Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.

The Hook: Political news, freshly caught

VIEW: Pipeline 'nation-building' argument is just plain wrong

In a speech to the Energy and Mines ministers' conference on Aug. 26, 2013, then minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver invoked "nation-building" as an argument in favour of expanded oilsands production and pipeline construction. Nation-building is not confined to our history, he said, calling it Canada's "obligation to the future." To bolster his nation-building argument, he invoked the spirit of one of Canada's founding fathers, prime minister John A. Macdonald, likening the current government's obsession with petroleum and pipelines to the building of the trans-continental railroad that connected our nation. Another nation-building example shared by Oliver was that of building the St. Lawrence Seaway. The speech clearly struck a chord with the audience, garnering enthusiastic applause.

The "nation-building" argument in favour of expanded oilsands production and pipeline construction picked up steam in January 2014 when Martha Hall Findlay, a fellow in the School of Public Policy at my university, argued in the Globe and Mail that, in order to "get Northern Gateway done," the Canadian government should recast it as a nation-building project. To make her point, Findlay invoked some nation-building examples: the CPR and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Then this week, Findlay once again made the nation-building argument in the Globe and Mail, this time writing that when it comes to Northern Gateway, "You don't build a nation by saying no." In making her point this time, Findlay shares the story of how "other major nation-building projects in Canada's history were plenty controversial in their time," and again cites the examples of the CPR and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Going back to August 2013, Minister Oliver also made similar remarks about the same examples. He too pointed out that these projects were controversial and faced 'fierce opposition'. The similarities between Martha Hall Findlay's writing and Joe Oliver's talking points don't end there. In August 2013, Oliver asked "just imagine how different our history would have been if we had said no to building the great railroad." Later, he asked "imagine if we had said no to the St. Lawrence Seaway."

Here's the thing: The analogies being drawn to nation-building are dead wrong. In policy circles, "nation-building" is the process of using the powers of the state to create a national identity, a raison d'être. Historians and scholars have pointed out that nation-building is typically practiced in dysfunctional, unstable, or failed states; these countries often receive help in the form infrastructure, money, and dispute resolution tools to support their fledgling governments, and to increase social stability. Iraq and Afghanistan are currently in the midst of nation-building exercises. Canada, by contrast, has not engaged in nation-building for a very, very long time. If anything, the current policies and rhetoric of the federal government are tearing at the fabric of Canada's very strong and stable national identity.

There's another, more philosophical issue at play here. That is, if we want to have a more meaningful national conversation about government decisions that will affect our future -- not nation-building, mind you -- we need to work harder to develop and nurture a more diverse marketplace for ideas. Those among us who are lucky enough to be able to attract the nation's attention, especially those of us the academic community, owe Canadians more than serving as an echo chamber for the government's ideas and talking points. The same is true of other stakeholders and interest groups.

On this point, I can't help but feel that that Findlay's and Oliver's messages, besides being incorrect from a scholarly and historical perspective, are just a little too similar for comfort. In my opinion, they serve as little more than a distraction from more tangible concerns about the importance of energy development in Canada, as well as our national identity as a leader on the global stage.

Joseph Árvai is the Svare Chair in Applied Decision Research in the Department of Geography, as well as in the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment, & Economy at the University of Calgary. He can be reached on Twitter at @DecisionLab.

Find more in:

What have we missed? What do you think? We want to know. Comment below. Keep in mind:


  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Connect with each other

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, flag suspect activity.
comments powered by Disqus