NAFTA arbitration can hurt communities

Local residents on Digby Neck used simple messaging to tell the story. Photo by Ruth Denton

(May 11, 2018)

It is a costly and unnecessary lesson, but the federal government’s unsuccessful challenge of a North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration ruling could not have come at a better time.

As we renegotiate — or just scrap — NAFTA, perhaps the government will accept what environmentalists have said all along: the current language allows Canada to be sued by companies for protecting our environment and preserving the communities where we live.

Bilcon, a Delaware company, may be awarded up to $500 million for failing, in the end, to explode a significant part of Nova Scotia and crush it into gravel, providing cheap roadbed material for New Jersey highways. The gravel would have been shipped across the right whale breeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, also destroying lucrative lobster and herring fisheries in the process and effectively rendering Digby Neck uninhabitable.

However the company tried to spin things, this was the project. Local politicians were “persuaded” this was a good idea; local people had visits from folks genially offering to buy land — and only after the fact did people realized these were actually agents for Bilcon, which (by the way) still owns much of the land in question.

You might wonder why Bilcon would bother to seek environmental approval for such a destructive project. I did, when I first heard about it — how could it ever be approved? — but this one strikes close to home. The quarry marine terminal would have been built on land my grandfather once owned and the communities slated for devastation included those where the descendants of my European ancestors have lived since the 1780s — and where relatives still do.

So, without support from either federal or provincial representatives, the local people protested when the implications of the project sank in. They had to fight hard to get a hearing, or to have their concerns heard. Some, such as my aunt — who was one of the leaders — were either threatened with lawsuits or were sued by Bilcon for amounts guaranteed to scare people into silence.

It didn’t work. Finally, with the support of large environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club and with public exposure from an article by Noah Richler in The Walrus, the rest of Canada realized that what was going to happen to Digby Neck could just as easily happen to them and to their own communities.

I fumed from a distance, watching events unfold — I still think a great slogan would have been “It’s Your Neck, Too,” superimposed on a picture of Digby Neck.

The locals were more prosaic, as signs reading “Stop the Quarry” proliferated from Digby to Briar Island.

Belatedly, and despite a feeble environmental-assessment process, the two levels of government (arguably after one election and faced with another) realized that continued support for the project would admit Canada’s resources — and its leaders — were for sale to the highest bidder.

Officially, the reason given was that an environmental review panel concluded the project was “not in keeping with community values.”

So, what were these “community values” that surprised everyone later in the process? What “community values” are now potentially going to cost all Canadians as much as $500 million?

Simply, to have a community at all. To preserve the country we have on loan from our children, the resources of land, water and air that are our heritage, resources that we have a responsibility to protect if we want to preserve a decent quality of life for ourselves and others into an environmentally-uncertain future.

This project should have been dismissed out of hand, right from the start. The fact it went far enough to result in a NAFTA arbitration hearing shows our environmental-assessment rules were (and still are) laughably weak.

When Canadians are confronted with the kind of corporate greed that allows others elsewhere to profit from the misery of the people who live where the damage is done, we need to demonstrate that while this might work in other places, it does not work here.

Or, at least, not at the moment. I am concerned that the blatant disregard for similar “community values” reflected in pipeline decisions shows the federal government still has moral lessons to learn.

I worry that it will trade away Digby Neck, after all, to dodge the NAFTA ruling.

But those communities whose values were finally respected were originally created by people who knew that loyalty and respect come at a price. They were United Empire Loyalists, who lost everything because of the American revolution.

Faced with the same thing happening 200 years later, their descendants were not going to let it happen again. Nor should we.

Peter Denton is a descendant of United Empire Loyalists who settled in the communities of Little River, White Cove and Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.

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What defines our ‘national interest”?

(April 12, 2018)

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr again took the microphone this past week as “Minister of Pipelines,” promoting Kinder Morgan on behalf of his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

We were told, emphatically, that against all common sense, ecological wisdom, economic prudence and foresight, the Trans Mountain pipeline “is in the national interest.”

Given that the protests in British Columbia against the pipeline will only become louder and more sustained after such an inflammatory statement — and that Carr has said all options remain open to the federal government — we now have to wonder whether the Canadian military might even be deployed against Canadian citizens on behalf of a foreign multinational corporation to ensure “the pipeline will be built.”

