Former Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice issues a veiled warning to Stephen Harper
Sometimes, you stumble across an intriguing article where you least expect to find it.
This weekend as I was perusing a Vancouver Sun special section on energy, I spotted the byline of Jim Prentice. He's the senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
Prentice also happens to be the former Conservative environment minister who announced his resignation from the Stephen Harper government in 2010 because he wanted to spend more time with his family. Coincidentally (or not), this came shortly after he visited Haida Gwaii with environmentalist David Suzuki.
Prentice was a Progressive Conservative before his party was taken over by the more right-wing Canadian Alliance. Its roots were in the old Reform Party of Canada.
Harper, a former policy director of the Reformers, likely went a bit berserk at the sight of his environment minister hobnobbing on The Nature of Things with Suzuki.
Now in his role with the bank, Prentice writes that the objective of developing and exporting Canada's hydrocarbon deposits is a "defining moment” for the country. He used the same language in a speech last month to the Business Council of B.C.
In the article, Prentice never mentions the proposed Enbridge or Kinder Morgan pipelines by name. However, he acknowledges that “the constitutional and legal issues surrounding west coast energy corridors, terminals and shipping are extraordinarily complex”.
One section of Prentice's piece is worth repeating verbatim:
To begin, however, the constitutional obligation to consult with first nations is not a corporate obligation. It is the federal government's responsibility.
Second, the obligation to define an ocean management regime for terminals and shipping on the west coast is not a corporate responsibility. It is the federal government's responsibility.
Finally, these issues cannot be resolved by regulatory fiat—they require negotiation. The real risk is not regulatory rejection but regulatory approval, undermined by subsequent legal challenges and the absence of 'social licence' to operate.
There are billions of dollars at stake for Corporate Canada in the efforts to export raw bitumen through Kitimat and the Port of Vancouver and ship this product via supertankers to Asia.
In the article, Prentice is, in fact, appealing to the Harper government to modify its approach of not seriously negotiating with First Nations.
Prentice also questions the wisdom of ramming the approval of pipelines through the regulatory process by shortening timelines. He appears to believe that this creates a greater risk of pipeline projects being thwarted by legal challenges.
Keep in mind that CIBC has a huge vested interest. First Nations youths have already warned CIBC not to finance Enbridge's Northern Gateway Project.
"CIBC should catch up with Royal Bank and TD Bank, which have already committed to recognize our right to consent," Jasmine Thomas, a 24-year-old member of the Yinka Dene Alliance, said in a news release last year. In other words, CIBC is in the sights of First Nations activists to a greater degree than other banks.
If Prentice's views on the Harper government's duty to negotiate are widely shared within the head offices of other Canadian banks and energy companies—not to mention the Conservative caucus—then the prime minister might not be as secure in his job as most people believe he is.
Prentice is well-regarded within Conservative and corporate circles. He's received lavish press over the years from the country's biggest newspapers. I wouldn't be surprised if Prentice eventually plays a role if there's a palace revolt within Conservative ranks—primarily because Harper's bellicose take-no-prisoners approach may not be achieving all of Bay Street's objectives in the tar sands.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.