Canadians are having a referendum in 2014. It hasn’t been properly announced – so it goes under Prime Minister Harper. The question being put to us is simple: Do you want Canada’s uncertain future to be fuelled by more and more bitumen or greater ingenuity?
Just as the referendum isn’t public knowledge, the voting system isn’t clear. How we each try to influence the decision about the Northern Gateway pipeline is perhaps the closest thing we have to a ballot box. Obviously the oil and gas industry’s investments and profit forecasts have legs in the campaign. Harper has spent much of his political capital on razing Canada’s scientific rigour to pave the way for rapid economic gains. A Joint Review Panel gave the project three thumbs up despite absorbing more than 1,000 statements and 175,000 pages of evidence, much of it opposed to the pipeline. First Nations whose land would be invaded by Northern Gateway’s proposed route have vowed to stop it, and civil disobedience seems to be emerging as their hardest currency.
As the lines drawn between Northern Gateway and its opponents become more entrenched, complaints of dysfunction in the approval process become rare common ground. Both sides are also well aware that this pipeline poses risks with consequences we can’t afford.
Enbridge knows where and how much an oil spill could devastate remote subsistence communities and the mountain passes, forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes in BC and Alberta that the pipeline would cross. What the company doesn’t know is how to prevent or control the disasters yet to come.
In this issue, Mark Brooks finds proof of our shared unpreparedness – and Enbridge’s – in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, where a small community is still dealing with residual damage from one of the largest land-based oil spills in US history in 2010. What we’ve gleaned from the experience is hardly reassuring: bitumen is incredibly tough to clean up, even in accessible places; its toxic impacts on human and ecosystem health will take decades to understand; Enbridge (and its contemporaries) can’t handle the pipeline incidents or natural and social collateral damage it creates.
Decisions about legacy-building energy infrastructure are undoubtedly complicated. So too are the ground-level realities that divide our choices between security and resiliency. In her story about the damming of Québec’s Romaine River, Alexis Lathem quotes a miner from one of the Innu communities whose territory has been deformed forever by hydroelectric development: “It breaks my heart to see what they are doing to the land. But I have to support my family.”
We can all identify with this perspective. But it’s also the angle our government uses to sell Northern Gateway’s job-creation potential over its nature-crushing potential. Humans have culled and mined resources from our habitats for centuries, but never before has it been so intensive and extensive, nor have we ever been so aware of the looming downside. We know that choosing how to manage, supply and bankroll our natural capital in the age of climate degradation requires so much more than well-rehearsed talking points. We’ve all got skin in this game; if it’s not our own land or livelihood under immediate threat, it’s our identities on the line.
Alexis Lathem’s story explores a question that taps deeply into the conflicts that unravel from our choices. “Memory is geography,” she writes. “Who, then, will the Innu be without their land?”
I’ve got a related question for the PM: Who will Canadians be with only our jobs, pipelines and energy bills?
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