In this moment following the escalation of the civil disobedience campaign in Burnaby, B.C., against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, which has seen 127 people arrested, we would do well to reflect. Because it's a very strange thing that the Canadian state would arrest activists in order to enforce the right of a U.S. multinational to profit from enlarging a pipeline that threatens the climate, Indigenous communities, and the British Columbian coast.
To understand how we got to this moment, it’s useful to remind ourselves that Canada’s is a shallow democracy. The problem isn’t that we don't get to vote for representatives; it's that our direct participation in the country’s democracy extends no further than the occasional choice of which party we surrender the right to make our political decisions to.
The politics of any living society are too abundant to stay contained within any form so minimal. They have a tendency to reassert themselves whenever representatives fail to make decisions equal to the moral challenges of the time. Broad-based mass marches, persistent demonstrations, informed and principled civil disobedience — these are signs of politics overfilling and overflowing a too-depthless system of democracy.
It’s in that light that we should understand the renewed mobilization around the country in response to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion not simply as moments of protest, free speech, or dissent, but as upheavals of democracy, as the continuation of democracy by other means.
These actions are the unfortunately necessary corrective to the Trudeau government’s approach to climate to date.
It’s an approach that the Liberals have been attempting to brand as a sensible if tough-minded balancing of economy and environment, one that has led to an arrangement that works like this: Alberta’s landlocked tar sands industry gets new pipelines and gets to increase annual emissions, but only up to a point, and in return, it will have to accept a concession to environmentalists, who get a gradual and minor national price on carbon intended to advance Canada’s emissions reduction goal, but not disrupt business growth.
It’s not an arrangement that anyone concerned about the future should accept. Canada’s emissions reduction goal is so “highly insufficient” that if every country took a similar approach the world would warm by a catastrophic 3 to 4 C compared to pre-industrial times. And Canada is off-track to meet even that goal. Worse still, due to a quirk of how national greenhouse gas pollution is calculated, countries are responsible for emissions within their own borders, not for what results from their carbon-intensive exports burned elsewhere. But given what is now understood about how little carbon can still be released without exposing millions to the dangers of further climate breakdown, we fail in a vital moral responsibility by building infrastructure meant to accelerate its extraction.
The reality is we are simply no longer at a point in history where policy of this sort is anything but unconscionable. In this light, the Liberal government’s climate approach is, at best, pathological pragmatism, a politics of convenience that willfully ignores the severity of the fateful moment that a generation of uncourageous policies has now brought down around us.
It also ignores previous democratic mobilization. “Disappointed” that President Obama acceded in 2015 to the diverse and massive movement demanding the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta through to Texas, Trudeau focused on other avenues to export Canada’s carbon. This was the context in which in late 2016 — right as global temperature data was pouring in indicating it would be the warmest year ever recorded — the prime minister approved both the Enbridge Line 3 and Kinder Morgan pipelines. The choice of Kinder Morgan was especially contemptuous of the struggles the current protests in Burnaby are a continuation of. In late 2014, over 100 people people were arrested over the course of a dramatic campaign against it in Burnaby. In October 2016, 99 people were arrested on Parliament Hill as part of a youth-led effort to convince Trudeau to reject that same project.
As we know, he wound up ignoring them. But he did so at his own peril. The message they carried that day was this: Approve pipelines, lose the youth vote. Depending on how things progress in Burnaby, the B.C. vote might dissipate as well, meaning that for the second time in history a Liberal prime minister named Trudeau risks alienating a western province over oil.
Would we have had to come to this point in a deeper and more intensive democracy, one where informed members of the public are given the responsibility to decide whether a sector of our economy ought to be a sector of wreckage? It’s difficult to imagine we would. But we are stuck for now with our shallow system, and that will mean democracy will continue to take the forms it has had to on Burnaby Mountain.