The man sitting at the head of the table has a face that should be on money.
It is calm, etched with wrinkle lines of infinite patience, utterly immune to honeyed words. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has heard more vows than the parsons in Reno’s drive-thru wedding chapels — most of them destined to be broken by the politicians who made them. Yet behind the softness, the weary eyes suggest something else. These are undefeated eyes.
I am in the downtown Vancouver boardroom of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, and the gentle voice is saying some very tough things.
“My wife and I were scheduled to march in the Chinese New Year’s parade in Vancouver until we found out that Trudeau was going to be there,” he says. “No way was I going to meet him unless I was on one side of the barrier, and he was on the other.”
Even accounting for the usual gulf between the public and private rhetoric of First Nations leaders as they navigate the shoals and reefs of the relationship with Big White Government, the chief’s words are remarkably blunt.
Not long ago, his Indigenous people were among the strongest supporters of Justin Trudeau in the country. Although a big part of mainstream British Columbia also succumbed to Trudeau’s charms in 2015, it could be argued that the First Nations peoples showed the greatest enthusiasm of all. And with good reason.
“Trudeau made serious and solid commitments. He said no relationship was more important to him than the nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations. He was so convincing that our people went out to vote for him in unprecedented numbers,” Grand Chief Phillip says.
It sounded a lot better than the previous decade under PM Stephen Harper, a time of slashed funding and open insults.
“We were virtually at war with the Harper government for 10 years,” Phillip says. “Harper inflicted great hardship on our people, openly attacking our communities and leadership. I woke up to that ongoing battle every single day.
“Trudeau gave us hope.”
All that changed when the Trudeau government gave the green light to British Columbia’s massive hydro development on the Peace River, the Site C Dam.
The project’s proponents, led by Premier Christy Clark, say the dam will bring prosperity and jobs. Critics argue that it’s a $9 billion white elephant (the costs of the project have tripled) that will do irreparable damage to the environment and impinge on First Nations rights. Grand Chief Phillip recalls the day he got the bad news.
“It was late Friday afternoon when Ottawa made the announcement. This did surprise us. This was the acid test, that they would provide these approvals. Treaty Eight people had travelled to Ottawa and laid out the facts. We told them that this would have adverse affects on native people and the environment.
“The truth is, Trudeau lied to us. He is very close to violating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I describe him now as a serial liar.”
His point-blank verbal blast at Trudeau is echoed by an iconic figure in Canadian public life and letters — author, scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki.
“I’m going to be much more outspoken in the coming election cycle. Trudeau is a liar,” Suzuki says. “For me, that’s the charge. He’s an out-and-out liar. I don’t think he deserves a second chance.”
Like Grand Chief Phillip, Suzuki didn’t always see it that way. In fact, he voted strategically for Trudeau in order to get rid of the only politician he says he has ever “hated” — Stephen Harper. At first, it seemed like a sound strategy.
“Justin came in and it was such a huge relief after Harper. As a father of four girls, I loved his initial actions — gender equity, then Paris, and of course a big, big commitment to First Nations.
“What the hell is going on now? Site C, Kinder Morgan, he even snuck in the southern line! My daughter and both her two kids were arrested protesting this stuff. His grade today? F. He has lost all credibility with me.”
On a personal level, Suzuki’s most bitter disappointment was the PM’s flip-flop on electoral reform. As Japanese-Canadians born in 1909 and 1911, Suzuki’s parents had not been allowed to vote. Suzuki himself has voted in every election since he was 21 but never for the winner — until 2015. He sees the vote, and any promises about making it more effective, as sacrosanct.
“Those of us who voted strategically in the last election gave our votes to Trudeau in trust. He gave his promise that it would be the last vote under first-past-the-post. Then he walked away from his words. He even used Kellie Leitch as his goddamned excuse! Trudeau broke his word.”
Suzuki told me that Trudeau’s exculpatory mantra of protecting the environment while at the same time proceeding with massive energy projects — the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach — is not “real change” but more of the usual political chicanery.
