Martha Hall Findlay is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.
Are we a country?
At issue is far more than the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, or a spat between provinces. A fundamental underpinning of our confederation is at risk and the longer the federal government refuses to fight for it itself, the more our federation is diminished. The consequences for the country are dire.
Our 150th anniversary year had barely ended when the government of British Columbia decided, by refusing to allow the expansion of Kinder Morgan Canada Corp.'s Trans Mountain pipeline, that our constitution does not apply to it. Constitutionally, the project is a federal undertaking. It is national infrastructure, in the national interest. The B.C. government's action is not only unacceptable, it is more than a little rich coming from a province that, as a condition of joining confederation, insisted on getting national infrastructure – the railroad. Extending that national infrastructure through British Columbia to the sea allowed B.C. to be the gateway for the rest of Canada to the Pacific and beyond. Vancouver would not exist in any way resembling its success today without that connection from the rest of Canada. Grain, wood, fish, minerals, livestock, manufactured products and, yes, oil and gas – without the ability to transport the fruits of our labours across the country and beyond, in multiple directions, neither B.C. nor Canada as a whole would be as successful as we are, collectively, today. The key word is "collectively."
The drafters of our constitution 150 years ago understood the local pressures politicians faced, the temptation to succumb to them, but at the same time, the need to protect the national interest. Section 92 of the constitution sets out all of the provincial powers, but specifically reserves to the federal Parliament key jurisdiction over shipping lines, railways, canals, telegraphs and other works or undertakings (including, today, pipelines) that connect one province with any other, or beyond. They recognized that, as important as local matters can be (and how tempting they can be for political gain), they cannot be allowed to usurp national interests.
Someone needs to remind British Columbia – and all Canadians – of that. And that someone needs to be the federal government. The Prime Minister was recently quoted as saying, "I'm not going to opine on disagreements between the provinces." This is not – and must not be portrayed as – a battle between two provinces. This is about Canada. It is unfair, inappropriate and sets a dangerous precedent to have one province, in this case Alberta, defend what is in the national interest.
This is not just because the whole country benefits economically from our energy industries. This is because issues of national interest warrant national action. The consequences, if the federal government fails to take firm action now, will affect far more than any one industry or region.
This project and too many others have run into delay after delay after delay. Some for good reasons, and improvements have been made. That is how the system is supposed to work. But after all of the delays, all of the community-benefit money committed, all of the years of work to ensure economic participation by virtually all of the Indigenous communities involved (and obtaining their support) – it would be completely understandable if Kinder Morgan, like the proponents of Energy East, simply gave up.
We cannot let that happen. Not only would losing this particular piece of infrastructure have immediate negative consequences for the country, it would set a devastating precedent. Special-interest groups would feel empowered to ignore the law. And the message to any potential investor, domestic or foreign, would be that, like the so-called banana republics of the past, Canada cannot be trusted. The certainty so crucial for investment, already questionable, will be gone.
The Prime Minister has also suggested that if British Columbia prevents the pipeline expansion, the federal government will scrap the promised $1.5-billion Ocean Protection Plan. This is a mistake. First, because insisting on building something that is in the national interest should not need such a quid pro quo. But Canada's coastlines need the protection plan, regardless of whether project is completed. We need both. Neither should be dependent on the other.
The federal government has said it supports the Trans Mountain expansion But words alone are insufficient. It must act – and act now. This is about far more than a pipeline. It is whether we will stand up for some of the most basic elements of being a country. The federal government's job – the Prime Minister's job – is to protect and defend Canada, the prosperity of Canadians and to act in Canada's national interest. The country needs you to do so. Now, before we do our country irreparable harm.