Complex Questions

Do our opinions about the Canada GasLink Pipeline align with the facts?

The recent blockades of railways across Canada by opponents of the Canada GasLink Pipeline (CGL) in northern B.C. raise interesting and important questions. The historian in me wonders why matters that generate no public discussion at one time, engender extraordinary controversy just a few years later. Until the 1960s, Canadians expected downhill ski resorts and golf courses to be constructed and expanded in national parks. Then – suddenly – proposals to expand resorts at Lake Louise Ski and Sunshine (both in Banff National Park) in the 1970s and 1980s generated enough controversy that the organizers of the Calgary Olympics of 1988 did not plan any events in the park. Between 2006 and 2008, when the capacity of the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMX) was significantly increased, I wondered, during my frequent drives between Edmonton and Prince George, why there was little protest over the deforested swath of land created through Jasper National and Mount Robson Provincial Parks. Only 12 years later, opposition to the twinning of the TMX may make further expansion impossible. Indeed, going forward it seems that any proposal to build or expand pipelines will face vigorous protest.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons to support or oppose the CGL. But one’s opinion should be an informed one. If your position is based primarily on environmental grounds, did you form your opinion on the facts? While surveys suggest that most Canadians support the CGL, if that is true, the supporters were generally quieter than the opponents during the weeks of the blockades. Surveys also suggest that some opponents of the CGL conflated the expansion of the TMX with the construction of the CGL. These are distinctly different projects. The CGL would transport natural gas from northeastern British Columbia to Kitimat, while the TMX would twin an existing oil pipeline between Alberta and Burnaby, significantly expanding export opportunities for Alberta’s oil sands. You can legitimately oppose all expansion of the hydrocarbon economy on environmental grounds, but I fear that some people oppose the CGL mistakenly thinking that it is an oil pipeline. On the other hand, some people assume that, if the project has passed all the legal tests, and if the project promises good jobs for people, we ought not to stand in the way. Open debate on the issue is important.

Legitimate disagreement
During the past weeks, people often said they supported the Wetʼsuwetʼen in their protest of the pipeline, or, if they were more aware of the complexities, that they supported the Wetʼsuwetʼen hereditary chiefs. But there has been little public discussion about a theme that goes back as far as Europe’s first encounter with North America – the use of indigenous people by non-indigenous people to their own ends. Neither has there been a discussion about the legitimacy of hereditary leaders. If we agree that political power should be inherited among the Wetʼsuwetʼen, do we also wish to live in a political system like that? If we reject the position that political power should be inherited, why have so many of us articulated support for the hereditary chiefs? On the other hand, it is not clear whether a majority of the Wetʼsuwetʼen do support the pipeline. Have the elected band leaders misread the sentiments of their people? 

I have heard people describe Wetʼsuwetʼen supporters of the CGL as “sell-outs,” as if any “authentic” indigenous person would oppose the project. But I have also heard people imply that the Wetʼsuwetʼen should support a project that may bring employment and other benefits to their communities, and to reduce the number of their members reliant on government support. We ought to acknowledge that disagreement on the CGL is as legitimate within the Wetʼsuwetʼen community as it is among other Canadians. We should avoid putting the Wetʼsuwetʼen in our own boxes, and always pray that, in the long term, the Wetʼsuwetʼen people benefit from how the events will unfold. 

  • Ted researches and teaches Indigenous and environmental history of the University of Northern British Columbia. He is a member of the Prince George Christian Reformed Church.

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