Opinion

Scolding BC's 'Forces of No,' Our Premier Crassly Divides Us

When it comes to LNG, her story is us against them. But in the Skeena, a powerful counter-narrative is rising.

By Ian Gill 6 Feb 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

Our premier actually said something true last week.

''The world is being divided into two,'' Christy Clark told reporters in Vancouver on the heels of an historic Salmon Nation Summit in Prince Rupert. There, a powerful coalition of First Nations leaders, scientists, citizens, elected officials, sport and commercial fishermen and environmentalists declared Lelu Island, at the mouth of the Skeena River, off limits to industrial development.

Our premier's reaction was to label them ''the forces of no.''

Remember Bill Bennett, the Social Credit premier who labelled his critics ''bad British Columbians?'' Remember Glen Clark, the NDP premier who called forest activists in the Great Bear Rainforest ''enemies of B.C.'' for daring to question NDP forest practices? Now we have a Liberal premier who thinks it's OK to publicly discount people with dissenting views. Clark went out of her way to demonize a whole segment of her constituents, stigmatizing their beliefs, their passions, their genuine concerns, and their heartfelt vision for a prosperous future for their families, as nothing more than NIMBYism.

Our premier crassly caricatured people who are opposed to the mass industrialization of their region as ''people that will say no to everything'' -- dividing them from the people she stands up for, ''the people who want to find a way to get to yes, recognizing that's how you create jobs, that's how you build a future for your kids, even sometimes when it's really hard… But just because it's hard doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn't mean you should be a quitter.''

That last comment is a bit rich but it's also revealing. Our premier has failed to deliver on almost all her election promises, and among her more notable lapses is not getting a much ballyhooed liquefied natural gas industry up and running in the province. Actually not even one viable project, let alone a thriving industry. Thankfully, a combination of spirited local resistance, dreadful market conditions, inept negotiations by the province and selective and divisive consultation with First Nations -- these, not a few nattering nabobs of northern negativism, have hobbled Clark's LNG horse.

Ah, but like some old nag rounding the last bend in a long steeplechase, our flagging premier can at least lay claim to the fact that she is not a quitter. Why would she even say that? No one has accused her of being a quitter, so what sufficiently troubles her subconscious for her to use a phrase that, in politics at least, most resembles the parting words of another self-styled warrior against the forces of darkness, Richard Nixon?

So mark the date: January 25, 2016, which will stand as the first sign of an admission from Clark that her LNG house of cards is collapsing in a heap of its own inherent contradictions. Instead of being punished for her failures, she will seek to be rewarded at the polls for her pluck, her fighting spirit against the forces of no. What a load of boff.

Yes, the world is being divided in two -- but it is Clark and her industry pals who are doing the dividing because their powers of persuasion are proving unequal to the task. Her intemperate comments were quickly seized upon by the media, thanks to the nicely simplistic, black and white, us vs. them, good against evil nature of the battle she sees herself as waging and, heroically, not resigning from.

It is a shockingly unsophisticated view of the world and a deeply divisive one. It is fair enough -- in what promises to be a rancorous 15 months or so of politicking between now and the 2017 election -- for our premier to attack the official opposition as being against her agenda, because they mostly are and they have ample opportunity to explain why and what their alternatives are.

But when citizens dare to assemble in the public square -- citizens who are squarely in the firing zone of Clark's industrial carpet-bombing of the north -- well, Clark just lumps and splits and disdains the diverse opinions of those who happen not to agree with her. She starkly demonstrates a failure not just of political leadership but also of moral leadership. Suddenly, and we've seen this before (Stephen Harper, anyone?), she exposes herself as not our premier at all, but as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for a powerful few. She no longer pretends to govern for all British Columbians -- just those who agree with her or at least swallow her spin. What a grave strategic error. What a spectacular communications failure. What a fool.

'Words are coin'

''Words are coin,'' writes the brilliant South African-born novelist J.M. Coetzee. ''Words alienate.''

Our premier, to make alien her supposed enemies, to ascribe to them the militaristic character of a ''force,'' has decided to eschew discourse, however difficult, and instead revert to the sort of name-calling that one might expect from a school-yard bully. Consider closely this utterance from her press conference last week: ''I'm not sure what science the forces of no bring together up there except that it's not really about the science,'' said Clark. ''It's not really about the fish. It's just about trying to say no. It's about fear of change. It's about a fear of the future.''

Our premier, in Vancouver, refers to people ''up there.'' She distances them not just philosophically, but geographically. They're ''up there'' and by extension their views are out there. ''It's not really about the science,'' our premier says, even though the Salmon Nation Summit presented strong, peer-reviewed science that raises serious concerns about the Petronas project and its threat to wild salmon. ''It's not really about the fish,'' our premier says, and yet, actually, it is all about the fish. ''It's about fear of change. It's about a fear of the future.'' Which, in truth, it absolutely is. People up there do fear for their futures, which is why they devote themselves to participating, and in many instances, expressing dissenting opinions through processes that time and again seem to favour developers.

