Mark Leiren-Young: Trudeau promises to save orcas—and his pipeline—with smoke and mirrors

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      Two years ago I asked orca experts if the population of 83 southern residents could survive the "significant adverse effects" Canada's National Energy Board warned would be the inevitable result of the increased tanker traffic from expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline. The answer was always the same: No.

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and other Liberal MPs keep reassuring Canadians that their positions are backed by “science”. But I have yet to see any of these politicians cite a single scientist.

      Over the last few years I’ve made regular offers on my podcast to interview any orca expert anywhere who believed this population—now down to 74—could survive “significant adverse effects”. No response.

      I’ve repeatedly made the same request on social media. Silence.

      I‘ve issued the same challenge on numerous interviews I’ve done about our endangered orcas with B.C.’s top radio stations. No expert has come forward to tell me these whales can survive “significant adverse effects”. Not one.

      Since I’ve seen pipeline proponents cite the other traffic in the Salish Sea and ask why additional tankers are any different from the other ships out there, I’d like to point out that this dire warning about “adverse effects” didn’t come from David Suzuki or Elizabeth May. This was the assessment of those noted lefty environmentalists at Canada’s National Energy Board.

      And “significant adverse effects” are what the orca population will face if the tankers don’t spill a drop of bitumen. A spill wouldn’t just end the southern resident orcas, but could wipe out the northern residents, the transients, the Chinook, the federal government’s beloved fish farms, and a decent part of B.C.’s tourism industry. Just look north at the pod that was rendered functionally extinct by the Exxon Valdez spill.

      As I write this, we’re seeing what a “world class” spill response looks like on Canada’s Atlantic coast. I suspect the answer that a clean-up is “impossible” won’t reassure anyone about the safety of our Pacific coast.

      Despite what Alberta politicians want people to believe, it wasn’t Andrew Weaver or John Horgan who declared that ignoring the impact of tanker traffic on the orcas to duck the implications of the Species at Risk Act was a “critical error”; it was the Federal Court of Appeal.

      This summer, the world watched as Tahlequah displayed her dead daughter for a 17-day funeral procession. Meanwhile, Scarlet, the adorable three-and-a-half-year-old icon of the orca baby boom, died despite dramatic human attempts at intervention—as her pod also did everything they could keep her alive.

      The federal government recently announced $61 million to support the southern residents—but pretending all this money magically appeared to save the whales is a mix of creative accounting and public relations. Protecting the salmon, dealing with toxic waste in the water, and cleaning up after corporations and municipalities that inexplicably don't pay a price for pouring poison in the ocean (all issues that are just as vital to our survival as the survival of the SROs) are all being packaged as part of a grand orca-recovery plan. It looks like the government is playing fast and loose with their math to make it appear that anything and everything they spend related to the health of the Salish Sea goes on the orcas' tab.

      Even if you accept these numbers at face value, the government’s environment commissioner, Julie Gelfand, publicly called out Canada’s response to the crisis facing the orcas and the North Atlantic right whales, worrying is was “too little, too late”. She cited many of the issues facing orcas that only managed to become urgent enough to act on after the courts put the pipeline expansion on hold.

      If the federal government truly believes it's done enough to mitigate the “significant adverse effects” cited by the National Energy Board, it should go back to the experts who were consulted to develop those original assessments and see if any of them agree. Canadians should demand that we get to hear these experts weigh in on whether they feel enough has been done to counteract the “significant adverse effects”.

      Since some of these experts are the same people who told me 83 orcas wouldn’t survive this pipeline expansion, I’d be surprised if any of them will suddenly proclaim that a population of 74 will be just dandy.

      The southern resident orcas have their own culture—yes, that’s the word scientists use for orca behaviour, because it’s so sophisticated. Each pod has their own unique dialect—some researchers prefer the term language.

      On the B.C. and Washington coast we don’t just know these orcas by the tracking numbers researchers have given them; we know these 74 whales by name. These are children, parents, grandparents—as I write this there are no babies.

      Since numbers are what we use to identify prisoners and lab animals to make it easier to warehouse or exterminate them, let’s remember we’re deciding whether or not to end the lives, families and futures of:

      • Tahlequah
      • Slick
      • Princess Angeline
      • Shachi
      • Oreo
      • Mike
      • Blackberry
      • Tsuchi
      • Alki
      • Hy’Shqa
      • Cookie
      • Mako
      • Suttles
      • Eclipse
      • Echo
      • Moby
      • S-Yi’Chn
      • Star
      • Notch
      • T’ilem I’nges
      • Nova
      • Kiki
      • Sequim
      • Lea
      • Opus
      • Spock
      • Cappuccino
      • Sekiu
      • Scooter
      • Lobo
      • Deadhead
      • Tika
      • Cali
      • Sonata
      • Yoda
      • Rainshadow
      • Comet
      • Kelp
      • Saturna
      • Ripple
      • Calypso
      • Lapis
      • Fluke
      • Pooka
      • Coho
      • Takoda
      • Midnight
      • Cousteau
      • Mystic
      • Funn
      • Keta
      • Jade
      • Joy
      • Windsong
      • Magic
      • Lazuli
      • Spirit
      • Mega
      • Marina
      • Ino
      • Nugget
      • Racer
      • Matio
      • Kasatka
      • Moonlight
      • Nyssa
      • Mystery
      • Surprise
      • Muncher
      • Ballena
      • Wave Walker
      • Solstice
      • Onyx
      • Ocean Sun

      Maybe the southern residents are already past the point of no return, but if they’re not, the inevitable result of this pipeline expansion would be the end of these irreplaceable orcas. The only way to go forward with this project based on what’s currently proposed is if the federal government is prepared to cover the Species at Risk Act with bitumen and torch it.