B.C. pipeline fight a test of Trudeau’s national parenting prowess

Families feud.

What they dispute is almost never as important as how they settle. But there is more to the conflict between the sibling provinces of B.C. and Alberta than the aim of resolution. There is principle involved in the fight.

The wicked-fast volume-raising of words and deeds – so testy, we seem ready to stop playing each other’s NHL teams (not a bad idea this season) – would not have happened had the parent long ago taken charge of the household.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to know when he decided more than a year ago not to kibosh Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that it would be the opposite of the gift that keeps on giving. There would be much, much, much more to come in months and years ahead to sap, sap, sap his government, its support in this province and its national and global reputation.

Sure, cynics argued, courts would squash Trans Mountain one day, anyway, so Trudeau could then have most of his cake and mostly eat it, too. He could plausibly say he had fought for it, but look, the judges say it’s not proceeding, so let’s move on and not further disturb peoplekind.

He did not plan on John Horgan and Andrew Weaver as a tag team. But he had to really know when the BC NDP and Greens inked their Confidence and Supply Agreement that “using every tool” within government’s grasp to stop the pipeline would involve delays and reviews and bureaucracy to rag the puck.

True, the Ottawa-Victoria back channels were occupied in short order with carrots to tempt a wayward horse – a $1.5 billion coastal protection plan, new fisheries legislation and strengthened environmental reviews among them. But it isn’t working and won’t.

Nor does it quell the questions of where and when Ottawa’s stick emerges. Be clear: tough talk about litigating constitutional abrogation is simply that, for the time being. The review John Horgan announced of oil spill risks is a nuisance but not illegal and certainly not easily undone. The plan to reduce bitumen shipments is simply that, for the time being, until it turns real.

Trudeau can say he will stand up for the national interest, but for the time being he has no legal option but to sit still. Even so, much as Rachel Notley’s office is lost if the pipeline is lost, do not underestimate what Trudeau has at stake.

Even a pipeline victory for him threatens Lower Mainland seats in 2019. But he needs the pipeline to secure Alberta’s involvement in his ambitious carbon-tax scheme as part of his climate change plans. For those spoils to flow, the oil must flow.

He will be neutered if any province can push back on a federal project it does not love. He will lose face internationally if any seeming dithering proves to be the last straw on a major investment – not to mention it will shred his global climate change cred. And he will be hounded by United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney if Notley is defeated at the polls. Those are scenes of his future nightmares.

Who knows what Ottawa might do to B.C. to teach a lesson? Ease up on port money for the Asia-Pacific strategy? Repeal its offer to increase its transit investment?

The short-term tussle is going to be messy: smuggling Okanagan wine into Alberta in Napa Valley labels, sneaking a Grade A steak onto the grill, changing your licence plate as you cross the border on Highway 1, sitting on your hands when the Canucks tickle the twine at the Saddledome. If the B.C. wine ban extends to craft beer, I hazard a guess it will not sprawl to B.C. bud.

Silliness aside, though, it is ludicrous that businesses with nothing to do with the dispute – that likely support Trans Mountain, as do most businesses – are caught up in the political self-preservations of Trudeau, Horgan and Notley. Business can rightly claim left-leaning leaders treat commerce lightly.

The pipeline – its approval, now its stalwart support – is Justin Trudeau’s most serious test of nation building and nation parenting. As they say in gymnastics, he had better nail the landing. 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.