British Columbia

Unelected senators' vote against B.C. tanker ban threatens 'heart of democracy,' MP says

Leaders in northern B.C. are reeling after the Senate committee recommended against a bill to ban oil tankers and have been left questioning what the decision says about democracy in Canada.

Bill C-48 will go back to the chamber for further debate

A Senate committee has recommended the federal government not proceed with Bill C-48, which would prohibit tankers carrying more than 12,500 tonnes of crude or persistent oil from stopping, loading or unloading at ports in northern British Columbia. (The Associated Press)

Leaders in northern B.C. are reeling after the Senate committee's recommendation against a bill to ban oil tankers — and say they have been left questioning what the decision says about democracy in Canada.

A 6-6 tie vote by the Senate's transportation and communications committee on Wednesday night means Bill C-48, the tanker ban, is heading to chamber for further debate.

Under Senate committee rules, a tie vote is the same as a vote against as it needs a clear majority of support to proceed.

"I was a bit shocked … to learn that the Senate, in the dead of night, had voted to essentially kill the bill," said NDP MP Nathan Cullen, representative for Skeena-Bulkley Valley in northwest B.C.

"It raises some other questions, beyond just the north coast and oil tankers, to actually the heart of our democracy."

MP Nathan Cullen is concerned that the unelected Senate is working to defeat an oil tanker ban bill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

'You won't be happy tomorrow'

Bill C-48 would prohibit tankers carrying more than 12,500 metric tonnes of oil from docking along a coastal area that stretches from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border.

The committee's five Conservative senators voted against it, joined by Alberta independent Paula Simons. Five other independents and one self-identified Liberal voted in favour.

"Even if you don't like this bill and you're glad the Senate is trying to kill it — you may be happy today but you won't be happy tomorrow when they kill a bill that you do like," Cullen said.

"It's not even a right-wing or left-wing, or Conservative-Liberal-Democrat [issue]."

Members of the Senate are appointed and not voted in.

And, for Cullen, that's the heart of the problem: that unelected officials have power over a government bill. 

"Canadians are right to expect that when they vote for a party or a politician, and when promises are made and then brought into law, that there's a good chance that it will become reality," Cullen said. 

"This is very much about the direct line between voters, the people they elect and our ability to actually get something done without having folks who are not accountable trying to upend the entire system."

An oil tanker anchors at the terminus to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby, B.C. Bill C-48 would impact the coastal area from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Next steps

The bill is four decades in the making, with some in B.C.'s northern communities calling for formal oil tanker ban since the 1970s.

"[The vote] really made me really question what is the role of a senator," said North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice.

"They're not politicians. However, they acted like politicians."

She hasn't given up hope that the ban might still pass to law. The transportation and communications committee's recommendation is now going to the full Senate for a vote.

"Protecting these resources is a matter of survival for many of us on the north coast," she said.

"It's really important that senators respect the inherent rights of First Nations so that they can continue to live on the coast like they have for thousands of years."

With files from Carolina de Ryk

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