On Wednesday, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh finally issued a statement on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline debacle — a full three days after the Texas-based company announced it was suspending all “non-essential spending” on the project until it could be guaranteed smooth sailing, sending both the Alberta NDP and federal Liberals into a frenzy.
“Today we are calling on the federal government to partner with B.C. and to submit a joint reference question to the Supreme Court,” Singh told reporters at Parliament Hill. “Let's use the institutions we trust to move forward.”
This statement is more than a disappointment for progressives hoping for a strong leadership position on the pipeline showdown. Singh has missed a rare opportunity to clearly assert his position on both the pipeline and his vision for a rapid transition to a low-carbon society that prioritizes reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, good unionized work and affordable housing.
Unless he immediately moves to rectify this — and realizes his job is to actually do politics, not just offer esoteric tweaks to existing approaches — the federal NDP might as well sit the 2019 election out.
Hedging and avoiding
Singh’s position on the Edmonton-to-Burnaby pipeline has never been exactly clear.
It took a month after launching his bid for federal NDP leader for him to confirm that he opposed both TransCanada’s Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipelines. That announcement followed significant pressure from fellow leadership candidates Niki Ashton and Peter Julian in a debate the week prior.
Despite formally opposing the pipeline in his climate change plan, Singh’s stance seemed to become more nebulous after he won the leadership. In February, he told the National Observer that “if [Trans Mountain is] subject to an environmental assessment that was modernized, that’s science-based, that had all the concerns around the environment addressed, then and only then can we move forward.”
He’s continued to deploy the “environmental assessment” angle since then, pointing out that Prime Minister Trudeau pledged to assess the project under modernized processes only to later change course and accept the National Energy Board review conducted under Harper-era rules as legitimate — which is all true.
But Singh’s trip to British Columbia in March only further confused things after he skipped the massive mobilization in Burnaby against the pipeline. His Twitter moment summarizing the trip concluded that “B.C. was a vibe” but didn’t even acknowledge the unprecedented direct action that took place while he was there.
Now he’s appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada: an institution that serves as a bastion of private property rights and colonial domination. As Anishinaabe political scientist Hayden King observed on Twitter, the Supreme Court has already ruled that governments can override Aboriginal title if the project is deemed in the “national interest.”
Clear stand needed
From a purely political point of view, the decision to remain effectively agnostic on the project may make sense — if you’re a lanyard-wearing technocrat who doesn’t actually entertain the thought of making policy decisions based in firm convictions.
It simply doesn’t make any sense for Singh to appeal to the failures of the highly technical environmental assessment processes (either the ones set by Harper in the 2012 legislation that decimated existing approaches, or Trudeau’s new proposed impact assessment rules in Bill C-68 and C-69).
If Singh is actually serious about addressing climate change, respecting Indigenous rights and protecting local environments and wildlife, there’s no way that the pipeline will ever proceed under his watch. He should say that. Clearly.
Same goes for channelling his concerns through the lens of the legal system. While Singh has a background in law, most Canadians don’t — and won’t come out en masse to support a party that pins its ambitions on such an esoteric institution. Furthermore, there’s a fairly reasonable chance that the Supreme Court would rule in favour of the federal government and project proponent, completely undermining any potential case Singh could make against the pipeline.
Finance minister Bill Morneau said as much when asked about Singh’s latest take on the subject: “We are in a position where we know that this is federal jurisdiction. We've been clear. We don't see a need to refer something to the Supreme Court of Canada when we already know that its a federal jurisdiction.”
Yes, Singh is in a difficult position, presiding over two warring factions of his own party in Alberta and British Columbia. The Alberta NDP has been fully co-opted by the oil industry and is vehemently pursuing policies that will result in violated Indigenous title and carbon lock-in for decades to come. Singh has to realize that they represent two completely different directions for the party that can’t fundamentally be resolved — regardless of how many times he incants the phrase “love and courage.”
The likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have already demonstrated the incredible political shifts that can occur in a populace if they’re presented with tangible, people-oriented policies.
As a result, it’s not enough for Singh to simply oppose the project. While that would be a refreshing turn — especially if anchored in the language of Indigenous rights and the urgent need to address Canada’s 66 megatonne overshooting of its 2030 climate target — it wouldn’t address many of the lingering questions that people have about what a low-carbon society will actually look like.
The oil sands only represent two per cent of the country’s GDP and 22,400 direct jobs. Yet decades of corporate propaganda and hijacking of formerly combative politicians like Alberta Premier Rachel Notley have rendered the image of the oilsands far larger in the average voter’s mind that it actually is.
Big alternative vision needed
The response to that isn’t to retreat into small-is-beautiful degrowth baloney, but to aim equally as large: taxing high-income earners and corporations, cracking down on offshore tax havens and loopholes, cutting funding to the military and policing, and using the proceeds to launch unprecedented public investments in everything from public transit, to energy efficiency retrofits, to renewable energy, to truly affordable and green housing — with a primary focus on Indigenous nations and other historical victims of environmental racism.
This would create an incredible surge in good unionized employment, as well as the ability for workers in fossil fuel industries to retrain for jobs that will last for beyond the next oil bust.
Many centrist pundits criticize anti-pipeline protesters as being overly focused on Trans Mountain. What they’re missing is that people risking arrest in Burnaby and using their voices across the country to oppose the project don’t just see something to be beaten, but a new future to behold.
Singh has the brains and charisma to tap into this revolutionary spirit — and if he did he’d have a very good shot at becoming prime minister in 2019.