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Opinion Where’s the limit for protesters, politicians in B.C’s pipeline war?

New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart recently sent out a letter to supporters, updating them on the results of a massive telephone town hall he'd arranged about stopping the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Marshalling opposition to the project has become an all-consuming passion of Mr. Stewart, who represents suburban Burnaby, B.C., where the pipeline would conclude and massive ocean-going tankers would fill up with Alberta crude.

During the town hall, participants could use their telephone key pads to indicate which of three political actions – writing a letter to their MP, attending a public protest or engaging in acts of civil disobedience – they would support. Forty-three per cent said they would be prepared to be arrested in the name of disrupting the pipeline – a result that seemed to delight the Burnaby South MP.

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"I think it is encouraging so many are so opposed to this project that they are willing to take action – especially when it comes to risking arrest to stop this horrible project," Mr. Stewart wrote in his letter.

To me, that sounds like a member of Parliament countenancing, if not downright inviting, people to break the law in the name of halting this pipeline. While civil disobedience has become a form of protest tolerated in our society, most Canadians likely wouldn't be okay with elected politicians condoning this behaviour.

When I spoke to Mr. Stewart by phone this week, the enthusiasm he expressed in his letter toward unlawful protests was nowhere to be found. Rather, he said the letter was intended merely to demonstrate just how serious people are about stopping Trans Mountain.

"I'm not running out and saying, 'Go get arrested,'" Mr. Stewart said. "What I'm saying is let's stop the pipeline, figure out what you're comfortable with, and here's some info about the different options available."

Again, that is not the impression one is left with after reading his letter. Nonetheless, what he has to say about the potential for conflict – if and when construction of this pipeline begins in earnest – is worth hearing.

Right now, the professional protesters who oppose it have mostly kept their powder dry. (There were skirmishes with police in 2014 that led to more than 100 arrests but that was a mere prelude to what's coming).

The war is being fought at a political level now. Kinder Morgan isn't likely to start building until outstanding court cases are resolved and interprovincial disputes ironed out. No one knows for sure how long that will take. But if construction does go ahead, things could get ugly, fast.

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"I think people have to know this could be violent," Mr. Stewart says. "I have talked to First Nations whose nine reserves the pipeline will go through. They've told me that without consent, there is nine Okas right there."

Of course, we all remember the 1990, 78-day standoff between Mohawks and the people of Oka, Que., which resulted in one fatality. Imagining that the protests around Trans Mountain will result in similar anger and frustration is not difficult.

Federal officials have already raised the spectre of the army coming in to enforce the law if protesters get out of hand. Mr. Stewart, a former public policy professor, says the government could only do that through the Emergencies Act, which is effectively a newer version of the War Measures Act.

"When you trigger that, what happens is the federal government turns control over to the army, to the generals," Mr. Stewart said. "When people say they want [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau to act, well, they'd better be careful what they wish for. This is where this is going, I can tell you right now."

Dismissing Mr. Stewart's warnings as hyperbole would be easy, but that would be a mistake. There have been environmental groups gearing up for this fight for years. It's given them a reason for being.

One gets the impression they'll be disappointed if Kinder Morgan pulls the plug on the project before they get a chance to live out their battle plans.

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One day, in the not too distant future, Mr. Trudeau might be asked how far he'll go to stop the demonstrations surrounding the Trans Mountain pipeline. And like his father before him, he may invite us all to just watch him.

Justin Trudeau lost his cool with hecklers at a rowdy town hall meeting in Nanaimo, B.C., on Friday, and had several removed by police. Critics of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion loudly interrupted the prime minister at the event The Canadian Press
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