Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr made a promise to an Indigenous chief whose nation lies on the front lines of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion, and he intends to keep it.
It was a promise to protect her nation's territory, he told National Observer, during an interview on Thursday.
Carr has spent a lot of time with Maureen Thomas, chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, over the last few years and continues to engage with her, despite an ongoing legal battle over the federal government’s approval of the controversial west coast pipeline expansion project.
“I was very much involved in developing personal relationships with Indigenous leaders, particularly with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and have developed a personal relationship with the chief,” Carr said from his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa.
"I have visited the community. I have spent considerable time with her, as recently as a number of weeks ago, and she is a wonderful person and leader."
Trans Mountain in limbo
The Trans Mountain expansion's future is now up in the air following an ultimatum issued in April by Texas-based Kinder Morgan, which threatened to withdraw from the project by May 31 if stakeholders cannot resolve uncertainty that has been caused by opposition in B.C.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told National Observer in a separate interview in February that approving the pipeline was part of a “trade-off” to gain Alberta’s support for a national climate change strategy.
But when asked about this “trade off,” Carr didn’t say if the government had consulted the Tsleil-Waututh about its larger climate change objectives in the context of its Trans Mountain decision. Instead, he stressed the promise he made to Thomas about two years earlier.
“There was a very solemn moment I shared with Chief Thomas,” Carr recounted. “As we were plying the waters of the Burrard Inlet together two summers ago, I said, ‘Chief, let's promise each other that we will leave your backyard better than we found it.’
"And I have had conversations with her since then and we have talked about it again, and I am confident that we will leave her backyard better than we found it, which is absolutely consistent with the Seven Generation values of Indigenous peoples.”
While a few dozen First Nations have signed financial benefit agreements with Kinder Morgan in support of the new pipeline, the Tsleil-Waututh and dozens of other nations along its path oppose it. They say the federal government failed in its legal duty to consult them about the project's impacts on their rights, land and water.
Some Tsleil-Waututh members have also been on the front lines of direct action in defence of their territory, supporting nearly 200 protesters who have been arrested for allegedly violating a B.C. Supreme Court injunction that ordered people not to disrupt Trans Mountain activity at its construction site in Burnaby, B.C.
"If you listen carefully to what she (Thomas) says about this project, she says that they don't demonstrate," Carr said. "They assert in a court of law what they believe to be their rights, and they have done that. But they do not condone the protests. At the same time, they're not telling people what to do, but it's not sanctioned."
If built, the new project would triple the current volume of fuel shipped on the existing Trans Mountain system, increasing the total to up to 890,000 barrels of heavy oil from Alberta’s oilsands every day. This would result in a seven-fold increase of oil tanker traffic off the coast of Burnaby, in Metro Vancouver, which lies in the unceded territory of the Tsleil-Waututh and other nations, whose land was taken by Canada without any treaty or agreement.
National Observer sought comment from Thomas on this story, but was redirected to a Feb. 6 statement from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust.
“We respect that all residents and TWN members have the right to voice their concerns and act according to their own beliefs, and while direct action has played a vital role in moments of important social change, Tsleil-Waututh Nation Chief and Council are focused on the legal challenge that is currently being considered by the Federal Court of Appeals,” Thomas said in the release, before the conflict near the terminal began to escalate.
“Tsleil-Waututh Nation are the People of the Inlet and it is our sacred obligation to protect the water. In our varied opposition to Kinder Morgan, we are many people paddling different canoes in the same direction.”
This project 'will help us'
A spokesman for the nation said none of its members have been arrested yet, but at least one attempted to defy the court injunction on April 7, along with other Indigenous leaders. Company officials didn’t ask police to enforce the injunction during that action, and one day later, announced their ultimatum. Non-essential spending on the project was immediately suspended and a decision would be made by May 31 on whether to withdraw.
While the legal challenges launched by First Nations may represent the biggest obstacle for the Trans Mountain expansion, the company has made little reference to Indigenous people in its recent threat to cancel the project.
“It's become clear this particular investment may be untenable for a private party to undertake,” Kinder Morgan CEO Steve Kean said Wednesday during a conference call for investors and shareholders.
