One of British Columbia’s sharpest voices on democracy and the environment has drawn the nightmare scenario facing the Liberal Party of Canada in the next general election if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau puts the federal government’s weight behind Houston-based Kinder Morgan’s declared intention to begin work next month on its incompletely-approved Trans Mountain bitumen pipeline expansion.
The line was vetted under discredited rules put in place by the previous Conservative government, but approved last year by Trudeau’s cabinet and subsequently by the British Columbia government of former Premier Christy Clark. Some pro-fossil voices have argued that federal approval implies an obligation on the government’s part to go to bat for the company if its project faces opposition—as it does in B.C., where the recently sworn-in NDP government has said it will intervene against the project at each remaining regulatory opportunity.
The interpretation of federal obligation has sparked scenarios, heavily promoted in fossil resistance social media circles, of a federal government throwing its full weight against pipeline resisters. Former journalist Kai Nagata, now the sharp-penned spokesperson for the Dogwood Initiative, sketches what that might mean for Trudeau’s government in an election expected in two years’ time.
If the Texas company does begin construction in September, as it has said it will, and does receive federal backing to force its construction crews past resistance, “that’s when the arrests will start—and carry on right through the 2019 election,” Nagata writes. “Along the Thompson, Coldwater and Fraser rivers, Kinder Morgan will face Indigenous people determined to defend their drinking water—like the Lakota Sioux at Standing Rock, but across a vast geographic area.”
“Others will turn to civil disobedience if First Nations ask for their support. How many priests, ex-soldiers, or schoolteachers is Trudeau willing to see shot with plastic bullets, pepper-sprayed, bitten by dogs, soaked with water cannons, or carried off in zip ties?” Nagata asks, evoking a perhaps extreme state of repression.
“Over the next two years, how many people will have their phones tapped, their emails read, their doors staved in by police battering rams?”
But high-profile conflict with First Nations and fossil resisters will just be the beginning of the Liberals’ woes under that scenario, Nagata argues, not the end.
Trudeau’s party did not win its electoral majority in 2015 on the basis of defection from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, he notes, whose vote largely held. Rather, Trudeau was able to assemble a coalition of traditional Liberals, other voters who were appalled by Harper’s record, progressives seeking an opening for policy change, and youth.
Especially among the young, turnout surged. “Overall, 2.9 million more Canadians cast a ballot in 2015 than in 2011. That’s what undid the Conservatives,” Nagata asserts.
“To repeat his 2015 majority win,” he argues, “Trudeau must turn out young and progressive voters—again. If young people don’t feel inspired the second time around, or progressive voters migrate back to the NDP and Greens, the Liberals start losing seats.”
In an additional, painfully ironic twist for the Grits, “because he opted to keep Canada’s first-past-the-post voting system rather than something more proportional, the Liberals are particularly vulnerable to concentrated regional backlash. In some places the fragmentation of Trudeau’s progressive alliance will re-elect Conservatives. Other places the NDP or Greens may punch through.”
All of which leads to a stark numeric reality: “The Liberals need only lose 14 seats out of 338 for their majority to crumble,” Nagata points out. “17 are at stake in B.C. alone.” Which means that, unless Trudeau has the stomach to back the Texas pipeliner “all the way,” Nagata concludes, “he’d better hope Kinder Morgan is bluffing” about its September construction plans.