15 Flashpoints of PossibilityWhat Resistance Reveals About Pathways Toward Energy Transition
The influence of fossil fuels on our contemporary world, and on our potential futures, is difficult to overstate: our built infrastructure, political institutions, economies, ideologies, and collective aspirations have all been profoundly shaped by the exploitation of fossil fuels (Huber 2013; Malm 2016; Mitchell 2011; Paterson 2007). Imagining and building futures beyond fossil fuels thus poses a range of challenges. Perhaps first among these is the need to expose and denaturalize the influence of the fossil fuel industry, an influence that—as detailed elsewhere in this volume—obstructs our collective efforts to develop the infrastructures, institutions, and aspirations that will allow us to thrive in a climate-constrained world. This chapter seeks to illustrate how flashpoints of resistance challenge the industry’s influence and, in the process, offer crucial resources that can help build a future without fossil fuels. In the details of the intensely critical work of resistance reside essential resources for thinking and acting differently. These resources emerge from the critical process itself: by revealing and redescribing what is with attentiveness to its contingency, the potential for being otherwise can be articulated. This chapter attempts to illustrate this general point about the work of resistance by examining a specific flashpoint: the proposal to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline between Edmonton, Alberta, and Burnaby, British Columbia, to facilitate the export of bitumen and thus the expansion of tar sands development in Alberta.
Many potential conceptual and methodological starting points exist for an analysis of the work being done at particular sites of resistance. I use “flashpoints” here to refer to sites at which resistance—often long-standing but not widely recognized or understood—becomes visible in ways that have the potential to reshape public understanding and relations of power. The term “flashpoints” has been used more narrowly to refer to sites at which violence—or the potential for violence—has flared up in the context of demonstrations or other policing interactions (see, for example, Borrows 2005; Russell 2010; Waddington 2010). My use is somewhat more expansive, although still grounded in acts of resistance and the points at which these become “unmanageable” or uncontained, as well as in how these acts are apprehended by other forces in society, including the media. As Peter Russell (2010) emphasizes, although these flashpoints often seem to appear suddenly, they are usually the expression of long-standing grievances and/or sustained organizing work. My focus here is less on the actual dynamics of the resistance and more on what this resistance—whether expressed through demonstrations, civil disobedience, critical commentary, or other disruption of expectations—brings to light: how it is understood within, and reshapes, public dialogue and the landscape of political possibility. Through an exploration of the public conversation about whether the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion will be built, this chapter asks, What does this flashpoint reveal about how the political landscape has been shaped by the fossil fuel industry and thus must be reshaped to facilitate a transition beyond fossil fuels?
Asking such a question in the heat of the moment might seem foolhardy: What clarity can possibly emerge from the midst of the battlefield? Winners and losers are unclear, the spoils not yet divided up: patience will surely lead to greater clarity. It’s a sensible point. However, such moments of intensity can also bring into sharp focus structural configurations of power that shape political possibility and thus help to reshape political strategies. Embedded in such moments are insights and resources that must be exploited in the moment in order to reshape trajectories long into the future (Chaloupka 2003), even if that endgame is far from clear.
The proposal to expand (by twinning) the Trans Mountain Pipeline became public in February 2012, when Kinder Morgan—the Texas-based owner of the pipeline—indicated that it had received support from oil shippers for additional capacity. The existing pipeline, opened in 1953, linked loading facilities east of Edmonton to refining and distribution points in British Columbia, including an export terminal in Burnaby on the province’s south coast—a roughly 1,150-kilometre route. In December 2013, Kinder Morgan initiated an application to expand the pipeline to the National Energy Board (NEB), proposing to begin construction in 2017 with the aim of having oil flowing by December 2019. This timeline corresponded in general terms to a number of other major—and contentious—pipeline proposals focused on transporting Alberta’s bitumen to tidewater. Notably, Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline (from the tar sands region to Kitimat, on the northern BC coast) provoked intense resistance in British Columbia, which ended only in late 2016, when the federal government rejected Enbridge’s proposal. But other Canadian pipeline projects—the Energy East pipeline proposed by TransCanada (now TC Energy) in 2013 and cancelled in 2017, the Keystone XL (also a TC Energy project), and Enbridge’s plans to expand its Line 3 and Line 9 pipelines—have also generated widespread opposition.
