For as long as I can remember, there have been jokes about the issue of Canadian identity. From Canadian Bacon with Jon Candy, to Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas slinging back stubbies in Strange Brew, we’ve become comfortable in our cliches. To some extent, there’s nothing wrong with having a good laugh at oneself. The issue is that we’ve rarely taken the conversation beyond jokes, and a superficial grasp of what Canada is, or could be. Over the course of the last month, our identity as a country has been brought into sharp focus. At issue, the relationship between energy development and climate change, and Canada’s ongoing struggle toward reconciliation with indigenous communities.
On January 5, Wet’suwet’en chiefs issued an eviction order to the RCMP and Coastal Gas Link to get off Wet’suwet’en territory. Many Canadians were left scratching their heads – didn’t the communities agree to the project? Well, yes and no. The Wet’suwet’en band councils agreed, the hereditary chiefs did not. What’s the difference? The band councils are elected and represent the reserves, the chiefs are unelected and represent the larger picture of Wet’suwet’en territory and authority. The process of consultation did not allow for this difference.
Herein lies an element of Canada long shoved to the back burner – the role of indigenous communities. People looking to the situation with the Wet’suwet’en may quickly come to the conclusion that much of the current protest is more to do with internal band politics than Canada writ-large. To some extent, there is some truth to this. It will be for the Wet’suwet’en to determine their own governance, and whose voice yields how much authority. However, Canada is a country that has developed it’s institutional structures largely absent any indigenous voice. What is happening across Canada, the rail blockades, is simply that voice beginning to insert itself into the conversation. The sad part, is that if Canadians opposed to the rail blockades were to hold a conference on the matter, ten bucks says they start it off with a land acknowledgement – cause that’s about as much reconciliation as most people can handle.
In addition to a lack of understanding of indigenous communities, is a failure to understand the issues at play when it comes to further energy development and climate change. The conversation around energy development has been framed, especially in Alberta, as oil production being absolutely necessary for long term economic viability. The truth is far different.
Those arguing against further investment in Canada’s oil production are not all left-wing, Bernie-loving, granola-eating radicals. Some of them have names like JP Morgan, and Canada’s former bank governor (now head of the Bank of England) Mark Carney. As Scott Gilmore pointed out his recent MacClean’s piece, it’s not that investors are shy of investing in Canadian oil, they’re shy of investing in oil – period. Increasing concerns over climate change, and oil prices not predicted to return to north of $80/barrel means major investors are looking for the exits when it comes to fossil fuels.
Cabinet MPs in Ottawa breathed a collective sigh of relief when Teck Resources pulled the plug on their proposed development in Northern Alberta, and saved politicians in Ottawa from having to make a decision. Teck’s CEO, Don Lindsay, cited a lack of coherent climate policy as creating an environment that made the project impossible. He’s right. He may have also run the numbers. Teck’s initial proposal was based on oil at $95/barrel. At $50/barrel, the Frontier mine project fails the basic profit litmus test for development.
Although Donny left out the bit about economic viability, he was spot-on when it came to Canada getting it’s shit together on the climate file. At the moment, conservative parties at both the federal and provincial levels are fighting tooth-and-nail against any proposed carbon price. While Alberta’s Jason Kenny recently celebrated an Alberta court ruling that stated a federally imposed carbon price would be a breach of provincial sovereignty, even executives like Don Lindsay are saying it would be the best way to reel in emissions. The issue at the core of the partisan politics is a lack of leadership – at all levels of government.
Last fall’s election, ‘a miss on an empty net’, made clear the Conservative party is off-track, and things aren’t looking like they are about to clear up. The conservative leadership race is turning into a coronation for Peter McKay. Without a fulsome internal debate, conservatives are robbing themselves of the opportunity to discuss, in depth, issues like energy, climate, and yes, reconciliation. Instead, it seems the party leaders are willing to play the role of climate deniers in the hopes enough of their base hold fast.
In the meantime, such short-sighted partisan strategy will only continue to polarize the discussion on all issues central to the future of this country. What’s needed is leadership. Ottawa needs to lay out a comprehensive plan to overhaul Alberta’s (and the rest of Canada’s) dependence on fossil fuels. Carbon pricing is a key tool that can and should be used, but it can not be the only element in the equation. At the moment, carbon pricing is all many Albertans are hearing about. What they need to hear is how they will still have jobs, be able to get training for a new economy, and be able to pay their bills.
We also need institutional reform. In addition to electoral reform, we need a serious discussion on a Nation-to-Nation relationship with Canada’s indigenous communities. Ottawa and provincial governments need to stop playing zero-sum politics with First Nations and other indigenous groups. It’s time for those who were here first to have a real stake in this thing called Canada – even if that means this thing called Canada has to change.
In the end, cake is an either/or deal. You can’t eat it AND have it. Canada can no longer rely on an oil driven energy sector to produce good paying jobs and long term stability – especially as concerns around climate change continue to grow. Leaders can no longer maintain the pretence that climate change targets can be met while oil production and emissions increase. Importantly, our current governance structures, and decision making frameworks, need to be brought into line with articulated goals for indigenous reconciliation. The current ad-hoc consultation process is not enough. It’s tearing indigenous communities apart, and causing disagreement from coast to coast to coast. To put it simply, it’s time for Canada 2.0.