Justin Trudeau will try charm, but if anti-Trans Mountain protests escalate, Vancouver well see another side of Prime Minister
Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau green lighted two pipeline projects, but Canadians are talking about only one: Trans Mountain Expansion from Alberta to the West Coast. Will the controversial pipeline get built?
This past summer, I wrote an article for Canadian Business about Trudeau and Canadian pipelines that included an interview with Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, who was on the stage with the Prime Minister this afternoon during his announcement.
Carr set out a three-point plan for how the Trudeau Government would go about having pipeline projects approved and built.
One, rebuild Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples, including BC First Nations.
Two, tweak pipeline reviews, which was started this fall with the National Energy Board modernization.
Three, lots and lots of consultations with Canadians.
Critics could argue, and be mostly right, that all three of those objectives have only just begun, which is understandable given that the Liberals have only been in power a little over a year.
But the Trudeau government has been signalling for months that it planned to approve TMX, mostly with a flood of announcements connected directly or indirectly to the Kinder Morgan project: a $1.5 billion marine safety program for the West and East coasts, a national carbon tax, phaseout of coal-fired power generation by 2030, etc.
Then a few weeks ago Carr said the Liberals weren’t much interested in resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline (a Donald Trump campaign promise) and preferred to export to Asia, where producers can get higher prices.
The Minister from Winnipeg couldn’t have provided a stronger wink and nudge to Alberta if he’d used a sledgehammer.
So, now Trudeau has approved Trans Mountain Expansion. How will he respond to the uproar expected from Metro Vancouver?
Based on what we’ve seen over the past 14 months, I expect two basic approaches.
One, the Liberals won’t make the same mistake that Energy Transfer Partners, the state of North Dakota, and police have been making with the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access pipeline. In that case, the company and the authorities took a hard line and turned a small, local opposition into an international cause in the space of weeks.
From the very beginning they escalated the conflict instead of practising the first rule of crisis communications: always de-escalate. Talk, negotiate, build relationships, seek compromise. None of that happened and today, after weeks of violent protest and the failure of a heavily militarized police response, ETP and police face a well-organized protest village of 5,000 people with thousands more on the way.
Well done, North Dakota. You are now a case study for communications students of how not to handle a crisis.
Wags have dubbed Trudeau “Prime Minister Sunny Ways” for his glad handing and compulsive selfie taking. Well, expect PMSW to make plenty of appearances in Vancouver in an effort to defuse opposition to TMX.
The Trudeau charm will be needed because opponents have promised, as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said during a Nov. 20 TMX protest, “If [Trudeau] approves the Kinder Morgan pipeline, they will see such hell-raising from British Columbia that they will feel it shake the foundation of Parliament.”
Faced with that promise, expect the Prime Minister and his five Vancouver cabinet members to de-escalate early and often.
Two, if the TMX protests do become like Standing Rock, complete with huge demonstrations and violent confrontations with police, expect to see another side of Trudeau.
Let’s call this side of the Member of Parliament for Papineau, “Prime Minister Hard Ass.”
Carr told me that the Liberals would consult and try to address criticisms, but once they had made a decision, they were prepared to carry out.
Trudeau doesn’t expect everyone in Vancouver to be happy with his decision. And he was careful during his Tuesday announcement to acknowledge BC critics and their right to disagree, loudly and publicly if they so choose.
But this prime minister is not for turning.
And I suspect that if Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan throws himself in front of the bulldozers, as he has famously promised to do, and be arrested, as he has grimly said recently could happen, then Justin Trudeau will be happy to have the RCMP throw Corrigan in the clink.
And that goes for May and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and SFU faculty and youthful eco-activists and pretty much anyone who engages in civil disobedience.
I suspect PMHA has some steel in his spine and some grit in his blood.
And I have no doubt that at some point during the construction of TMX we are going to see it in abundance.
Vancouver, you’ve been warned.