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Politics Trans Mountain dispute wraps Meech Lake, Oka and FLQ into one complex crisis

The Trudeau government is confronting a dilemma that wraps the Meech Lake Accord, the standoff at Oka and the FLQ kidnapping into one impossibly complex crisis. And from this vantage point, there appears to be no way out.

Justin Trudeau doubled down on Monday on his commitment to seeing the Trans Mountain pipeline completed after Kinder Morgan suspended work on the project because of opposition from environmental and Indigenous protesters and the British Columbia government.

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The Prime Minister told reporters he had given that message, yet again, to B.C. Premier John Horgan. “I impressed upon him the importance of working together and respecting the federal responsibility for protecting things that are in the national interest,” Mr. Trudeau said. “This is a pipeline in the national interest and it will get built.”

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Except that the federal government has little ability to back up that statement. In which case, the Liberals are staring at a political and policy failure of epic proportions.

Mr. Trudeau’s declaration – and previous statements by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr - were intended to reassure investors that Ottawa has both the authority and the will to back the pipeline, despite the opposition of protesters and the B.C. government.

It was a modern equivalent of Pierre Trudeau saying “Just watch me,” when a reporter asked how far the government was prepared to go to confront separatist terrorism in Quebec during the FLQ crisis.

But Mr. Trudeau’s commitment will not be enough for investors who fear losing billions of dollars in the face of endless legal challenges aimed at delaying the pipeline.

To reassure those investors, the Alberta and federal governments might convince or force the British Columbia government to end its opposition.

And it could offer financial guarantees to Kinder Morgan or even invest in the pipeline directly. The message would be: Don’t worry. Your money is safe. We are prepared to back the project with federal funds to make sure it gets built.

Those two measures, combined, might overcome provincial opposition and legal challenges. But that won’t stop the protesters.

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As with the Oka crisis of 1990, involving Mohawks opposed to a golf-course expansion, or the 1993 protests over logging in B.C.’s Clayoquot Sound, a government faces determined opposition from activists who appear willing to obstruct the pipeline by physically and illegally placing themselves in its path.

Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, doubts that Mr. Trudeau is willing to see hundreds or thousands of protesters arrested day after week after month. “I don’t believe he has the stomach to see it through,” he said on Monday.

After all, the Prime Minister is sympathetic to environmental causes and has promised a respectful nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations. This is his political base standing in front of those bulldozers.

At the root of this dispute is Mr. Trudeau’s approach to federalism. Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper practised a form of passive federalism, in which he kept Ottawa out of areas of provincial jurisdiction.

That approach produced a decade of relative harmony in federal-provincial relations, but it failed to get a pipeline built.

Justin Trudeau’s more activist approach to federalism led to reforms in pensions and health care. But then he proposed a grand bargain, his equivalent of Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake Accord, which sought to revise the constitution to meet Quebec’s demands.

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Mr. Trudeau’s bargain, in essence, involved imposing a national carbon tax to fight global warming, in exchange for which Alberta would get an oil pipeline to tidewater.

As with Meech, things looked promising at the start. But also as with Meech, provincial elections upended the deal. An election in B.C. produced a minority NDP government, supported by the Green Party, that opposes Trans Mountain. Future elections in Ontario and Alberta threaten to undermine a national consensus on the carbon tax.

How serious is this? Well, apart from the damage to the oil industry if the pipeline doesn’t get built and the fury in Alberta that would result, consider the political consequences.

Mr. Trudeau promised to fight global warming and to renew relations with Indigenous Canadians, while also protecting the economy.

On this day, his government has placed itself firmly against environmental and Indigenous protesters, the carbon tax is at risk and the Trans Mountain pipeline, which is vital to the future of the energy sector, is on the brink of being cancelled.

Other than that, everything is under control.

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