A critical responsibility of prime ministerial leadership is to set priorities in the national interest and advance them with determination and integrity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent performance has been the opposite: a haphazard and indecisive pursuit of misplaced priorities that severely damage our economy, undermine public confidence in our institutions and inflame regional resentment. Ironically, his failure relates to an issue he sermonizes about constantly: balancing resource development, environmental protection and Aboriginal reconciliation.
Trudeau’s latest catastrophic failure relates to Teck Resources’ decision to cancel its $20.6-billion Frontier oilsands mine in northeast Alberta, a project that received regulatory approval and support from all 14 First Nations and Métis communities the mine would have impacted, who are bitterly disappointed by the news. The company wrote off $1.13 billion in sunk costs for the same reason Enbridge and TransCanada wrote off comparably staggering amounts and Kinder Morgan would have done, too, had it not been bailed out by the Canadian taxpayers. The inability of the government to reconcile resource development and climate change put Teck in an untenable position. Well over $120 billion of projects have been cancelled in the past three years of Liberal hostility and incompetence. The latest may signal the death knell for further projects.
Frontier pitted majority Aboriginal support, jobs, growth and national unity against hereditary chiefs, environmental militants and intolerant groupthink. The political contest was between hard facts versus fear-mongering. The loss is staggering: 7,000 jobs during construction, 2,500 during operation and $70 billion in taxes to governments to fund health care, education and infrastructure. Rejection is another body blow to a resentful and beleaguered Alberta and a message to foreign investors that sovereign risk in Canada’s energy sector is comparable to a banana republic.
While Trudeau fiddled, the country burned.
Frontier’s opponents claim a climate emergency justifies its cancellation. But climatology is a highly complex and multi-faceted science and we have an imperfect knowledge of its myriad interrelationships. Computer models have consistently and significantly over-predicted global warming. In any event, Canada produces only 1.6 per cent of global emissions and cannot make a measurable difference to global temperatures. With fossil fuels predicted to represent three-quarters of global energy supply through 2040, no politically stable country would deliberately refuse to develop its natural resources.
Since the world’s largest countries are not doing their share on emissions reduction, why are we morally obliged to wreck our economy, especially when our natural gas could reduce net global emissions by helping lessen Asia’s use of higher-emitting coal? Historians will look back in bewilderment if Canada sacrificed so much for so little environmental return.
Then there are the ruinous implications of the blockades, which doubtless influenced the Teck decision. The prime minister looked like a deer in the headlights when protesters blocked train tracks, bridges and highways, seriously impeding trade and travel and creating a national crisis. When he finally came home to address the crisis, he could not clearly communicate what if anything he would do, beyond “dialogue.” While Trudeau fiddled, the country burned.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, regarding infrastructure disruptions caused by blockades across the country.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
No democratic government can long maintain its legitimacy if it countenances blatant disregard for the rule of law based on identity or belief, however politically correct. Justice must be blind, both impartial and objective.
Today the demand for special treatment before the law is from a few dozen Ontario protesters who claim moral standing based on their support for hereditary chiefs, extreme environmentalism and anti-free enterprise ideology — which are opposed by elected Wet’suwet’en band councils, many First Nations leaders, a strong majority of British Columbians and most Canadians. Despite their supposedly noble cause, the non-Aboriginal protesters are just radical scofflaws.
Last Friday, the prime minister finally managed to state the obvious: protesters are hurting Canadians and the barricades must go. He needs to articulate the primacy of the rule of law directly to the RCMP and to the premiers, who have authority over the provincial police. He cannot order the RCMP or police to intervene, since they determine the rules of engagement. But their responsibility is to enforce a court order, which should be done after fair warning and with no more force than necessary. The illegal blockades must be removed and very soon. If the police do not act, legislation may be needed.
The blockade near Belleville, Ont., which started Feb. 6 shut down CN freight traffic in eastern Canada and VIA passenger services.Lars Hagberg/AFP via Getty Images
The constructive attitude of Aboriginal leaders, who are understandably concerned they will lose public support if the blockades continue, reduces the risk of a negative reaction to the use of force.
Once the current crisis is resolved, Trudeau needs to focus on overarching priorities: growing the economy, building pipelines to tidewater so oil and gas can be sold to overseas markets, investing in science and technology and adapting to a changing climate. He must also forge a fair, constructive and practical relationship with Aboriginal peoples, one that recognizes their legitimate rights and responsibilities and provides them a better opportunity for self-reliance and prosperity. Consistent with those priorities, his government should immediately work to restart Energy East.
Unlike pious grandstanding, these actions would serve our national interests and the world’s. But if the prime minister continues to abdicate leadership, he should step aside for someone who would exercise it. This can’t go on.
Financial Post
Joe Oliver was minister of natural resources (2011-14) and minister of finance (2014-5).