Mountain probably strikes them as a reasonable trade-off.
But who, really, has the power to grant social licence? Is it "most Canadians"? Or is it the people who feel most immediately affected by the prospect of endless tanker traffic despoiling Burrard Inlet? That has always been unclear. And like the handsome suitor with his vows of admiration, Mr. Trudeau has over-promised and under-delivered. Environmentalists imagined he was one of them, until they discovered that he's not. First Nations thought he meant it when he said his government would implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And I'm sure he was sincere – in a symbolic kind of way.
You sometimes get the feeling that Mr. Trudeau really does believe his sunny ways can square all circles. Alas, they can't. Environmentalists and lots of native groups will never be happy with this deal. They won't stop fighting – legally, at least. This will be a litigators' dream for many years to come. As The Globe's Shawn McCarthy wrote Monday, the show's not over till the Supreme Court sings – and the Supreme Court has a record of extremely powerful decisions in favour of First Nations rights (see Delgamuukw v. British Columbia).
Will we wind up with another Oka, with armed confrontations between protesters and police? Not likely. Elizabeth May might go to jail for civil disobedience, which would be entertaining. But we may not see a pipeline any time soon, either. Perhaps there'll be shovels in the ground by election season in 2019. Personally, I wouldn't bet on it.