As PM Trudeau assembles his Cabinet for an emergency meeting on the Trans Mountain pipeline imbroglio, the Canadian commentariat is fishing around for appropriate historical analogues. John Ibbitson at the Globe suggested yesterday, for example, that "the Trudeau government is confronting a dilemma that wraps the Meech Lake Accord, the standoff at Oka and the FLQ kidnapping into one impossibly complex crisis." Former federal Tory minister Joe Oliver has observed in this morning's Financial Post that "even if voters improbably forgive this colossal failure of leadership, historians will not. Our country’s well-being has been severely damaged." Calgary oil exec Dennis McConaghy has said that "if this project goes down, all hell is going to break loose." Such gloomy prognostications appear to be resonating powerfully among journalists on the environment-and-energy beat, most of whom have been covering the pipeline melodrama as if it bears the weight of both a national constitutional crisis and a planetary moral reckoning.
Almost all of it is overstated. The pipeline issue is not impossibly complex—certainly not in comparison with the 1970 October Crisis or the conscription crises that threatened to sunder Canada during the world wars. Unless the protests get out of hand, lives are not directly at stake. And more to the point, the country is not staring down the barrel of an existential threat. To their immense credit, Canadians are today more united in their grief for the terrible loss of fifteen young hockey players than they are divided by the absurd theatrics of pipeline politicking.
No, what is really at stake is the internationally salient symbolism of a small coterie of noisy eco-activists leveraging a minority provincial government against a prime minister who, by ingratiating himself endlessly with those selfsame activists, has handcuffed his own government with the uncanny precision of a Jimmy Carter. This is the law of unintended consequences at work. Although we cannot know what is happening behind the scenes in Ottawa, Edmonton and Victoria, Mr. Trudeau has given every appearance that his being M.I.A. on the Kinder Morgan file until yesterday was strategic. How else to explain his failure to meet in person with Premier Horgan, or the timing of KML's ultimatum to the feds (which followed Trudeau's visits to BC and Alberta last weekend) or, above all, his stony silence in the face of taunts from the likes of New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart—arrested on Burnaby Mountain last month alongside Green party leader Elizabeth May—about having to deploy the Canadian army to ensure the construction of his hated pipeline?
Certainly Trudeau's persistent equivocation would have baffled most of his Liberal predecessors—with the possible exception of Mackenzie King, who famously made a career out of sacrificing himself (and his ministers) on the altar of national unity. Indeed, the Liberal PM who might have objected most strenuously to Trudeau's dithering was his own father, Pierre, whose "Just watch me" bravado is back in the headlines this week, alongside Premier Notley's "They cannot mess with Alberta" and Jim Carr's "All options are on the table." Here's a thought experiment for Canadians old enough to remember the Liberal cabinet of the early 1980s: what advice might Energy Minister Marc Lalonde have offered PM Trudeau in the face of Premier Horgan's obstructionism? The question answers itself. Yet even this analogy is flawed, given that Trudeau fils is not facing let-the-eastern-bastards-freeze-in-the-dark alienation or the threat of an electoral mutiny west of Winnipeg. On the contrary, polls show that a majority of voters, even in BC, understand that the Kinder Morgan pipeline is in the national interest and wish to see it built.
All things considered, perhaps the best historical analogue for this week's brouhaha is candidate Trudeau's own boxing match with Tory bruiser Patrick Brazeau. Were the PM to follow yesterday's tough messaging—"This is a pipeline in the national interest and it will get built"—with an equally tough action plan, he could fully expect a spike in his domestic approval rating that might even carry through to the 2019 federal election. The critical distinction, however, is that this time around Mr. Trudeau is at war not with a formidable partisan adversary but with himself, i.e. with the progressive, environmentalist, feminist persona that likes to pontificate at the U.N. and shame Canadians. The ostensibly planetary significance of what is happening in Burnaby can be gauged by the fact that not only Canadian-born eco-activists like Andrew Weaver, Naomi Klein, Tzeporah Berman and Karen Mahon are claiming victory (“The era of massive new investments in fossil fuel projects is coming to an end,” Mahon boasts) but that Bill Nye, Bill McKibben and any number of other internationally renowned climate warriors are so deeply invested in it.
The climate chickens have come home to Burnaby to roost, in short, and everyone's watching. Where did the Canadian PM handcuff himself on the Trans Mountain pipeline project? Paris.