“Obviously we can’t meet the targets set out in Paris. Pipelines have to have at least 25 to 30 years to get back the investment of building them. All Trudeau has done is just punt the problem down the road. That’s what all politicians do.”
But with Trudeau’s approval of Site C, the federal government did do something it had never done before — or at least it did in the opinion of Harry Swain, who served as chairman of the federal/provincial panel reviewing the mega-project. In a low, musical voice that has advised dozens of politicians over the years, Swain voices his surprise at Ottawa’s approval of Site C.
“There are several significant adverse environmental effects in the Site C project. Up until now, Ottawa has never approved a project with more than one bad effect. This time the feds ignored species at risk, birds, rare plants, turtles, and amphibians.”
Swain spent 22 years in Ottawa and served as a federal deputy minister in two departments — Indian and Northern Affairs as well as Industry. He also headed up an inquiry into the Walkerton water crisis in Ontario and authored an outstanding book on the 1990 Oka crisis.
After handing in his report on Site C, Swain came out against the project and started criticizing the B.C. Premier, who has made it the centrepiece of her re-election bid this May.
“Premier Clark tried to manipulate the review of Site C. She knew the demand projections for hydro very well — two per cent a year forever. Demand is flat. There is no reason on God’s green earth to go ahead with this thing, to accept the damage to the environment and the First Nations.”
Swain thinks the economics of Site C are particularly “awful.” The power isn’t needed provincially, and there is no customer elsewhere who has signed a contract. Selling the power at spot prices won’t justify the huge expense to taxpayers, who will end up with higher electricity bills and a stranded asset on their hands, he says.
As for BC Hydro, Swain says it will sink further and further into debt under the voodoo economics of deferral accounting and the dubious practice of forking over a billion dollars a year to the provincial government that it has to borrow so that the Clark government can balance its budget.
“If BC Hydro was a publicly owned entity, they’d be scared shitless. U.S. utilities are losing customers, not gaining them. People are also conserving. In the long run, demand could be met off the grid from a variety of alternate energy sources.”
Nor does Swain agree with the view that, however bad the project may be, it would make more sense to finish it and learn from the gaffes — a view put forward by consulting economist Marvin Schaffer of Simon Fraser University. Instead, he cites the wisdom of an Arab proverb: No matter how far down the wrong road you go, turn back.
“Schaffer’s reasoning is right, but I think his facts are wrong. I would expect the committed/unavoidable costs to be around $3 billion by election day (the B.C. provincial election this May) on a project that will cost $9 billion.
“So is the $6-billion marginal cost justified by the spot market price of juice flogged to the Yanks? No. The present value of 20 years’ worth of power at $25/MWh is less than $2 billion, even at the low, low rates that BC Hydro is touting. So we’d be better writing off the $3 billion as a loss and stopping the project.”
To Swain, Ottawa has simply endorsed a bad project for the wrong reasons. And that includes the dismissive way the Trudeau government discharged its duties to First Nations peoples.
“I was perfectly happy we were asked to gather all evidence touching the rights of First Nations and send it on to Ottawa and let them decide. I thought it would work out. It didn’t work out at all.”
The Site C controversy is all the more aggravating in Swain’s view because there is history to learn from on this file: the previously constructed Bennett Dam, completed in 1968.
“When that dam was constructed, they didn’t even bother logging the valleys. It was low ground in the Rockies, animal runs. The politicians thought that Indians, like moose, go to high ground. That story is remembered by wise elders in First Nations communities in the Peace. They remember what an Eden the place used to be.”
Aaron Hill is the executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. He is gravely concerned about the direction the Clark government has taken British Columbia, imperilling the natural environment with dubious mega-projects. He had hoped that the election of Justin Trudeau federally would inject rational analysis into the assessment of those projects.
“I thought Trudeau was going to bring in evidence-based decision making,” said Hill. “Petronas’ Pacific Northwest LNG will be the largest climate polluter in Canadian history. Trudeau promised to revamp the environmental assessment regime, yet this climate bomb was decided using Harper-era legislation.”
Hill’s principal interest is in the protection of wild salmon stocks. Salmon is a sacred subject here. How sacred? The tall young man mentions a 2011 Angus Reid poll that found that salmon are as culturally important to the people of B.C. as the French language is to the people of Quebec.
