One step forward, another one back: What the Trans Mountain ruling means for Trudeau

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got the ruling he wanted on the much-delayed Trans Mountain project. It's a win for him in a part of the country where he's widely disliked - and a loss in many of the Indigenous communities where the government has struggled to make progress.

It's a federal win in Alberta - but it just made the Indigenous reconciliation project more daunting than ever

A man listens near an effigy of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as protesters opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion rally in Vancouver June 9, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In sports, you win some and you lose some. In politics, it's possible to win and lose at the same time.

Take, for example, yesterday's Federal Court of Appeal ruling on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

The court ruled unanimously that the federal government had fulfilled its duty to consult meaningfully with a handful of First Nations opposed to the project, clearing a major hurdle in the drawn-out battle to build a second line to carry bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to Burnaby on the B.C. coast.

The federal and Alberta governments immediately claimed victory, putting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Jason Kenney on the same side for once.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with workers at the Trans Mountain Terminal in Edmonton on Friday, July 12, 2019. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

"This project is in the public interest," federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan told reporters shortly after the decision was released.

"We also know that this is a project that can deliver significant economic benefit to Alberta, to Canadians across the country," added Finance Minister Bill Morneau. "And more importantly, we are going to put that economic benefit back into the environment."

Their sense of relief was palpable. Ottawa spent around $4.5 billion in 2018 to buy TMX — a last-ditch effort to ensure the pipeline would be built after its owner, Kinder Morgan, announced plans to step away.

Win-win, or win-lose?

That price, hefty as it is, doesn't include construction costs or any overruns the project has incurred because of the various stop-work orders that have put construction well behind schedule.

But with the victory comes a major setback in relations with those Indigenous groups who continue to oppose the $7.4-billion project, and will no doubt seek to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"Reconciliation stopped today," said Rueben George, of the Tsleil-Waututh, his voice cracking with emotion.

Tsleil Waututh Nation Sundance Chief Rueben George leaves a news conference Wednesday March 20, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The band was one of four Indigenous groups behind the court challenge. It argued that the second, court-ordered round of consultations also failed to respond adequately to their concerns about the impact the project would have on marine life.

"This government is incapable of making sound decisions for our future generations," George said. "So we will — even for their children — we will take those steps to make sure Canada stays the way it is."

The pipeline as symbol

It's just another example of how the Trans Mountain project has been transformed into a symbol of the difficulties governments face in trying to reconcile so many competing interests, both legal and political.

It is more than an infrastructure project now, more than the federal government's last remaining option to ease the pressure on landlocked Alberta's resource economy by helping it get its oil to port.

It's more than a token for the federal Liberals' repeated claim that it's possible to carry out policies that balance the environment and the economy.

For Ottawa, Trans Mountain has become the focus of efforts to reduce the Trudeau government's political friction with Alberta, to appeal to Albertans who took out their frustrations in the last election by refusing to elect a single Liberal, to find a way to engage with a province where talk of political alienation — even separation — is now part of the daily discourse.

Protesters with the United We Roll convoy demonstrated on Parliament Hill in February 2019, after crossing the country to share their pro-pipeline message. (CBC)

That's a lot of freight for a pipeline to carry.

The push to build Trans Mountain has involved the strangest of bedfellows. One government is Liberal, the other (United) Conservative. One imposed a price on carbon, while the other is fighting that price in court. One believes climate change is the most pressing issue facing the country, the other sees the federal government's climate policies as part of a long-term plan to kill the province's energy sector.

Yet this federal government worked hand-in-hand with Alberta to oppose this lawsuit and others brought by First Nations and British Columbia's NDP government to stop the project.

Premier Kenney called yesterday's court of appeal ruling a victory for Alberta, for the large number of Indigenous communities that support TMX, and for Canadians who understand that "responsible resource development is key to Canada's future prosperity."

Kenney even offered a shout-out to Trudeau in his victory speech.

"I have my disagreements with Prime Minister Trudeau on a number of issues," the premier told reporters. "But I think he realizes that there has to be at least one project that gets Canadian energy to global markets so we can get a fair price."

When completed, the pipeline expansion will triple the amount of bitumen transported to nearly a million barrels a day. 

Federal officials say that's good news for the 2,700 people already working on the project in Alberta, and the thousands more who expect to be hired as work ramps up.

But however much ground the Trudeau government has won in the field of Ottawa-Alberta relations, it still likely faces a rematch with Indigenous communities involved in this case, and the potential for more legal challenges to come.

One after another yesterday, the leaders of the First Nations who initiated the appeal spoke of their disappointment with the Trudeau government, with Canadian law and with the courts.

That disappointment could make Ottawa's efforts to settle land claims and pursue other energy projects even more difficult.

Hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en Nation in the B.C. Interior are still blocking access to a construction site for an already-approved natural gas pipeline. They're defying a court injunction ordering them to leave.

So that's where we are: a court victory shared by two governments that are normally foes, a setback for federal efforts to achieve full reconciliation with Indigenous groups.

Win some, lose some.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc

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