British Columbia·Analysis

Why Kinder Morgan could severely damage the Trudeau-B.C. connection

Those who have campaigned against the Kinder Morgan expansion argue that because the pipeline runs through the Lower Mainland, this fight will be unlike any other.

There's real outrage on the coast — but how will it manifest itself at the ballot box?

People listen during a protest against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project, in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday November 29, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Remember this ad?

The commercial aired heavily in B.C. before last year's federal election. 

"I have deep roots here, worked here," said Justin Trudeau as the campaign video showed him climbing Grouse Mountain.

"More than anywhere else, people here know that our environment and economy are one ... a prime minister that doesn't just talk B.C. but has it in the blood. That's real change."

The ad, which Liberal Party insiders said was a "turning point" in B.C., began with Trudeau on the top of the mountain, overlooking Metro Vancouver.

"I've always believed that from this place, you can see the future of Canada," he said.

Now, that future looks like protests.

Like father, like son?

Within three hours of Trudeau announcing his government's support for Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain $6.8 billion pipeline expansion, a demonstration in downtown Vancouver began, attracting a crowd of close to 500 people.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, until now a close ally of the prime minister, said he was "profoundly disappointed" by the decision and had previously promised "protests like you've never seen before."

Environmental debates and political protests go hand-in-hand in British Columbia. A generation of activists have learned from the "War in the Woods" in Clayoquot Sound that demonstrations can lead to victory.

But those who have campaigned against the Kinder Morgan expansion argue that because the pipeline runs through the Lower Mainland, this fight will be unlike any other.

"Site C is out of sight, out of mind for most British Columbians and even with the Petronas plant ... most people don't eat salmon out of the Skeena River, and it's such a small number of voters that are affected," said Kai Nagata, communications director for the Dogwood Initiative, an environmental group heavily critical of Kinder Morgan's proposal.

By approving the pipeline expansion, Nagata believes Trudeau could suffer the same fate in British Columbia as his father did in Alberta following the National Energy Program in the 1980s — political irrelevancy in the province for a generation.

"His father pushed an unwanted energy policy on an unwilling province," argued Nagata.  "And in order to try and win back the hearts of Albertans, he's doing the exact same thing to B.C.  Maybe their gamble pays off, and they make historic breakthroughs in the prairies, but it's at the expense of B.C.'s interests, and it'll have long-term consequences."

It sounds extreme, but in Victoria, ex-Liberal MP David Anderson, who served as environment minister in Jean Chretien's government, also worries about the political fallout.

"I was extremely disappointed. The decision is one I feel is wrong. It's hard for me to understand," Anderson said.

"I do remember I got elected [in 1968] as one of 16 MPs, at a time when the province only had 23 seats."

In the next election, the Liberals went from 16 seats in B.C. to four.

"I fear that Justin Trudeau's experience might parallel the experience of his father 45 years ago."

People listen during a protest against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project, in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday November 29, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

A polarized province

But Norman Spector, who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney and as former deputy minister to B.C. premier Bill Bennett, says Trudeau's gamble could pay off.

"B.C. has never been as solidly anti-Ottawa as Alberta, particularly on the coast," he said.

"It's sort of, 'Leave us alone. We live in the best part of the world. Leave us alone and everything will fine,' as opposed to Albertans, who really don't like Ottawa," Spector said.

And there is plenty of evidence to suggest British Columbians aren't singularly opposed to pipelines: business groups like the B.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade support the project.

The Conservative Party, which has always supported the Kinder Morgan expansion, won half the federal seats in the Interior.

Provincially, centre-right parties have held power for 31 of the last 41 years — and the NDP's decision to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in the middle of the 2013 election campaign has been highlighted as a reason the party lost a race it was expected to win.

A return to the norm?

When you look at the last 50 years of federal politics, the Liberal Party's 17 seats in B.C. last election was the exception, rather than the norm: between 1972 and 2015, the party never had more than nine MPs from this province.

The Dogwood Initiative commissioned a poll last week, finding that 31 per cent of Liberal voters in B.C. would be less likely to support them if they approved the Kinder Morgan project.

But if you were to take 31 per cent of the party's support in each riding and give it to the NDP, the Liberals still would have won eight seats: enough to keep their majority.

Spector says it's also possible that losing some support in British Columbia could help them in other regions of Canada.

"It takes a lot of pressure off of Trudeau from trying to do something in Quebec, where he has huge upside potential to gain seats," he said.

"They don't want the [Energy East] pipeline through Quebec ... he'd clearly prefer to deal with protests in British Columbia than protests in Quebec."

The Liberals having a path to victory based in Quebec and Ontario, with British Columbia split three ways?

Kinder Morgan may be a new environmental controversy — but for Trudeau and the Liberal Party, it could be a very old political calculus.


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.


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