It was the collapse of the world famous sockeye salmon run on the Fraser River that prompted Prime Minister Harper to appoint B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen to hold an inquiry.
Remarkably, before Justice Cohen could finish his 1,100-page report, the Harper government made legislative changes to the Fisheries Act that were highly detrimental to marine conservation. The judge harshly criticized the Harper government and publicly expressed his opinion that Ottawa should have waited until it saw his report.
As happy as Aaron Hill was with the recommendations of the Cohen Report, he is sharply critical of the Trudeau government’s handling of the wild salmon file. True, the PM did include in his mandate letter to the minister of Fisheries that the Cohen recommendations should be implemented.
In fact, though, some of the report’s 75 recommendations are missing their second set of deadlines, and several key proposals haven’t been touched. Part of the reason for this glacial pace is a built-in conflict of interest inside DFO noted by Justice Cohen: The department is responsible both for fostering the success of aquaculture and protecting the wild salmon environment.
“Last August, (federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc) offered a progress report on implementation of the Cohen recommendations. It was minor progress and a lot of excuses about not implementing certain others. At the very least, we have to keep salmon farms off wild salmon migration routes. Gutting wild salmon, they’re going to have to wear that.”
Hill is careful to give credit where the Trudeau government has made some progress. Ottawa has hired more fisheries scientists. There has been progress enforcing compliance. And, most important of all, some infrastructure money has been invested to restore salmon habitat on the Fraser River. But on some other huge issues, Hill says the Trudeau government simply hasn’t gotten the big shapes right.
“There has been a 20 per cent reduction in coast-wide stock assessment in B.C. In fact, stock assessment hit its lowest point in the history of DFO in the first year of Trudeau. As for Ottawa’s ocean spill clean-up plan, which is just cover for all the environmentally bad resource decisions, it is sleazy and laughable. You simply can’t clean it up. Trudeau promised to do things differently. So far, no.”
Hill and other members of the Pacific Marine Conservation Caucus — a network of NGOs involved in fisheries issues — are still waiting for their first meeting with Minister LeBlanc.
“We asked three times for a meeting,” Hill tells me. “They said they couldn’t schedule it. So we offered to go to Ottawa. Still no meeting. It is hard for the West Coast to stay on Ottawa’s radar.”
Another person who thought the Trudeau days would be better days is Wade Davis. Like Suzuki, Davis is a Renaissance man: Harvard-trained anthropologist, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic, internationally acclaimed author of 15 books (including The Serpent and the Rainbow) and now a professor at UBC.
Davis is a legendary defender of both Indigenous peoples and the environment. When I asked him about the Red Chris mine, an open-pit gold and copper operation that is the sister project to the infamous Mount Polley development, he didn’t mince words.
“Putting a mine on Todagin Mountain is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel,” he says.
Davis received an honorary degree from McGill University where Gerald Butts, now the PM’s principal secretary, was a governor and member of the executive committee until stepping down in 2016.* He told Butts he would do anything to get Trudeau elected. Like a lot of Canadians, Davis was seized with a sense of urgent need to get rid of Harper. Butts eventually took him up on the offer.
“I was asked by Gerry to introduce Justin and his campaign here in B.C. I agreed. I totally believed in their vision.
“I didn’t expect a political regime to ignore the national economy or agree with everything I said. But I believed what Trudeau said about social licence. I believed they would act justly with First Nations peoples. What shocked me… one by one, every mega-development that the B.C. people took issue with, they endorsed.”
Adrift in a debris field of broken Liberal promises, Davis thought he knew what Trudeau was really doing. The Liberals needed Alberta for a national carbon policy, which would give them a chance of meeting their Paris commitments. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley needed a pipeline, the Holy Grail being a pipeline to tidewater. The way Davis and others see it, Trudeau was horse trading in what he took to be the national interest. B.C.’s environment was a bargaining chip.
