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Canada's democratic deficit

Was the approval of Northern Gateway pipeline an authoritarian move by the Harper government?

Last updated: 26 Jun 2014 11:29
Kait Bolongaro

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.
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Most residents of British Columbia are against the Northern Gateway pipeline, writes Bolongaro [AP]

On June 17, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline. The announcement was delivered with little fanfare, in the form of a modest press release, an ironic gest considering its serious repercussions for the country and its citizens.

While political pundits speculated about the potential outcome, it appeared unlikely that Harper would reject the proposal. He previously hinted at his support for a pipeline through British Columbia, the westernmost province. While advocating for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, he spoke of the necessity of building pipelines to the west coast to attract new customers for Canadian oil during an interview with Bloomberg Television in 2011.

Given this public endorsement, it raises questions about the purpose of the review process. Were recommendations or other opinions considered prior to approving the Northern Gateway pipeline, or had the government already decided to support energy company Enbridge's bid before the fateful announcement, disregarding the outright rejection of the project by a sizable percentage of Canadian citizens?

Behind the mirage

Much of Canada's oil resources are in the form of bitumen, a viscous substance that must be diluted before transporting it. Northern Gateway is a twin-pipeline project. The first conduit would propel 193,000 barrels of diluent, a toxic liquid similar to gasoline, to Alberta to be mixed with the bitumen. The second pipeline would then send 525,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen to Kitimat, a marine port in British Columbia. According to researcher Dr Jeff Short, bitumen is more difficult to clean up than conventional oil and is more likely to cause spills or leaks in pipelines.

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The proposed pipeline is estimated to cost CAD$6.5bn ($6.07bn) and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Enbridge, the corporation responsible for its construction. Their eyes are gazing across the Pacific Ocean to lucrative Asian markets with climbing energy demands, in an effort to expand the oil sands to reduce dependency on the United States.

Prior to the federal government's blessing, the National Energy Board, an independent panel, conducted hearings about Northern Gateway around British Columbia for 18 months. Most of these events were closed to members of the general public, over concerns of "disruption". In other words, it was a mechanism to prevent citizens from presenting their concerns to the panel, stymieing a democratic consultation process and eliminating the possibility of dialogue between citizens, Enbridge and lawmakers.

Eventually, the board recommended the plan, with 209 conditions attached, stating that the potential economic benefits outweighed the risk to the environment. However, the body wasn't asked to take into consideration the impact of oil sands on climate change, despite numerous studies, including a recent report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, illustrate the already irreversible damage wreaked by fluctuating temperatures.

For the past several years, Enbridge has been conducting aggressive advertising campaigns in an attempt to woo British Columbians and First Nations to support their project. Their biggest argument is the supposed economic benefits for British Columbians. Enbridge boasts that 3,000 construction and 560 long-term positions that the pipeline would bring to the province, while a study dating from 2012 found that a single spill would wipe out all the economic benefits and destroy 4,000 livelihoods that depend mainly on fishing and tourism.

Canadians or lobbyists?

A recent Princeton University study determined that the current political system in the United States is more of an oligarchy than a democracy. Economic elites and business interests hold more sway over political decisions than the average person, which hold "little or no independent influence on government". Similar to its southern neighbour, the decision to approve the Northern Gateway pipeline is a reflection of the sad state of democracy in Canada, where the prime minister sides with oil industry lobbyists despite his responsibility to Canadians.

It is clear that Canadians, especially British Columbians, aren't enthusiastic about the project. While the figures vary, most residents from the province are either against Northern Gateway or want the project delayed according to a survey by Bloomberg-Nanos.

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In another poll conducted by Angus Reid Global, 58 percent of respondents prioritise environmental protection over economic benefits. Demonstrations across the province after the announcement also reveal the deep-seeded discontent with the decision of the government.

Aboriginal communities have been the most vocal opponents, actively fighting against the pipeline via legal channels and protests. More than 130 First Nations have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration, an indigenous law banning the oil sands and the construction of pipelines on their territory. Twenty-eight bands and three Aboriginal organisations have already vowed to challenge the approval in court. Some nations are even installing physical barriers to prevent Enbridge from trespassing on their territory, including installing a chain blocking access to traditional lands or a yarn blockade across the Douglas Channel, a signal that tankers aren't welcome.

The dozens of towns scattered along the proposed pipeline route have also rejected Northern Gateway. The Union of BC Municipalities, a voting body for all elected officials from cities across of British Columbia, refused to endorse the proposal, instead passing a resolution to ban oil tanker expansion projects. Four larger communities - Terrace, Prince Rupert, Smithers and Kitimat, the intended port for the super tankers bound for Asia - have rejected the plan.

Scientists are also lending their voices to the struggle. Some 300 experts from universities from around the world published an open letter to prime minister Harper pleading with him to reject the pipeline. They cited the flawed environmental review process of the National Energy Board and questioned why the panel did not articulate in what manner the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks, casting doubt on the soundness of science used to prove the safety of the pipelines.

Other opponents include environmental organisations, which have rallied against the project, being labelled so-called eco-terrorists in Canada's Counter-terrorism Strategy. Other political leaders have rejected the proposal and all three other political parties, including the opposition, have vowed to reverse the decision if elected in 2015. However, it remains to be proven that this is also little more than lip service.

Questioning democracy

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a democracy is defined as "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them". Harper and his cabinet have forgotten how this concept serves as the underpinning of Canadian society. By prioritising the interests of the wealthy few, the government is undermining democratic values. It is, in a sense, a form of political suicide, in such an unabashed casting aside of public opinion; however, a move which may hold no real repercussions.

Canada is often touted as a beacon of democracy to countries around the world, an example of good governance practices to be emulated and admired. However, how can Canada fill such a role if the government refuses to harken the voices of its own people? Instead of being exemplary, it is left appearing as little more than a hypocrite.

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.

Follow her on Twitter: @kbolongaro

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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