Politics·Analysis

How Teck Frontier became a symbol of the future Canada refuses to confront

The Teck Frontier project didn't deserve to be framed as a do-or-die test of political attitudes towards the energy sector and climate change. The fact that it was shows just how little progress we've made in this country in reconciling economic and environmental goals.

When is an oilsands mine not an oilsands mine? When it's also a political football.

Supporters and opponents of an oilsands mine proposed by Teck Resources rally outside the Calgary company's offices Jan. 22, 2020. Teck announced Monday it was abandoning the project. (Julie Prejet/Radio-Canada)

The spring of 2020 may be remembered as a pivotal season for both Justin Trudeau and the country — a time of reckoning and reconciling, of Wet'suwet'en and Teck Frontier and the future of the planet.

These are trying moments for the country and its leader. But it might also be harder these days to find a path through the tumult.

On its own merits, Teck Frontier probably didn't deserve to be framed as a litmus test of anything. On one hand, its economic viability was in serious doubt; on the other, its emissions weren't necessarily going to be decisive in Canada's pursuit of its international climate targets. But its loudest proponents and opponents framed it as a referendum on the future of either the oil sector or the climate.

If more had been done over the last 30 years to settle the climate questions now casting a pall over the next 30 years — if Canada had a clear route to net-zero emissions and a better understanding of how the oil and gas industry would fit into that world — Teck Frontier wouldn't have had to carry so much symbolic weight.

Given the crosses the project was being asked to bear, maybe it's not surprising that its investors decided to walk away. It's also possible that, if the project had a real chance of ever turning a profit, Teck Resource's directors would have stuck it out.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson agree that the Frontier oilsands mine would have brought work to Alberta - but have different ideas about why the project failed to go forward. 3:08

Regardless, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney seems eager to lay all blame at Justin Trudeau's feet. Teck's withdrawal promises to be a significant new source of anxiety and anger.

The dispute over Wet'suwet'en territory in northern British Columbia is also less than perfectly simple — with new voices speaking out, it cannot even still be described as a conflict strictly between elected and hereditary chiefs. But it has become a focal point for questions about Indigenous rights and reconciliation that are long overdue for answers.

For good measure, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled on Monday that the federal government's carbon price is unconstitutional, contradicting rulings made in Ontario and Saskatchewan — news that seemed to significantly brighten Kenney's mood. The matter was headed for the Supreme Court anyway, but the Alberta ruling was one more complicating factor for Trudeau at a time when he already has plenty.

The idea of reconciliation is synonymous with efforts to deal with the unresolved questions and injustices in the relationship between the modern Canadian state and the Indigenous peoples who first occupied this land. But the things at issue right now — what Trudeau has put at the forefront of his government's agenda — are really three separate but overlapping matters in need of reconciliation.

There is that need to reconcile with Indigenous peoples. There is a need to reconcile with the current reality and future of Canada's fossil fuel industries. There is a need to reconcile Canadian society and government policy with the goal of reducing this country's greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 — a goal that is in line with international efforts to limit the damage caused by climate change.

And then there's the need to reconcile all of these things with each other.

The prime minister loses his balance

Broadly speaking, Trudeau has sought — implicitly or explicitly, through words and actions — to balance what are often competing interests. He implemented a national price on carbon and a new plan to protect the marine environment off the coast of British Columbia — and then he approved (and later purchased) the Trans Mountain expansion.

Profits from the existing pipeline have been committed to fund clean technology projects. Consultations with Indigenous and local communities have been held up as a priority, but no one community (or province) has been allowed to veto a project.

Essentially, he has tried to argue for doing three things simultaneously: advancing reconciliation, buttressing the short-term situation and medium-term future of the Prairie-based oil and gas sector, and reducing Canada's emissions for the long-term.

That balancing act is very vulnerable to attack. For one thing, those goals will sometimes come into direct conflict — through Indigenous communities objecting to a pipeline, environmentalists condemning development of the oilsands or Alberta politicians condemning new environmental regulations.

On any issue, the loudest voices are the ones least likely to ever be satisfied. And Trudeau can be accused of not moving fast enough or far enough in any one direction.

Trudeau also can't claim to have carried this off with elegance. Things have gotten messy.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer linked the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's response to blockades with Teck’s decision to withdraw its application to build a massive oilsands project in northern Alberta. 0:58

Trudeau's political opponents have chosen to attack his approach by prioritizing different elements. In their rhetoric and their promises, the Conservatives emphasize resource development above all else. In the last federal campaign, Andrew Scheer's party showed only a passing interest in reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. Until last week, Scheer had not used the word "reconciliation" in the House of Commons since becoming Conservative leader.

Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to call for stronger climate policy and quicker reconciliation, but generally take a dim view of resource development. Singh loudly opposed the Trans Mountain expansion (to the consternation of Rachel Notley, the former NDP premier of Alberta) and he then backed away from supporting LNG Canada (which has the support of John Horgan, the current NDP premier of British Columbia).

It is tempting to look at the protests and blockades of recent days and wish for something or someone to bring about calm and harmony. But it's not obvious that the Conservative or NDP approaches would lead to less disagreement.

The Ontario Provincial Police have begun to remove demonstrators from the camp near Belleville, Ont. Protests by the Mohawks of Tyendinaga have shut down passenger and freight train traffic for more than two weeks. 7:58

A Prime Minister Scheer likely would be facing significant climate and Indigenous protests right now — though he apparently wouldn't hesitate to order the police to break up any serious disruptions.

A Prime Minister Singh likely would have even more trouble in the Prairies. It's one thing to insist on a speedy move away from fossil fuels, quite another to actually push through that change with the support of those who will be most directly affected. Though New Democrats are keen to talk about a "green new deal" and a "just transition" for energy workers, the NDP leader spent just one day in Saskatchewan during the last election campaign and skipped Alberta entirely.

Trudeau's meditation on the current discourse last week suggests he's been thinking about the state of things and, perhaps, sees some role for himself as a voice of reason.

Traditional chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation are in Kahnawake, Que., this week to tour Mohawk communities where blockades have been erected in solidarity with their cause, as the PM says the barricades on rail lines must come down. 12:56

"In this country, we are facing many important and deep debates, debates about the future livelihoods of our children, the future of our environment, our relations with countries around the world and our positioning on things that are fundamental at a time of anxiety," he said. "More and more Canadians are impatient to see those answers. More and more people are frustrated that there is such uncertainty. More and more we see those debates carried with increasing intensity on the margins of our democratic conversations.

"Yes, there is always a place for Canadians to protest and express their frustrations, but we need to ensure we also listen to each other. The reality of populism, and its siren song in our democracies these days, is a desire to listen only to ourselves and to people who agree with us, and not to people of another perspective."

The space between the extremes

Those on the left might dismiss all that as the talk of a squishy centrist. Those on the right doubtless would point out that Trudeau has not always acted like a model of humility or a leader interested in hearing other perspectives.

His remarks could be read as describing the twitterization of political debate and an era that rewards instantaneous reaction and outrage. (Hours before Teck Frontier seized the internet's attention, Scheer was tweeting criticism of a university professor's comments about the popular animated kid's TV show Paw Patrol. The Russian agents using social media as a tool for sowing discord in western democracies know what they're doing.)

But if these debates are being defined by voices at the margins, Trudeau could be asked whether he's doing enough to occupy the space between those extremes — with both words and actions.

In times like these, platitudes and value statements might not suffice. No one needs to hear Trudeau say the economy and environmental protection go together. They need to hear how they go together.

Two years ago, Trudeau announced the government's intention to move forward with a new framework for the recognition of Indigenous rights. After internal disagreement — Jody Wilson-Raybould was highly critical of the approach taken by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett — and external complaints, the Trudeau government put that framework on hold.

That framework might not have prevented the unrest of the last two weeks, but it would at least have been something for Trudeau to point to. As others have noted, reviving the conversation around rights recognition seems like the sort of thing that could push the debate forward now.

If Teck Frontier's demise speaks to a foreseeable limit to the oil and gas industry, that only means the need to talk now about the future of Alberta's economy and its possible paths of transition is newly urgent.

"Global capital markets are changing rapidly and investors and customers are increasingly looking for jurisdictions to have a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change," Don Lindsay, chief executive officer of Teck Resources, wrote Sunday in a letter to Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

The Liberals can try to point to Jason Kenney's intransigence on climate policy as a significant obstacle to such clarity — and the route to a low-carbon future goes through Alberta — but it's the Liberals who have promised to lay out a path to net-zero emissions in 2050. An already challenging political promise may have become a market imperative.

The future arrived over the last two weeks. The obstacles to Trudeau's reconciliation promises have been put in stark relief.

Canadians will now see whether he can chart a path forward.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.