“Trudeau made a Faustian deal with Alberta. I could understand him throwing a bone to Rachel Notley. But he supported all of these projects. That’s not about bone-throwing. That’s about an ideological commitment to resource industrialization. And he’s done it in some of the most pristine places in B.C. I just don’t believe the Liberal party would make that kind of trade-off if it involved the Muskoka Lakes or the Niagara Peninsula.”
Davis lives on Bowen Island at the mouth of Howe Sound, where Woodfibre Natural Gas Ltd. has been green-lighted to build a $37-billion LNG plant near Squamish. Both the provincial and federal governments approved the controversial plan despite the prospect for serious pollution spikes. The plant slated to be sited at Lelu Island also presents a threat to juvenile salmon stocks and their eelgrass nursery on Flora Bank at the mouth of the Skeena River.
But there was another problem with the LNG project that Davis was convinced would be of interest to the Trudeau government. Despite the fact that LNG should be perfectly safe, the U.S. Coast Guard had scientific evidence that led them to route LNG shipments away from population centres. That precaution is now part of the standards developed in the U.S. regulating the shipment of LNG. There are no such standards in Canada.
“We tried to show the feds. We had the documents from the Sandia Lab experiments in the U.S. to show that, in the event of a spill, liquefied gas could mix with water vapour. As the heavier-than-air cloud disperses and spreads out, it mixes with the surrounding air, reducing the concentrations of natural gas. When those concentrations come down to 15 per cent, the cloud is highly flammable. If it exploded, it would be devastating.
“That was never considered in the provincial review of the project. We tried to arrange meetings with the feds, McKenna and MP Pam Goldsmith-Jones. No meetings. We were blown off.”
Davis also wonders why the governments would risk an accident in the most beautiful fjord in B.C. (also the waterway that leads to Whistler) after the sound was finally cleaned up following an earlier resource disaster.
The sound around Britannia Beach had been fouled by the largest metal pollution event in North America from the now-shuttered Britannia copper mine. At one time, the mine sent 600 kilograms a day of dissolved metals into the pristine waters.
“For the sake of a tiny group of men, we are going to re-industrialize after cleaning it up? Trudeau said he believed in social licence. What does social licence mean if the voices of your society come together with a single clarion call that is then completely ignored when it comes to public policy?
“You ask me if I would introduce Justin again here in B.C. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t.”
Few people have more skin in the game of fighting Site C than Ken Boon. He and his family have farmed a section of land in the Peace River Valley for three generations. There is 15 feet of alluvial soil under his boots, not to mention a huge aquifer.
Of the 640 acres Boon owned, all but 10 were expropriated last December to make way for the Site C hydro project. The way Boon sees it, building this dam is a huge roll of the dice, depending as it does on future energy needs, pricing, and fast-developing alternatives to being on the grid.
“Investing in a large dam now is kinda like locking into a 40-year contract on your flip-phone.”
Boon and other landowners in the Peace River Valley were appalled by their own premier’s reckless alliance with the corporate sector, which both contributes to her party and benefits from her government.
“Trying to figure out why Christy Clark is doing all this is like trying to get into the head of a serial killer. She just puts on a hard hat, surrounds herself with big, yellow equipment, and tells her base she’s the jobs candidate. Meanwhile, none of her projects makes sense.”
Boon was convinced the provincial government’s failure to seriously factor the environment into their development decisions would be offset by the election of Justin Trudeau. Surely the feds, with their commitment to sustainable development, would put the brakes on the Wild West approach of Christy Clark and company?
So the farmers and landowners were overjoyed when the new PM appointed B.C. native Jody Wilson-Raybould as justice minister. Combined with Trudeau’s promise of real government-to-government dialogue with First Nations, Boon and the others believed Site C would be stopped in Ottawa now that one of their own was sitting around the cabinet table.
“We had great hopes for Trudeau and Jody. When she was leader of another First Nations group here, she attended two or three Paddle for the Peace annual events. She was videotaped talking about the destructive nature of flooding 83 acres in the Peace River Valley.
“Now she refuses to answer questions in Parliament. Just another example of a political party in government going rogue. Trudeau is doing exactly what he said they wouldn’t do. A downright sad thing.”