After all, the prime minister has tweeted it:

“Canada is a country of the rule of law, and the federal government will act in the national interest. Access to world markets for Canadian resources is a core national interest. The Trans Mountain expansion will be built.”

There was grim irony in the timing of Carr’s announcement. His news conference took place 101 years to the hour that Canadian troops were preparing in the darkness for their assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917. They did not choose that hill to die on — the government of the day decided that it was in the national interest to attack a stronghold no one else had been able to capture — but we would like to think they died believing they were fighting for freedom.

Afterward, we created the mythology that their sacrifice helped define our nation and have since proudly proclaimed, “The world needs more Canada.”

Not this kind of Canada, it doesn’t. “The true North strong and free” should not be for sale to oil companies, whatever their apparent influence on our politicians. The credibility of the federal government is on the line, but for entirely other reasons than Carr, Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley might claim.

When such dubious claims about the national interest are able to trump ecological concerns, the land rights of First Nations people, negotiated commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the safety of local communities — all while threatening environmental defenders — Canada hardly looks like a country others should emulate.

If, as Manitoba’s senior minister, Carr wants to do something useful, there are a few things closer to home he should consider: the port of Churchill continues to languish, rail lines unrepaired; meanwhile, Russia seeks to take control of an undefended and inaccessible North even as China buys into the Arctic Council because it sees cross-Arctic shipping as part of its global “belt and road” initiative.

Canada needs a fully functional deep-water port in Churchill, connected to a continent-wide rail system, but Carr and the federal government have done nothing about that for two years.

Similarly, moving last year’s bumper crop of Canadian grain to market would also be in the national interest, but the Canadian rail system continues to deteriorate and decline and (again) nothing has been done about it.

We hear excuse after excuse about the lack of funds, in order to justify not doing these and many other things that are in the national interest, but when it comes to jamming a pipeline through to the B.C. coast for Kinder Morgan, there is money and energy and commitment, well, to burn.

And burning is the issue. The Alberta oilsands are a made-in-Canada carbon time bomb. We can effectively render futile the rest of the planet’s efforts to avoid catastrophic temperature rise if we dig up that dirty Alberta crude and ship it out.

What is more, the government refuses to admit that we do not need this pipeline for the transportation to market of current fossil-fuel supplies. The whole project is predicated on an expanded future global demand for oil, at high prices, with markets willing to take this low-quality crude and spend the extra money required to refine it into something usable.

This Liberal pipeline policy is dangerously delusional at every level. We need to consume fewer fossil fuels, not more, if we want to have a chance to limit global warming. Smart money for years now has been aimed at alternative energy development instead.

If the pipeline is built regardless of opposition, as the prime minister has threatened to do, the Liberals will lose every seat in British Columbia, forever — and so they should.

When the ocean levels rise, it won’t be Alberta that floods.

Besides, will today’s Canadian Armed Forces, related by profession and self-sacrifice to those who went over the top at Vimy Ridge, follow orders to do to their fellow citizens whatever it takes to get that pipeline built?

Somehow, I doubt it. I don’t believe that’s their idea of Canada, either.

Peter Denton is a Winnipeg-based writer, environmental activist and scholar.

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Politics more absurd every day

(October 5, 2017)

Political discourse has become more like theatre of the absurd. Every day, inane behaviour and baffling comments from politicians crowd out more important issues in the news.

To even call it discourse is a stretch, because discourse requires rationality and respect that is usually absent from the chaos that politics at all levels seems to reflect.

Political analysis has become the job of late-night comedians, because no one else has the skill set to handle its absurdities.

Those absurdities also disguise what else is going on, as the attention of viewers (and voters) is focused on the daily spectacle, where charge and counter-charge have to be more and more outlandish to attract a crowd.

Combine this general distraction with a major drop in news reporting and politicians rarely face the kind of media scrum or the tough questions that used to be a significant feature of the political landscape. There are not enough reporters, enough news programs or enough newspapers, to offer the challenges to power that the Fourth Estate has traditionally provided for nearly 200 years.

In other words, politicians are close to operating with impunity, able to brush off television questions with a 10-second soundbite that says less than a tweet and rarely pushed to explain themselves in any depth.

Canadian politicians are luckiest of all because even at their most reckless, neither the vitriol nor the inanity of their comments come anywhere close to what Americans seem to expect. They may look good by comparison, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean much.

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