By Elaine McCoy
OTTAWA – Members of the Canadian Senate, myself included, have heard from thousands of Canadians for and against Bill C-69, which promises to modernize the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. That response is a good thing.
But an eerie silence prevails around Bill C-48. And that’s odd because C-48 is far more dangerous than C-69.
Bill C-48 proposes a ban against oil tankers off most of Canada’s western coast. It represents a significant threat to national unity by pitting one region against another and communities against communities.
Canada was built on conversation, not conflict. We’ve always talked our way through to solutions that balance everyone’s interests; this has become a fundamental national principle. Bill C-48 promotes conflict, not co-operation.
By banning oil tankers that transport western oil to markets overseas, the bill unfairly inhibits the capacity of three provinces to fully develop their natural resources. It effectively landlocks much of our energy resources, preventing future infrastructure development and frustrating the aspirations of several Indigenous communities.
The result is a plan that appears to disadvantage one part of Canada in favour of another, and pits some communities against others, digging deeper fault lines in the unity of this country.
We ought to be wary when governments offer easy solutions to complex problems. We’re told that banning oil tankers off the B.C. coast will protect the area’s unique ecosystem and preserve the economic livelihoods of coastal fishing communities. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support these claims.
Everyone agrees that the fragile ecosystem of the B.C. coast needs to be protected. However, Bill C-48 doesn’t offer real-time protection for the area. It allows the government to exempt, arbitrarily, any number of oil tankers from the ban. And it does nothing to address other marine traffic like cargo ships, ferries and cruise ships that pose spill risks and have caused damage to coastal communities.
This bill is not a moratorium so much as it’s a cynical distraction from our very real obligations. All Canadians must find a way to save coastal communities while fostering opportunities for all communities that aspire to build sustainable futures.
Some politicians claim the moratorium is a fulfilment of the wishes of local Indigenous communities. Again, the government is selecting one group over another by siding with those communities that support the ban while ignoring other Indigenous communities opposed to it. Leaders from the Nisga’a and Lax Kw’alaams nations, for example, have expressed serious concerns about the moratorium and the lack of meaningful consultation.
Instead of pitting groups of Canadians against each other, the government should make a better effort to find compromise among the various groups that this bill directly affects. That includes the many workers across Canada who face bleak prospects if it proceeds. It’s incumbent on any government to ensure that Canadians are having conversations and not turning deaf ears to their neighbours.
When we stop listening, divisions in national unity quickly start to form.
Sadly, that’s what we’re seeing now. Fractures are developing because many affected Canadians believe their interests are being ignored in favour of others. There seems to be little effort to foster dialogue or find compromise, and that feels like a betrayal of one of the key tenets of Confederation.
Bill C-48 isn’t worth that cost and shouldn’t become law as it stands. It’s an illusion masquerading as a solution. We can do better.
Perhaps some of us are forgetting that Confederation was an achievement of what John A. Macdonald called a “mutual compromise” among the joining provinces. Our Constitution explicitly affirms the commitment of federal and provincial governments to “promote equal opportunities for the well-being of Canadians” and “further economic development to reduce disparity in opportunities.” Providing opportunity for all Canadians, not just one group or region – that’s the promise of Confederation.
It’s a principle worth keeping in mind when considering Bill C-48.
Elaine McCoy, QC, has been an independent senator from Alberta since 2005 and was the first senator to hold the position of facilitator (leader) for the Independent Senators Group.