In the opinion of former Liberal cabinet minister David Anderson — still the longest-tenured federal environment minister in Canadian history — Trudeau’s approach to resource development and the environment comes from a profound misunderstanding of British Columbians.
“I don’t think that Trudeau understands the people’s attachment to this coast. If I were him and I thought this could hurt the coast, I wouldn’t do it. Yet he wants to increase tanker traffic sevenfold. You can’t tell me that kind of increase out of the port of Vancouver is not increasing risk. Trudeau should be called on this misstatement of fact that is actually worthy of Donald Trump.”
The route these tankers will take through Burrard Inlet is ominous — through the two Narrows of Vancouver Harbour, into the Salish Sea, in and around the Gulf Islands, and through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, crossing ferry routes along the way. When you add to that the LNG tankers from Squamish coming down Howe Sound to the Salish Sea, it isn’t difficult to imagine a doomsday scenario.
The nature of what a major oil spill can do to the environment was indelibly branded into David Anderson’s memory by the 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe in Prince William Sound.
“Ottawa should remember how huge disasters happen. The captain of the Exxon Valdez was drunk. He gave a conflicting order — avoid the ice and steer to port when you’re west of Bligh Reef. After this terrible spill, the clean-up equipment was hidden under snow. When things go terribly wrong, it never works out according to plan.”
Anderson not only disagrees with Ottawa’s decision to approve the $6.8-billion Kinder Morgan project (which he says he probably would have resigned over), he also doesn’t put much stock in the environmental conditions Trudeau has placed on the approval.
In the case of Kinder Morgan, there are 157 conditions. Liberal MP Joyce Murray is trying to rally the 17 members of the BC Liberal caucus to ensure full compliance with all of the conditions. Anderson isn’t comforted.
“Here’s the reality. If construction goes on, they will inevitably arrive at a condition they can’t meet. Trudeau says Ottawa will stop them. They won’t.”
In part, Anderson bases that conclusion on what the Liberals did when they had a chance to make Kyoto work:
“They said we’d never reach our targets. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was we never tried. We could have been ahead of the curve. What we did was foolish. We had the opportunity for fairly major change, we had an industry buy-in, and we blew it. It’s like deja vu all over again.”
Anderson still remembers how Trudeau the elder took British Columbia by storm in 1968, winning 16 out of 23 seats. After 1972, the Liberals were left with just four seats. In Anderson’s estimation, although Justin Trudeau jumped from just two B.C. seats in 2011 to 17 in 2015, he could share the same fate as his father.
“That’s because Trudeau has so clearly put the interests of the government of Rachel Notley over the interests of coastal British Columbians. Notley needed a pipeline and a lifeline. She got four of them. It’s not a win-win for Ottawa — it’s win-lose.”
Is it possible for Trudeau to avoid his father’s fate on the West Coast? Anderson looks in the direction of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, fading now as dusk falls.
“Trudeau is just one year into a four-year stint in government. Something might happen. But right now, he is at serious risk of losing significant seats in British Columbia. Justin is more like Prince Harry or Prince William — idolized. But the show-biz types can fall dramatically fast, you know.”
After an hour or two of talking, the tall, gaunt figure with the striking blue eyes rises to leave. When I am alone again, I make my way down to the rocks on Ten Mile Point by the water’s edge.
The buffleheads and mergansers retreat in silent convoys at my approach. An otter raises its slick, black head for a look-see, then slips beneath the pewter surface of the water as if he was never there.
Out in the strait, a huge tanker shows its silhouette, framed by a low island and the Olympic Mountains. Even from this distance, you can see the ocean foaming as its bow cuts through the water. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip’s words return to me, sadder than ever:
“When you yearn for some light, especially after the darkness of the Harper years, even a glimpse of it will suffice. ‘Sunny ways’ sounded so good. Now we know that a new sun has not risen in the east — just another politician.”
*Story corrected March 2 at 8:30 a.m.: Gerald Butts stepped down from McGill University’s Board of Governors and the Executive Committee of the Board once he took on his duties with the Prime Minister in 2016.
Read more: Indigenous, Energy, Federal Politics, Environment
Tyee Commenting Guidelines
Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.