The Honourable Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver has written an open letter on “Canada’s commitment to diversify our energy markets and the need to further streamline the regulatory process in order to advance Canada’s national economic interest”. It was published on the eve of the Enbridge pipeline hearings and the reaction has been fierce. His eyebrow-raising attacks on “environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block the diversification of our trade” and on their claimed intent to “stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth” clearly shows how primitive his economic philosophy is.
In a way his letter is a gift because it’s full of blatant insults to the hundreds of people—including a great many First Nations who live in the path of the proposed pipeline and tanker routes—who have lined up to give their views. These are concerned individuals who are not in the least bit “radical” or obviously “environmental” (as if these are both bad things!). Oliver’s letter has galvanized public opinion against a government which doesn’t really want to undertake the legally required public process and it has provided excellent material for analysis by the likes of Elizabeth May, Andrew Nikiforuk, and David Suzuki, and a host of editors in Canada’s major newspapers. Here in plain view we have the Conservative government’s narrow and short-sighted agenda which they think represents the interests of “Canadian families”.
What is also shocking are his remarks that “Canada is on the edge of an historic choice: to diversify our energy markets away from our traditional trading partner in the United States or to continue with the status quo” and his brief reference to the nine years it took for the “Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline review” compared to “the western expansion of the nation-building Canadian Pacific Railway under Sir John A. Macdonald which only took four years”. In these two statements Oliver shows further that he has little sense of human or Canadian history.
He states Canada’s is on “the edge of historic choice”. I agree but in my mind this has very little to do with whether we should move on from trading primarily with the U.S. By claiming this is our greatest challenge, Oliver sounds like he is a naïve youngster in a high-school marketing class. To diversify or not diversify, that is the question. Looking more broadly I would rather say Canada’s choice is: should we move away being a country that seems to be lacking in economic self-confidence? Can we not do more than extract natural resources as rapidly as possible and dump them with little added value on the global market for whatever they will fetch? Many Canadians can see that while this may bring in money, it also depletes scarce resources and degrades stocks of common-pool natural capital (think exploitation of minerals, trees, oil and gas, fish, seal pelts, asbestos, et cetera). The alternative is to diversify into, for example, upgrading our human resources (think education and culture) or research and development (think renewable resources) and exporting services and value-added products to create some real wealth to give something back to future generations. In other words: will we just leave a pile of waste for our kids to clean up with a few token trees and fish left for them to get by or will we find some new creative ways of building a better human society with a much smaller footprint?
The comparison of the review-time of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline to the “nation-building Canadian Pacific Railway” is even worse. Honestly Mr. Oliver—are you seriously comparing the late 20th century with the mid 1800s? Imagine what was going on in John A. Macdonald’s time when he was busy “nation-building”. The population in Canada at the time of Confederation was three million. At present it is 35 million—over 10 times more. The population of the U.S. at the same time was 38.5 million and today it is almost 309 million—again a growth of about 10 times. At the time the railroad was planned Macdonald had the Americans panting at the southern border waiting to take over any piece of land that wasn’t clearly inhabited and itching to annex the faraway British Columbia. No wonder they hurried the process through. What are our threats now if we don’t exploit more of Canada’s resources immediately? We won’t be able to consume or waste as much as we do now? We will cause the world economy to collapse if we don’t keep offering global markets an unlimited supply of non-renewable resources?
Also over a century ago the number of people had much less of an environmental footprint on the land. There was no wholesale use of fossil fuels. Industrialization was still in its infancy so agriculture was still local, global trade was minimal, and waste was miniscule. The natural world seemed vast and unending and the settlers treated it as such. That may have been a more reasonable position then than it is now, but it certainly had its dark side and we should have no wish to return there. Those were the days when even with less destructive technologies it took a mere 50 years to clearcut Vancouver’s old-growth forest. Those were the days when fishermen on the Fraser without state-of-the-art equipment had an orgy overfishing the more desirable spring salmon and then foolishly throwing back millions of less-desirable sockeye well past the time the stench was unbearable. Those were the days when 10-foot-long Fraser River sturgeon up to a 100 years old were almost fished to extinction and fur-bearing animals were still being ruthlessly decimated for nothing more serious than hats and coats for those who could afford them. South of the border millions of buffalo were shot for sport and deer were, for the time being, so plentiful that their skin fetched very little—which was why the word “buck” was synonymous with the dollar. Don’t we have any regrets for the lack of foresight in those days? Have we not learned some lessons from this?
Could John A. or any one of his contemporaries ever imagined a world with 10 times more people and 10 times fewer natural resources and land that had been polluted 10 times more? At present we have the gift of hindsight—taking a good look back at the actions of our ancestors and seeing not only what was accomplished but also what valuable assets were destroyed in the past 140 years. Humankind has made excellent advances in science and technology, health and nutrition, and even in political culture. But this is only looking at one side of the picture. There is a vast area of scrutiny that does not seem to figure in Joe Oliver’s analysis. He is correct when he says, “Unfortunately, the system seems to have lost sight of this balance over the past years. It is broken. It is time to take a look at it. It is an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.” But surely not in the way he imagines—by just getting on with yet more mindless growth in our industrial output. The price of this “purely-for-short-term-human-wants” progress has been quite disproportionate to fleeting and not very memorable gains. The consequences for Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity of this worldview are serious and largely irreversible.
Where are the real projections for the future? If the Conservative government continues as it has to this point our children will be living in a Canada without both East Coast cod and West Coast wild salmon. We will see a further destruction of biologically productive land to devour more of the Alberta tar sands. This will use more natural gas for extracting and upgrading a poor grade fuel while belching more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and polluting more rivers and sickening more people. These fuels will then need more pipelines and tankers to get this toxic substance to market no matter what the environmental cost. Is this truly the only vision for the future we can imagine?
I personally think we can do much better. Many in Canada already are. If only the Conservatives could turn their head away from their beloved resource extraction/industrial growth agenda long enough to even notice.