Ottawa’s Pipeline Risk

Ottawa’s Pipeline Risk

Like many, I chuckled when Alberta premier Rachel Notley announced earlier this year that her government would ban imports of British Columbia wine as part of a growing interprovincial dispute over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.  Alberta’s wine ban may have since been lifted, but the Trans Mountain impasse has only grown in scope.

In a nutshell, the Trans Mountain pipeline would provide the Alberta oil industry with much-needed access to international markets via the Pacific coast… provided it can cross over British Columbia.  B.C. is blocking construction of the pipeline over its territory due to environmental concerns.

Interprovincial trade disputes are nothing new – one needs only look at the long-standing legal battle between Québec and Newfoundland over Churchill Falls hydroelectricity to see that – but what’s different here is that in recent weeks the federal government has stepped in.  Ottawa seems to be taking the position that it has the constitutional authority to override provincial objections and get the pipeline built.  The Kinder Morgan project, says the federal government, is in the national interest and therefore within federal jurisdiction.

Canada’s founders were wise enough to know our country would be wide and diverse, and that Canada could only work so long as the governments closest to Canadians’ local needs – the provinces – had the constitutional tools to protect Canadians against the one-size-fits-all approach of an overly-centralized state running roughshod over them.  It’s been a delicate balance indeed to grow Canada as a country without tearing it apart, and much of Canada’s modern constitutional troubles arguably come from getting this balancing act not quite right.  For better or worse, the current state of Canada’s constitutional order could be aptly described as an uneasy truce that has miraculously held to become some semblance of stability.  This shouldn’t be read by Ottawa as a licence to forget the lessons of the last generation.

The federal government has so far remained vague on just why a privately-owned pipeline is a matter of national interest (and my requests for clarification have gone unanswered), but declarations by Alberta Liberal MPs seem to point to the potential economic benefit to the country as a whole.  If this is so, the implications may be more far-reaching than Canadians might anticipate.

If large enough profits mean the federal government can overrule B.C.’s objections and force it to pass along Alberta oil under Ottawa’s terms, what does this mean for Newfoundland electricity crossing through Québec?  What does this mean for the myriad of resource and development agreements made between provincial governments and first nations groups?  What does this mean for the major sectors of provincial jurisdiction, like education and healthcare, which clearly also weigh heavily on the Canadian economy?

The Canadian constitution is a complicated and interwoven beast, and Ottawa should be careful not to pull too eagerly at its threads.  Doing so would only add oil to the fire – and I, for one, prefer wine.

Categories: Opinion

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset has an engineering degree from Université Laval and common law and civil law degrees from McGill University, where he also studied economics.

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