In the midst of protests, politicking, and global proclamations, the Government of Canada bought the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project on May 29, 2018 for $4.5 billion.
There was a swift, vocal reaction from all sides. This included concerns about the inconsistency of this purchase with the federal government’s commitment to climate action and outcries about how far that money could have gone to address the multiple crises faced by Indigenous communities. There were also objections to giving public money to a large, foreign corporation.
While the federal government’s action polarized Canadians, it also emphasized the need for serious reflection on how we can move forward most constructively.
This issue is tremendously complex. The perspectives of people at different points in this discussion – including oil sands workers, environmentalists, and Indigenous people – each hold truth that is necessary for us to hear. If we approach one another with respect, there is so much we can learn.
Common hopes and fears
Regardless of our positions on pipelines or the oil sands, we all want the same thing. Profits and politics aside, we all want a good life for our family and a solid future for our community.
“We made promises to protect our young ones, and that is what we are doing,” said Cedar George-Parker, a Tsleil-Waututh organizer with Protect the Inlet. Groups like Protect the Inlet and Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) are at the forefront of Indigenous resistance to the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker project. “We’re not just [speaking out] for ourselves,” echoed Eriel Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and Executive Director of ICA, “we’re doing it for our communities and the communities beyond our communities.”
Closely tied to this desire to safeguard future generations is a widespread, deep-seated fear of loss. Indigenous peoples fear the loss of their land, their culture, and their identity. After generations of oppression, they refuse to be left out of the conversation.
Grandmothers also worry. They fear the devastation of the Earth before their grandchildren are old enough to understand its beauty and many gifts. Knowledge about the Earth’s limits weigh heavily.
At the same time oil sands workers fear the loss of their jobs, their homes, and their dignity. Many of them, lured from across the country and around the world by the promise of good money, have known economic hardship. They don’t want to go there again.
“It’s not like people love oil in particular,” said the Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld, an Anglican priest in Fort McMurray. “But the oil sands have given people a chance to have a normal life.”
And industry leaders fear that without increased market access and a higher price for oil, the entire economy will flounder – and much of the social safety net with it.
“Oil production is a major source of revenue to governments at all levels,” notes Dave Bakker, a long-time oil worker and member at Maranatha Christian Reformed Church in Calgary. “Royalty revenue, corporate and employee taxes, and the economic spin-offs through supporting businesses contribute to all the privileges we enjoy today.”
Pipelines are not the solution
When we acknowledge our common desires and fears, it helps us to move away from judging or labelling one another. So too does recognizing our shared responsibility.
While some are more implicated than others, we are all complicit in the ongoing overconsumption of oil-based products. And we all have a role to play in holding our governments accountable – not only for the strength of the economy, but for the well-being of Canadians; not just to trade deals, but to climate change and human rights agreements as well.
As we navigate this difficult terrain, Bishop Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Bishop for the Anglican Church of Canada, emphasizes the importance of “being kind to one another. We have to work a lot harder,” he says. At the same time, he reminds us that “[God’s invitation to] care for creation calls us to pivot our economic well-being towards a sustainable way of living.”
Rev. Emilie Smith is an Anglican priest in B.C.; she was arrested in April at the Kinder Morgan Burnaby terminal. “We’re at a turning point in history,” she told me. “We can no longer think that we can proceed without consequence. It’s time to turn to a whole new way of living with one another and with the Earth.”
CPJ opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion because it would further climate change and inhibit reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. And, we firmly believe that moving forward, the legitimate fears of oil sands workers must be addressed.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions benefits everyone. It is good for all of us when there is cleaner air and water, more predictable weather patterns, and reduced risks to key pollinators like bees and butterflies.
To align with the Paris Agreement on climate change and recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Canada should aim for emission reductions of 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. Canada’s current target would barely get us half way there by 2030.
Pipelines are long-term projects intimately linked to fossil fuel extraction, Canada’s primary source of emissions. They also present a threat to Indigenous peoples. “It is our rights, it is our Indigenous laws, it’s our Indigeneity overall that continues to be eroded and challenged [by these developments],” said ICA’s Deranger.
A just transition for everyone
The key to advancing our hopes and addressing our fears is a just transition.
In a just transition, the weight of change is not borne disproportionately by one group of people. A just transition includes significant investments in low-carbon energy development, and funding for skills development and retraining programs for oil and gas workers. It also incorporates a robust Employment Insurance program to assist those who find themselves temporarily out of work. A just transition gives protection to the most vulnerable and leads to increased social justice for all.
The work of the federal government’s new Just Transition Task Force for coal power workers and communities offers a good reference point for a broader just transition plan for all of Canada that includes oil sands workers.
Rev. Neufeld of Fort McMurray thinks that many oil sands workers would be happy to transition to cleaner sectors. “Having the conversation about a transition is important,” he says. “It’s okay that we’re asking something more of people who are in the industry, but their sacrifice has to be acknowledged.”
“Diversification is good strategy,” adds Calgarian oil worker, Bakker. “Retraining and leveraging the skills and competencies of unemployed people must be implemented to support and establish business in other sectors.”
And developing the renewable energy sector makes solid economic sense. Dollar-for-dollar, investing in renewables and energy efficiency creates more jobs than conventional energy projects.
The federal government now has a tremendous opportunity. Trans Mountain could one day prove financially beneficial, but at a remarkable cost to the climate and to the first peoples of this land. A just transition to a low-carbon economy, on the other hand, offers so much more.
The government often says that “the environment and the economy go hand in hand.” Now, they can put these words into action by investing in infrastructure across the country in a way that meets the needs of communities, respects the rights of Indigenous peoples, promotes sustainable jobs, and increases climate ambition for the benefit of us all.