''The fish will be supported,'' our premier says. Really? How? Will they be taken into foster care to feed the disproportionate number First Nations kids currently ''supported'' by Clark's family-first government? What an absurd thing to say. The impact will be ''mitigateable,'' our premier avers. The word, actually, is mitigable, and there is ample evidence the world over that it is simply not possible to engineer fish habitat once you've destroyed it.

Our premier's language, how she spends or devalues the coin of our many co-existing cultures in B.C., is absolutely vital to the success (or failure) of our shared (or divided) narratives, be us First Nations or non-native citizens, be us pro- or anti-development, be us AIYFYs (anything in your front yard) or NIMBYs. Language matters because the decision to greenlight the Petronas project, or any of the many other projects planned for ''up there,'' won't really turn on what the science says, what the economics say, or what's good for northern communities. These will be political decisions, investment decisions, cloaked in the language of growth and progress -- or at least they will be unless there is a strong shift in the narrative away from development, jobs, and energy security, and towards community well-being, environment, climate, and respect for aboriginal rights and title.

Our premier is happy to ignore or trivialize the stories of how we got here, what has shaped our society, and how it is we have actually prospered when so many other cultures are fracturing in every corner of the globe. She'll put on her CIO cap for an exercise like the Great Bear Rainforest deal that was finalized a few days after the salmon summit, waxing mystical about ''a singular place -- a gift -- for us to preserve … an expression of our collective love of this land and this coast.'' But she inherited the Great Bear deal; she didn't author it. Nor does it seem to have occurred to her that the most important salmon river in the Great Bear is actually the Skeena River, at the mouth of which Petronas wants to builds its massive project.

On her fool's errand on behalf of Petronas, not her people, the premier ignores the learnings from the Great Bear Rainforest model she has been schooled to extol, choosing instead to divide people along party lines while she wields the hammer in a fire sale auction of the Skeena's cultures, communities, and ecologies in exchange for a dirty, 24-hour-a-day, glaring, clanging, razor-wire-encircled, guard-dog-patrolled and dangerously combustible industry run by bloodless offshore owners who have no relationship to those lands and who bring nothing but money to these shores.

'Projects,' 'benefits,' 'social licence'

In 2003, Ted Chamberlin published an insightful book, whose introduction stems from something that occurred in one of the upriver First Nations currently concerned not just with the pipeline proposed by Petronas, but a rash of other energy development plans up there.

''It happened at a meeting between an Indian community in northwest British Columbia and some government officials,'' Chamberlin writes. ''The officials claimed the land for the government. The natives were astonished by the claim. They couldn't understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally, one of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question: ''If this is your land, where are your stories?'' (That became the title of the book).

''(The elder) spoke in English but then he moved into Gitxsan… All of a sudden everyone understood… even though the government foresters didn't know a word of Gitxsan, and neither did some of his Gitxsan companions. But what they understood was more important: how stories give meaning and value to the places we call home. How they bring us close to the world we live in by taking us into a world of words; how they hold us together and at the same time keep us apart.'' (The subtitle of Chamberlin's book is Finding Common Ground.)

Words. How they hold us together -- and how they also keep us apart -- units of currency, each with a value, some words worth more than others. For instance, when Clark talks about ''getting to yes,'' she obviously would like everyone to agree with her, but it doesn't matter if you don't. What she cares about is getting Petronas to yes as an investor, getting enough First Nations leaders to yes to tick off the requirement for consultation, and getting enough scientists behind the environmental assessments favourable to her plans.

What of the proponent? What language does Petronas use? Companies use more spin than a hotel clothes dryer to prosecute their agendas and they're usually very good at it (Enbridge's epic fail, Northern Gateway, notwithstanding). You've seen the ads, all the soft-core corporate porn about local people, environmental stewardship, jobs, growth.

They talk about their ''projects'' as if they are as harmless as a kid sitting at the kitchen table with some cardboard, some crayons, and some Scotch tape. The word project comes from the Latin word projectum that rises from the Latin verb proicere: "before an action." Companies, in partnership with the government, project their intended actions onto a place, and by extension onto any inhabitants who happen to be in the way. They project a vision for a development that confers on those inhabitants many ''benefits.''

''Benefits,'' especially for First Nations, are said to be things like access to clean water, better roads, maybe a community centre or a much-needed health clinic, maybe better schools. You might argue these are things that all citizens of Canada are entitled to as a matter of course, but apparently, no, they are merely trade items -- modern day beads and blankets -- offered up by those with power and money in exchange for a ''social licence'' to operate. That phrase, ''social licence,'' has become reified in some people's minds as just another checklist item on the journey to project approval. It's a term I am really learning to dislike.

Then there is the science. Or in the case of Pacific NorthWest LNG, which is the local vehicle for Petronas, the work of ''globally renowned scientists and experienced engineers'' who are working to build ''one of the most environmentally sustainable …''Well, you get the idea. You can also see the movie.

Those scientists and engineers are, of course, consultants who miraculously find that there are no threats to wild salmon from a $11.4-billion gas hub and shipping facility that will flatten Lelu Island and protrude more than one kilometre into the river, right next to the most sensitive salmon habitat on the coast. Have no fear, this will be a ''responsible, regulated development'' -- just like all the other developments that the National Energy Board has proven incapable of monitoring and effectively regulating.

