Senate road show raises concerns over Bill C-69’s economic impact

2019 has been rough on the Justin Trudeau Liberals.

The prime minister has been accused of interfering in a criminal prosecution involving SNC-Lavalin. Even the Liberals most recent re-election budget has generated little interest from Canadians and, surprisingly, the media. Things aren’t so sunny in Trudeauland these days.

In the midst of all this, the government  is pursuing its legislative agenda and urging senators to pass Bill C-69, which seeks, among other things, to replace the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency with the Impact Assessment Agency and replace the National Energy Board with the Canadian Energy Regulator.

I bet many Canadians have never heard of C-69. Yet this bill has the potential of totally disrupting our energy and natural resources sectors. I don’t fault anyone for disregarding this legislation since it’s rather technical in nature with more than 350 pages. Quite honestly, it would probably put most people to sleep.

However, I urge Canadians to pay attention to it because its impacts are far-reaching. Bill C-69 (along with government bills C-48 and C-68) will further erode Canada’s competitiveness in terms of attracting capital into our resource development sector. It threatens the very fabric of our Canadian prosperity.

If Canada can’t get major projects off the ground – like pipelines, high-frequency trains, bridges, clean electricity projects and transmission lines, marine terminals – we risk serious harm to our economy. Naturally, this implies fewer good-paying, family-supporting jobs for Fred and Martha – your everyday Canadians – and less revenue from royalties and taxes to fund our country’s many social, health and education programs. And don’t get me started on trying to reduce Trudeau’s year-over-year deficits.

Senators recognize the significance of this bill and the sweeping impacts it can have on our economy and our environment, which is why we have taken the extraordinary step to take this bill on the road in the form of the Senate committee on energy, the environment and natural resources’ trip to Western Canada.

Some – like environmentalists who are likely concerned we will further expose the negative impacts of this bill – argue this decision to travel is unnecessary. I, on the other hand, feel this was the right decision considering the witness testimony we’ve heard in Ottawa.

In fact, the committee has already held more than 30 hours of hearings in Ottawa and heard from dozens of witnesses, including premiers and ministers, industry, Indigenous representatives and other stakeholders. Some of the testimony is seriously troubling.

Over the course of our meetings, many issues have been raised and given us much to consider in terms of amendments including on matters related to predictability and certainty for proponents; assessment timelines; regulatory independence; inefficient bureaucratic red tape; ministerial discretion; the lack of a designated project list; factors to be considered when assessing a project; poorly defined concepts; the removal of the standing test; and more.

For those who argue that Conservative Senators are stalling the passage of this bill, or that the committee doesn’t need to hear from so many witnesses, I would say that more than 40% of the witnesses who appeared at the House of Commons committee represented the government of Canada in some capacity.

To my astonishment, there were no pipeline companies, no port authorities, no natural gas companies and no resource sector service businesses or local mom-and-pop shops that would be affected by the bill. The Liberal-dominated committee heard from zero provincial governments. Of course, this does not surprise me. Based on my calculations, nine out of 10 provinces have concerns of various degree regarding this bill, some calling it unconstitutional and federal infringement on provincial jurisdiction and others calling for its outright defeat.

It has become increasingly clear that this bill must be further amended and Conservative senators are determined to make that happen – not as a delay tactic but rather as an attempt to partly satisfy some of the concerns we’ve heard and, ultimately, to try to make this work for Canada.

While the Ottawa bubble has been captivated by the SNC-Lavalin scandal, the prime minister has another thing coming if he thinks the Senate’s official Opposition will sit idle and let this high-consequence, high-controversy bill pass without putting the spotlight on its many flaws. After all, that’s the role of the Senate – to take a sober, second look at legislation and try to improve it. Bill C-69 needs serious improvement, and I’m committed to making it better because Canadians deserve better. •

Richard Neufeld is a senator for British Columbia. He is a member of three Senate committees: energy, the environment and natural resources; national finance; and Arctic. Prior to his appointment to the Senate in 2009, he served in the British Columbia legislative assembly from 1991 to 2008 as MLA for Peace River North. He was minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources from 2001 to 2009.