“The events of the last 10 days have confirmed those views. We pointed out there are significant differences between governments, those differences are outside of our ability to resolve. We are continuing our stakeholder discussions between now and May 31 and we're looking for a way forward on this project.”
While a “private party” may not be able to proceed with the project on its own, the Trudeau and Rachel Notley governments have launched financial negotiations with the company to help persuade it to stay at the table.
"Moving product through a pipeline is much safer than moving it in rail cars," Carr said. "...It's in Canada's interest to use the resources we have to help finance the transition to a low carbon economy while extracting the resource more sustainably, moving it more safely, and expanding our export markets.
"Ninety-nine percent of our exports of oil and gas go to the United States. We want to expand those markets to Asia. This project will help us do that."
Is a Texas billionaire in charge in Ottawa?
Following his interview with National Observer, Carr spent a lot of time on his feet. Time and again, he rose to field questions in the House of Commons from Conservatives who accused the Trudeau government of trying to kill Canada's energy industry by not doing enough to support the pipeline.
"The Liberals spent years attacking Canada's energy regulator, track record, and reputation at home and internationally," said Shannon Stubbs, a Conservative MP from Alberta, in the Commons. "They have emboldened and empowered anti-Canadian energy activists. Now they do not have the credibility to sell a pipeline or to get it built. They created this crisis."
Carr said the Trudeau government was forced to change the process for federal reviews because of mistakes made by the former Stephen Harper government. The approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, he explained, was quashed by a Federal Court of Appeal judge who found that the former government had failed to consult with Indigenous people in a meaningful way, he added.
"The Federal Court of Appeal said in no uncertain terms that the Harper Conservative process failed," said Carr in the Commons. "So we could have tried to copy them and invite more failure. That wouldn't have been very bright. So what we did instead was spent four more months consulting Indigenous communities."
The New Democrats chimed into the debate as well, and said the government's policies were being driven by Kinder Morgan. NDP MP Nathan Cullen said that both Conservatives and Liberals are to blame for the unfolding Kinder Morgan saga.
"First Stephen Harper guts the environmental review process and ignores First Nations consultation," Cullen told the Commons. "Then Liberals get elected, promising to do better and have a legitimate review. They betray that promise and now we find out why. They got a call from the CEO of Kinder Morgan telling them to hurry up and rush the process. So my question is, who is in charge over there – a Texas billionaire or the prime minister of Canada?"
Carr says it's his job is to meet stakeholders
Back in the interview, Carr said it's his job to meet with stakeholders, noting that he had met — one day earlier — with 14 environmental leaders. He added that the government is within its rights to meet with proponents to discuss whether a regulatory process is running efficiently and to ensure that the regulator has the resources it needs to do a proper job.
"That's because people are interested in expressing their opinions to governments and that's absolutely appropriate," he told National Observer. "But it's not the job of government, while a project is being assessed by the regulator, to get out there and champion it.
"There were some members of Parliament from Alberta who were actually sending us comments that I should be out championing Energy East when it was before the regulator."
Ultimately, the Liberal government didn't intervene in the Energy East pipeline review. The regulator's hearings were stalled when members appointed by the Harper government were forced to recuse themselves from the process after admitting that they appeared to be biased. The admission came after National Observer reported that they held a private meeting with a representative of the company, former Quebec premier Jean Charest.
The Liberal government appointed a new independent panel that decided on its own to impose stricter rules that would take climate change impacts of the project into account. The proponent, Calgary-based TransCanada, then opted to terminate the project in October 2017 and focus instead on attempting to build its cross-country Keystone XL pipeline, which was swiftly approved by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Carr stressed that the government should only champion projects once they are approved.
"That's exactly what we're doing in the case of the Trans Mountain expansion. This is why we approved it with 157 conditions, at the same time that we're investing in the Ocean Protection Plan," he said.
"It's not appropriate to champion projects when they're being reviewed by the regulator. It is appropriate to tell Canadians why we made a decision once we make it, and to be accountable for the decision. Ultimately, Canadians are gonna decide whether or not this decision is consistent with their values and we have to be held accountable for it."