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Rights + Justice

Creepy Canada

Now we're the Great Weird North, where citizens are to be spied on and not heard.

Mitchell Anderson 11 Feb

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

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Prime Minister as stalker of the people.

Is Canada getting creepy? It's getting close to Valentine's Day and perhaps a good time for Canadians to check in on our relationship with our federal government. The key ingredient in any relationship is trust -- something that has to go both ways. And I for one am not feeling the love.

Revelations last week that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) was spying on Canadians cell phones through airport Wi-Fi networks only came to light due to documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Ontario's privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said she was "blown away" by the news, adding that CSEC's methods seemed those of a "totalitarian state, not a free and open society."

Snowden's cache of leaked documents also showed that that CSEC was helping the U.S. government to use their embassy as a listening post on Canadian soil during the G20 summit in 2010. Last month a federal court judge ruled that CSEC made a "deliberate decision to keep the court in the dark" about asking foreign governments to spy on Canadians.

CSEC remains the only security agency of our four closest intelligence allies to lack oversight from elected officials. With no apparent sense of irony, Prime Minister Harper's national security adviser warned that any additional public safeguards on CSEC "should be viewed with caution."

Not to worry. The person chosen to chair the Security Intelligence Review Committee responsible for keeping an impartial eye on Canada's security apparatus was former Harper cabinet minister Chuck Strahl. Small world.

However he was forced to resign when it was revealed that he was moonlighting as a lobbyist for the Enbridge Northern Gateway project -- an obvious conflict given that CSIS is spying on anti-pipeline activists -- in partnership with the RCMP and private oil companies.

Creepy legislation

If the "Harper Government" is suspicious about the general Canadian population, they are downright paranoid about people opposed to pipelines. In 2012, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver referred to Canadians questioning pipeline expansions as "environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade." A month later Ottawa released a revised anti-terrorism strategy that lumped environmentalists in with white supremacists as a threat to national security.

Seven major environmental organizations are now being targeted by Ottawa to have their charitable status revoked. Somehow Finance Minister Jim Flaherty found an extra $8 million in the 2012 belt-tightening budget that was specifically earmarked for Canada Revenue Agency to pursue some of the most vocal critics of pipeline projects. As Stephen Harper promised, our country is becoming unrecognizable.

Not creepy enough for you? Last week the government introduced sweeping changes to Canada's Election Act without bothering to consult with Canada's chief electoral officer, who called the new bill an affront to democracy. News enthusiasts will recall how a federal court judge determined the database controlled by the Conservative Party was implicated in what he called "widespread" electoral fraud in 2011 and that party lawyers employed "trench warfare in an effort to prevent this case from coming to a hearing on the merits."

If the government doesn't trust Canadians, why should we trust them? For democracy to function the public needs to have faith that our regulators are making impartial decisions on contentious projects like pipelines based on sound science and a good faith effort to listen to their citizens.

In this case the regulator is the National Energy Board (NEB), whose important mandate is to convene public hearings, listen to expert evidence and determine whether a project is in the public interest.

The omnibus budget bill of 2012, creepily called the "Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act" severed the independence of the NEB, making all their decisions subject to cabinet approval.

Rammed through parliament and the Senate in slightly over two months, this sprawling bill effectively gutted almost every environmental law in the country and specifically exempted energy projects like pipelines from independent environmental assessments. Who says lobbying doesn't pay?

In spite of these chilling changes, Canadians came out in droves to participate in the Enbridge Northern Gateway hearings hosted by the NEB. Public hearings in twenty-one communities heard oral presentations from 1,179 people (only two of which were in favour of approval). Another 9,400 letters were submitted by the public -- Elections Canada could wish for such enthusiastic participation.

Creepy rules for who can participate

While there was obviously an appetite for citizens to be heard by regulators, the process seemed rigged from the start. Apart from Minister Oliver's public cheerleading of all things pipeline, the NEB only considered upstream benefits like jobs while ignoring upstream negatives like carbon emissions. Their glossy approval report is thin gruel compared to the level of detail considered by the US government in the recent Keystone XL assessment.

Since then the NEB has become even more hostile to public participation in pipeline proposals. Only those with a "direct interest" can apply to be heard. The Line 9 reversal in Ontario had an unannounced two-week window for citizens to somehow find and fill out an arcane 10-page application form. No community hearings were held and NEB is now required to release a decision within 15 months.

These new barriers succeeded in limiting the total number of public participants to only 160 -- about two per cent of those heard from in the Enbridge hearings -- even though the pipeline runs through an area that includes fully half of the Canadian population.

The review of the contentious Kinder Morgan pipeline through Burnaby has a similarly short window and closes Feb. 12. Apparently not even pretending to care, Kinder Morgan was outed by a local paper for switching their preferred pipeline route through the middle of Burnaby days before the public comment period closes.

Creepy ways to handle risk

If approved, this massive increase in diluted bitumen piped from Alberta would see tanker traffic through Vancouver harbour increase by 330 per cent to more than one transit per day through the shallow Second Narrows channel. What could go wrong?

Plenty. Canadians are being told that pipelines to access Asian markets are an economic necessity for our nation, even though some economists maintain exactly the opposite is true. Even accepting the purported boon to our economy rather than merely boosting oil industry profits, what are the economic risks of a tanker accident?

The Vancouver economy is worth over $100 billion per year, about seven per cent of GDP of the entire country. A national recession can be triggered by a reduction in GDP of as little as one per cent -- close to the amount generated on a daily basis at Vancouver's international port.

The relatively small spill of diluted bitumen in the Kalamazoo River is still being cleaned up almost four years later because sunken heavy oil is so difficult to recover. Thirty-four AFRAmax tankers per month are planned to squeeze through the Second Narrows channel with less than two metres of under hull clearance during a 20-minute high tide window. They also carry 25 times more diluted bitumen than spilled in Kalamazoo. What would be the economic impact to Canada of a tanker accident in our nation's busiest harbour? Given the potentially catastrophic risks, why are we even considering this?

These questions require serious public debate but the current approval process for pipelines seems little more than a containment exercise for dissent rather than a good faith effort to reach sensible policy decisions.

Creepy trust issues

Just how far gone is the credibility of the NEB? Last week it was revealed that the federal regulator sat on an incident report since 2011 about a massive natural gas pipeline explosion in northern Alberta that sent flames 50 metres into the air.

Apparently TransCanada Pipelines had allowed 95 per cent the pipe to corrode away in spite of a commitment to conduct physical inspections long before it had deteriorated to the point of failure. The CBC had to access the report through a lengthy access to information request because the NEB failed to make it available to the public. Could keeping this embarrassing report under wraps have anything to do with the pending presidential decision on TransCanada's Keystone XL project? Don't be such a cynic...

As Canadians queue up for another round of public hearings about pipelines, we should ask ourselves: is our government really interested in what we have to say?

For better or worse, Canadians and their government have a long-term relationship. Without trust, any relationship goes south fast. It's becoming clear that the "Harper Government" doesn't trust Canadians, and that Canadians shouldn't trust them either.

We deserve better from this relationship. More trust. More money. More respect.

As we approach Valentine's Day, Canadians should face up to the hard truth that this government doesn't really love us anymore. They are having an affair with the oil industry.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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