Then there are jobs, which are characterized as benefits, too. But when I last looked, a job was an exchange of work for compensation. It is not a ''benefit,'' any more than the ''revenues'' that Petronas will earn will translate into any semblance of community well-being. And all that ''monitoring,'' and ''mitigation'' and ''restoration'' that companies like to talk about -- well, they are all downstream and upstream consequences of the inescapable damage that gets done in the first place, something that strangely never makes it into the script.

Then there are ''stakeholders.'' Aurora LNG, another misbegotten proposal planned for Digby Island on Prince Rupert's doorstep, talks about building ''long-term, positive relationships with stakeholders.'' Thus, by their very arrival on the scene with a proposed ''project,'' Aurora alters the status of people who have lived, for decades, or continuously for thousands of years, as suddenly being people with a stake in what happens in a development they never asked for in the first place. They promise ''ongoing engagement'' with their stakeholders. And so it goes, words dropping from their mouths like money from a slot machine in the casino economy, each word or phrase another coin in a dominant narrative that has driven the globe to the outer limits of even a pretence of sustainability.

To question that language is itself an act of defiance that helps to unravel the dominant narrative -- but it's not enough. What is desperately needed is an entirely new narrative that arises from and propels us towards a future worth living in.

Tapping Skeena's genius

Ric Young, distinguished visiting professor of social innovation at Ryerson University, a good friend and sometime colleague, claims that what he calls the battle for 21st century well-being is, at its core, a battle for narrative.

A few years ago, Young prepared for a speech in which he posed a question: Can a city be a genius? He put a small team of researchers to work in advance of his talk and they found story after story of cities that were breaking through.

Young told his audience, ''Normally we hear the stories that are problem-focused -- stories of despair, dysfunction, disenfranchisement. The story that's all loaded up with data about the problem that is entirely focused on what's wrong. I think it's a debilitating story. A story that dampens our spirit and limits our imagination… and our courage. The more we tell that story, the more we convince ourselves that we are stuck. But we are not stuck. Big change is possible. A city can be a genius.''

To which I would add: surely a region can, too. Perhaps, confronted as it is with pressures and appeals that no one could have anticipated even five years ago, the Skeena region's genius moment might be right now. Maybe in the Skeena there is a chance for people to formulate not just for themselves, but also for the world, a new narrative that privileges personal and community growth over mindless economic growth, for which the primary metric is well-being. It is a narrative that would be utterly disruptive to the status quo, so what's not to like about that?

The very idea of a ''disruptive narrative'' is one we owe to Ric Young, who says: ''Compelling stories capture our imagination, engage us emotionally, and move us. Narrative logic is not the same as factual logic. There… is no compelling story -- or convincing call to purpose -- in a narrative that does not appeal in some way to our moral sensibilities. In fictional stories we are drawn into the challenge faced by the characters. In the stories transformative leaders craft, we are drawn into the challenges we collectively face.''

Young quotes Nobel-prize winning economist George Akerlof as saying, ''The confidence of a nation, or of any large group, tends to revolve around stories… Confidence is not just the emotional state of an individual. It is a view of other people's confidence, and of other people's perceptions of other people's confidence.''

Let's reflect for a moment on the idea of the confidence of a nation. Isn't that what was shared at the Salmon Nation Summit? An assertion of the Skeena people's confidence in their Salmon Nation? But merely expressing confidence is not enough. As Young says, ''A powerful narrative must be shaped. And powerful ways to mobilize it in the public sphere must be devised… the management of a core narrative is an essential strategic talent for organizations leading transformative endeavours in today's world.''

The Skeena is rich with ingredients for a narrative that is far more powerful than anything distant corporate and political spin-doctors can devise. Forget Clark's five conditions. The people of the Skeena have their own conditions, and that's what they are standing up for. That's what they are saying yes to. Our premier should ask herself: what do they mean by reconciliation? Who has authority on their lands? Who grants permission to even propose a development on their lands, let alone build one?

The world is hungry for the Skeena's genius narrative, just as it developed a huge appetite for what recently went down in the Great Bear Rainforest. A few years ago, there was no Great Bear Rainforest, only a Central Mid-coast Timber Supply Area. Not long ago, there was no such thing as the Sacred Headwaters, either, but Tahltan people rallied to a new narrative there, too, and Shell packed up its drills and left. The Haisla showed West Fraser the door in the Kitlope. The Nuu-chah-nulth stood their ground in Clayoquot Sound. The Stein, the Tatshenshini, the Stikine, South Moresby, the Nemiah, Valhalla … all the products of resistance, and vision.

In the Skeena, the battle for 21st century well-being is likewise a battle for narrative, made potent by the moral authority of principled resistance. The Skeena is a truly great river that deserves its place in the pantheon of B.C.'s great places. It rises as a trickle in our Sacred Headwaters, and along its course gives life and expression to peoples for whom every inch of the river is sacred. That's what people ''up there'' are trying to convey, a narrative in which the Skeena ends as it begins -- flowing freely in the Sacred Tidewaters of Salmon Nation.  [Tyee]

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