British Columbia·Analysis

Trans Mountain pipeline fight: Can we ever be friends again?

Debate reveals constant push and pull it takes to keep a federation together.

If there's one thing Canadians can agree on it's that we love to disagree with Ottawa and each other

Nearly five years after Kinder Morgan first applied to the National Energy Board to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline, debate over the project still rages. But how will the conflict be remembered? (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Imagine for a moment you've taken the kind of drug normally intended to put you to sleep through torturous plane rides, but this one's designed to make tedious political disputes disappear.

When you wake up, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline debate will be over.

And so what happened?

Did it get built? Did B.C. or Alberta emerge victorious? Is the pipeline cited as one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's greatest accomplishments or worst failures?

And what about the argument itself? The trading of threats between the provinces; the epic warnings from both Ottawa and the company; the end-of days pronouncements from people on either side of the fight?

Will all that noise have lasting resonance or will it simply vanish into the mists of history alongside the so-called Newfoundland "flag flap" of 2004 or the efforts of Nova Scotians to secede from Confederation in 1867.

'The core of the meaning of Canada'

With the company's end-of-week ultimatum looming over the project, it's worth considering how a dispute that has consumed thousands of hours of talk radio and volumes of column inches will ultimately be remembered.

Is B.C. destined to become the new Quebec: a province split on the pipeline itself but at odds with Ottawa and its neighbours over matters allegedly crucial to its survival.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met last month with B.C. Premier John Horgan, left, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. When it's all over, who will emerge victorious? (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Or does the controversy say more about Canada as a whole than it does any of the individual players — of the constant push and pull it takes to bind a federation?

"These things always go to the core of the meaning of Canada for the people who are involved," says Bradley Miller, an assistant professor of history at the University of B.C..

"For provincial governments, they go to the core of their political survival; for activists they are in essence telling us that 'I don't want to live in a Canada that doesn't go my way.'"

'Quebec is always in that mode'

Miller says the battle over the Trans Mountain expansion can be viewed in the context of past conflicts which have consumed Canadian politics.

Moves like Alberta's attempts this week to get a statement from other western provinces supporting the pipeline echo the kind of machinations which saw Quebec left out in the cold in Pierre Trudeau's 1982 bid to bring home the constitution.

Two sovereignty referendums later, Quebec is the province that naturally leaps to mind when it comes to national debates.

Canadians flooded into Montreal in 1995 to support the No side in the Quebec sovereignty vote. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But as Simon Fraser University political scientist David Moscrop points out, everyone has been that province at some time.

"This does happen every so often in the federation that a province or two gets caught out," says Moscrop.

"The marquee difference is that Quebec is always in that mode. Most provinces aren't."

The constant battle

Both Moscrop and Miller say one province or another is always testing the bounds of its authority.

And in a federation, that fight extends not just to the limits of federal power, but to a municipality's ability to stand up to both the province and Ottawa and — ultimately — the right of any person to claim their sovereignty as an individual.

And that's to say nothing of the crucial relationship between all those entities and Canada's indigenous communities.

All those tensions are reflected in the legal proceedings that have surrounded the Kinder Morgan debate.

Cities have sued the National Energy Board. Alberta and B.C. have tested their legal duties to each other. First Nations have questioned the adequacy of the consultation on their rights.

Court battles over the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline have kept B.C.'s Lady Justice busy over the past few years. (David Horemans/CBC)

And just this week, B.C.'s Supreme Court dismissed challenges from the City of Vancouver and the Squamish Nation against the province of British Columbia's decision to issue environmental assessment certificates for the pipeline.

Strangely, that put the current NDP government in the position of defending a process that resulted in approval of a project it vehemently opposes. How Canadian is that?

'We've got to do it together'

Moscrop has described the provinces as perpetual frenemies. Constantly bickering, but ultimately held together by the needs they have in common, as opposed to the grievances that tear them apart.

"I think there's a recognition that we can get more done together than apart," he says.

We've got the U.S. to the south, China emerging to the east and Europe working as a block overseas.

"We've got to do it together. We won't be able to do it alone, so it's worth being together," Moscrop says.

"But we're going to get pissed off with each other all the time because we've got different interests and we think someone's going to get better treatment. It's almost like being siblings as well."

As a historian, Miller says most of these conflicts have a way of fading into obscurity, no matter how heated they are in the moment.

But he thinks the lasting impact of the battle over the Trans Mountain expansion is an open question.

"The conflict over energy and over the environment doesn't look like it's going away any time soon," he says.

"It is for the foreseeable future part and parcel of how governments debate policy and interact with their citizens."

This may not be the last time you need that magic pill.

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.