We’ve all heard by now that the Joint Review Panel (JRP) into the Enbridge Northern Gateway project has released its unsurprising approval of the project, albeit with a range of stipulations and conditions.
The narrative script of what has followed could have been written months ago by anyone with only a modest interest in the politics surrounding the approval process. A simple approval process it was – not a process to objectively weigh the merits and risks of the project – but a process to formulate the context wherein the pipeline could be built.
We may have to wait until next summer before we hear what the federal government does with the recommendation, but a pipeline to Kitimat has been all but promised to potential Asian markets already. Anyone hoping for a surprise decision from the federal end is the kind of naive optimist that even Voltaire could not have imagined.
The most interesting thing about the panel’s decision, from ringside anyway, is how the approval was couched in the form of a classical utilitarian paradox: the JRP concluded that it was in Canada’s greater interest for the project to be approved.
Critics have been quick to claim the JRP has ignored the will of not only the many – an assumed majority – of B.C.ers, but also the will of those potentially most affected by the proposal.
Residents of Northern B.C. have the most to lose should a pipeline pop a seam and dump toxic sludge into northern waterways and lakes, or if a tanker empties its contents in complex and fragile coastal waters.
First Nations, although included in the larger demographic of Northern B.C. residents, have a further unique claim to territorial interest. They did not come to Northern B.C. for commercial opportunity, or following westward expansion. As a people they were born here, and have relied on northern resources not as a means to develop capitol interests and shareholder value, but for their survival as a people.
The JRP heard all of this. To suggest that they missed it or that they didn’t listen misses the point. They heard it and they listened, but they decided it was in the interest of the many to subjugate the will of the few to the enormous economic interest of tarsand development.
That’s what governments often do, and the final federal decision is a foregone conclusion. There would probably be no railway to Prince Rupert if governments didn’t perform that utilitarian calculus. Massive projects will always hurt someone’s interests.
There may be calls for some kind of referendum on the matter. As interesting as it would be to know what the majority of northerners actually want if they were given the chance to cast a meaningful and confidential ballot, the idea is a dead end.
Even if the entire population of Northern B.C. voted against the project – and it wouldn’t – that would still represent a relatively small number in the context of ‘Canada’s interest’.
It would also ignore indigenous claims to title which should not be subject to the outcome of referendums. First Nations will probably be the most formidable roadblock to acting on the recommendations of the JRP. The only thing we can be absolutely sure of, should the feds approve the project, is that constitutional law will become the real locus of decision-making power.
That sets up a terrible situation for many residents of Northern B.C. If the project wasn’t divisive enough already, it will may soon pit residents against their federal and provincial governments, and leave those most affected by the project alienated, disenfranchised, and angry.
Nobody wants to be in the situation we’re in, whether pro-Enbridge or not.