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David Dodge, former Bank of Canada governor and high-profile advisor to Alberta’s NDP government, recently made an unusually grim prediction about the Trans Mountain pipeline: “There are some people that are going to die in protesting construction of this pipeline. We have to understand that. Nevertheless, we have to be willing to enforce the law,” Dodge told a forum in Edmonton sponsored by law firm Bennett Jones. “It’s going to take some fortitude to stand up [to them],” he continued, referring to pipeline protestors as “fanatics” who have “the equivalent of religious zeal.”
Dodge’s language in these statements is important to analyze. He uses the word “die” but never the word “kill,” framing the issue in a way that features death but makes the killers and the act of killing invisible. With this framing it’s all about the people who are dying, not the people who kill them.
Let’s alter Dodge’s wording slightly to describe the same situation from a different perspective and see how its morality shifts: “There are some people that are going to be killed in protesting construction of this pipeline. We have to understand that.” Say that out loud and it feels different from Dodge’s wording. The focus shifts to those who do the killing.
The implication of Dodge’s statement is clear, particularly when he makes it before any deaths occur: if people are killed at Trans Mountain protests it will not be inadvertent or accidental, they will be casualties of a no-holds-barred government campaign to get the Trans Mountain pipeline built. As Dodge says, “We have to understand that.” I’m not convinced a majority of Canadians are prepared to have their government kill for the sake of a pipeline. I hope we never have to find out.
One truth glossed over in Dodge’s picture is that opponents of the pipeline will likely only die if Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley are prepared to see them killed. Here is what I mean.
There are important lessons for Trudeau, Notley, and police from Ontario’s 1996 Ipperwash stand-off, in which police shot and killed unarmed Ojibway protestor Dudley George. The Ipperwash stand-off concerned an unresolved land claim at Ipperwash Provincial Park.
"Let’s alter Dodge’s wording slightly to describe the same situation from a different perspective and see how its morality shifts." #opinion by author Kevin Taft. #cdnpoli #DavidDodge #KinderMorgan #TransMountain
A judicial inquiry into the killing led by Justice Sidney Linden found that the plan of the police was to “go-slow” and seek a “peaceful resolution.” This ran head-on into pressure from politicians and their supporters for “speedy action,” including from Ontario’s then premier Mike Harris. According to Harris’s office staff he shouted “I want the fucking Indians out of the park.” Justice Linden found “the premier’s desire to seek a quick resolution closed off other options…thereby creating a barrier to a peaceful resolution.”
One lesson of Ipperwash is that if you kill protestors, especially unarmed ones, you are in the long run likely to lose your fight. After the judicial inquiry report was made public with its condemning evidence, the Ontario government decided to return the contested land at Ipperwash to the Ojibway. Ironically, the final transfer of the land was made in 2016 by two members of Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Carolyn Bennett and Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan. I wonder what they are advising the prime minister on the pipeline protests.
It is testament to the staggering power of the oil industry that Justin Trudeau, the “sunny ways” prime minister who is committed to First Nations reconciliation and environmental protection, and Rachel Notley, a lifelong progressive, have steered the country into this crisis. It is time a journalist asks them if they will insist on a go-slow approach and peaceful resolution to pipeline protests, or if they plan to follow Mike Harris’s approach to get “the fucking protestors” out of the way of the pipeline. From the aggressive political rhetoric these days I think the Mike Harris approach is more likely.
We also must remember that killing could go the other way. What happens if a police officer is killed by a protestor? That could also be the result of an over-aggressive approach, and it would also be tragic.
David Dodge and many others explain the killing of people by saying we have to enforce the law. Enforcing the law is important, but it has constraints. For starters, it is the role of the police, not politicians or anyone else, to enforce the law, so we must ensure a highly skilled and independent police force is in charge, free from meddling by overheated politicians. We must also remember that not all laws are equally enforced all the time, and that exceedingly few laws are enforced with fatal force.
More fundamentally Canadians must ask, Is this the right law to enforce? It certainly protects the interests of oil companies that want to export raw bitumen. But once the thick layers of propaganda are scraped off the over-hyped claims of economic benefits, job creation, and environmental protection it’s not clear this project should proceed. Ten years ago I thought this pipeline made sense. I don’t any longer.
David Dodge will be condemned for making his statements but he is doing Canadians a favour. We should be discussing the use of fatal force at pipeline protests before an incident occurs. Former Alberta minister of energy Rick Orman has raised the spectre of calling in the army, and in comments to a convention last winter I asked the audience, “Is Rachel Notley prepared to have people killed to get this pipeline built?” The reply was a gasp, and then silence.
If we talk about these risks now they may be less likely to happen. And if they happen regardless, then we will be able to more effectively hold our leaders to account. For them, this could become a matter of political life and death. For police and protestors it could become a matter of real life and death.
Kevin Taft is a former Leader of the Opposition in Alberta and author of the bestselling book Oil’s Deep State.