Opinion

Liberal decisions on Wet'suwet'en, Teck crises will make it clear what this government really stands for

The first weeks of 2020 have been a trial by fire for the new Liberal minority government, which has crashed headlong into the realities of its reduced mandate, writes Keith Stewart.

Liberal minority government has crashed headlong into the realities of its reduced mandate

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday. Trudeau asked for patience as his government seeks a negotiated end to Indigenous-led rail blockades. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada and a lecturer on energy and environmental policy at the University of Toronto. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The minority government is facing its first real test, and its decisions will telegraph to Canadians what the federal Liberal party really stands for.

The problems at home dogged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau through his tour across Africa and Europe last week as he tried to drum up support for Canada's bid for a United Nations Security Council seat, and they've come to a head since his return to Ottawa. 

First, Liberal Members of Parliament openly urged Trudeau to reject Teck Resources Ltd.'s proposed Frontier oil sands mine, which if built would generate millions of tonnes of carbon pollution until 2067. Then, following RCMP raids on Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders resisting the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, a cascade of solidarity blockades brought rail traffic across swaths of Canada to a standstill.

As columnist Chantal Hébert pointed out, the result of these political crises has been "a prime minister whose moral authority is increasingly depleted." 

The first weeks of 2020 have been a trial by fire for the new Liberal minority government, which has crashed headlong into the realities of its reduced mandate. How the Liberals weather the "terrible twos" of their tumultuous second term depends on how they decide to address a crucial imbalance in their political calculus.

On one hand, the Liberals overestimated the power of the oil patch and Wexit (which the overwhelming majority of Albertans don't support).

On the other hand, they underestimated the conviction of the many Canadians who want urgent climate action and think that ramming through fossil fuel mega-projects without consent from impacted Indigenous communities is morally wrong on many levels.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on all sides in the rail blockade to sit down and talk, but says that "finding a solution will not be simple" during a statement in the House of Commons Tuesday. 9:56

Two-thirds of Canadians voted for, among other things, stronger climate action last October. MPs are feeling the pressure from their constituents and are reportedly nearly unanimous in their opposition to the Teck Frontier mine. Many party members feel that approving the mine would contradict the Liberals' climate commitments, such as the election pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050.

There's also more national alignment behind an energy transition than might be supposed by skimming the headlines.

Polling by Abacus Data last month revealed that 75 per cent of Canadians believe an energy transition will be beneficial for Canada in the long run — more than half of Albertans believe it, too. Albertans are actually split on the issue of what the federal government should be prioritizing, with nearly half believing Ottawa should be focusing on helping workers build new areas of opportunity outside the oil sector. 

Anyone with an interest in energy strategy should see that climate politics are changing, and fast.

Failing to act with the urgency the climate crisis demands is rapidly becoming denial 2.0 — political kryptonite. It's a lesson Scott Morrison is learning in Australia, as his coal-happy energy policies come under fire from the public and internal pressure for stronger climate action.

And as financial giants like BlackRock leave the oil sands behind, Canada could find itself learning that doubling down on oil could be economic kryptonite, too.

Shortages of food and some fuel, especially for Eastern Canada, are among the likely repercussions if rail blockades continue. 1:58
 

The Liberals have already floated the idea of rejecting Teck, while giving Alberta an aid package to create jobs and deal with the growing costs of companies' abandoned oil wells. Trudeau can help Canada embrace the coming energy transition by pairing the Liberals' promised Just Transition Act with such an aid/economic package to help workers who will be affected by the coming global transition off oil.

With Teck, the Liberals face their first real climate challenge of 2020; with Wet'suwet'en, a test of honour on reconciliation. Each decision will be taken as an indication of what the Liberal Party stands for: climate action or fossil fuel interests, nation-to-nation relationships or continued colonization.

To avoid souring relations with his caucus and to win back Canadians' trust, Trudeau and his Cabinet will need to summon their courage against the noisy few who refuse to change a business-as-usual approach to the oil sands.

They'll also need to update their national unity narrative to one that makes room for nationhoods (plural), and that is centred on coming together to solve the climate emergency in a way that respects Indigenous rights.


About the Author

Keith Stewart is a senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada, and a lecturer on energy and environmental policy at the University of Toronto.