Northern Gateway pipeline at centre of controversy
A good friend of mine grew up beside the St Lawrence near Cornwall. The St Lawrence Seaway was being built, and the family’s beloved summer place had been expropriated to accommodate it. Upset, the boy wondered why his father accepted the loss with such equanimity.
His answer, which so struck my friend and me, was essentially this: The Seaway is a grand project that will benefit people in many parts of this great country that has given us so much. Yes, we will lose something we care about and that is reason to be sad. But when you set against that the progress for the country and all those who will be made better off, it is something that we should support. That’s what being Canadian means.
What brought this story to mind was the news this week of B.C. Premier Christie Clark’s list of conditions for giving her province’s “permission” for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline to cross B.C. to the coast. This pipeline will allow western Canada’s oil to reach Asian markets, where it would fetch much higher prices than in North America.
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I won’t bore you with the conditions, most of which aim at ensuring the pipeline is subject to stringent rules about environmental protection and B.C. pays no part of any bill to clean up any spills or other mishaps. The objective is fair enough, although as we’ll see, B.C. is not the government that can or should be setting those standards.
Beyond that, B.C. wants a share of Alberta’s tax revenues resulting of its ownership of the oil that comes out of the ground there. Clark’s argument is that British Columbians are shouldering most of the risk of spills and environmental damage, while most of the economic benefits flow to Alberta. The premier, in a phrase usually cloaking larcenous intent, wants her province’s “fair share”. No dough, no go is her motto.
What’s this got to do with the St Lawrence Seaway? Everything.
Nation-building cannot be held hostage to every grasping local interest. The Seaway benefits some communities hugely, others not at all and for yet others it is a nuisance. Railways pass through hundreds of communities in Canada where they never stop, and yet those communities run the risk of noise pollution, collisions and catastrophic spills of chemicals and other toxic substances.
But we don’t allow provinces to throw up customs booths at their borders and collect taxes to allow them to get their “fair share” of other people’s goods. That’s what countries too often do to each other and the result is the collective impoverishment of the world.
This is exactly what Canada was supposed to prevent. In 1867 we created a national government and parliament to represent all Canadians and to take decisions in the national interest, not the interests of individual provinces or groups.
We empowered that government to create, for example, infrastructure of national significance, in defiance of petty local interests trying to extort booty from other regions. Manitoba, for instance, didn’t have the power to stop the CPR from crossing its territory until it got its “fair share” of the wealth that would be created. Ottawa could do it without provincial consent and had that power for a very good reason: the railway doesn’t cross Manitoba or B.C. or Quebec. It crosses Canada.
Clark thinks the pipeline comes from Alberta and passes through B.C. Legally, constitutionally and economically, however, as soon as it crosses a provincial boundary, it ceases to be a provincial matter; it goes from one part of Canada to another. Ottawa makes the rules, in this case mostly through the National Energy Board, and generally very sound rules they are too. And by the way, Canada gets the revenue to match this responsibility. Over a third of the taxes generated by oil and gas development go to Ottawa, not Alberta, paying for services in every part of the country, including B.C.
B.C. will benefit from this approach when the time comes to ship its Peace River natural gas to Alberta to fuel the oil sands extraction process. Occasionally we regrettably fail to uphold this standard, like when, in the 1960s, Ottawa allowed Quebec to rake off all the economic benefit of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Churchill Falls hydro-electric project. That was to abet an injustice for which Newfoundland is still paying dearly, all because Ottawa shamefully preferred politics to its nation-building responsibilities.
Clark can bluster about Northern Gateway needing provincial permits too, but the fact is that Ottawa has the sole power to authorize this pipeline and the courts will take a dim view of a province trying to achieve indirectly what the Constitution denies it the power to do directly.
This is both a cost and a benefit of being Canadian. Long may it be so.
A native British Columbian, Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.