Opposition to the proposed Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) emerged quickly, with more than one hundred people arrested in November 2014 for acts of civil disobedience when they interfered with preliminary drilling and survey work conducted on Burnaby Mountain. This opposition was not confined to civil disobedience but included active engagement with the NEB, where concerns were raised about the scope and process of the NEB’s review, particularly in relation to the opportunities provided for public input and Indigenous consultation (Ball 2018a; McSheffrey and Uechi 2016). Nonetheless, the NEB concluded that the project was in the public interest and, on May 29, 2016, recommended approval of the pipeline, subject to 157 conditions. Federal government approval followed on November 30, 2016.
Christy Clark, then premier of British Columbia, endorsed the project in January 2017. Her government was defeated in a provincial election a few months later, however, and replaced by a minority government led by the BC NDP, to which the BC Green Party then formally pledged its support. This de facto coalition shifted the context somewhat. Both the NDP and Greens had actively campaigned against the TMX, with future premier John Horgan declaring on the campaign trail that an NDP government would use “every tool in the box” to prevent the project from being built (Kane 2017). Perhaps emboldened by the new government’s stance, as well as the initiation of pre-construction activities, opposition to the project began to ramp up. Again, this opposition took a variety of forms, from a large number of legal cases brought forward by a variety of First Nations and the City of Burnaby to the vow of the “Tiny House Warriors” to construct a series of tiny homes on Secwepemc Territory in the path of the pipeline, as well as substantial mobilization in the form of letter writing, petitions, and demonstrations. By late 2017, it was clear that the project faced a potential morass of resistance, just as the company wished to move toward “shovels in the ground.” This is when the protest really began to heat up.
Sparked by the BC government’s proposal to pass legislation that would allow it to restrict any increase in diluted bitumen shipments until spill response could be better studied, Alberta premier Rachel Notley went on the offensive against what she described as British Columbia’s obstructionism, announcing that the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission would stop importing BC wines. Faced with a looming interprovincial trade war and under pressure to take a leadership role, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted the pipeline would be built and was in the public interest (McSheffrey 2016; Snowdon 2018). His rejection of the concerns raised within British Columbia—with the exception of ocean protection, which he countered with an Oceans Protection Plan—clarified the political landscape for protesters, who on March 10, 2018, coordinated an anti-pipeline rally on Burnaby Mountain that attracted thousands of supporters, built a Coast Salish watch house that still stands on the pipeline route, and settled in for an on-the-ground battle. Over the next several weeks, over two hundred individuals were arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
Faced with this intensification of resistance, Kinder Morgan issued an extraordinary ultimatum on April 8, citing the “unquantifiable risk” associated primarily with the Province of British Columbia’s opposition to the project. The company indicated that it had stopped all non-essential spending on pipeline construction and would consider walking away unless risk to shareholders could be reduced and certainty on the project timeline offered by May 31 (Cryderman and Bailey 2018). The ultimatum immediately had the desired effect. Aggression toward British Columbia intensified, with Notley introducing a bill on April 16 that would allow Alberta to restrict oil exports to BC, and the federal government publicly reassuring Kinder Morgan that the desired certainty would be provided. After intensive backroom negotiations, the federal government announced on May 29 that it would purchase the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline outright for $4.5 billion and take over the expansion project from Kinder Morgan Canada (Meyer and Sharp 2018). Although the federal government no doubt hoped this would be the conclusion of the flashpoint, there is no indication that resistance has abated—on the contrary, in fact (Ball 2018b; Khelsilem 2018; Vomiero 2018). It does, however, mark the end of the flashpoint period covered in this chapter. This bare-bones narrative omits many twists and turns, some of which will emerge through the more sustained analysis below.
Reading a Flashpoint
There are, of course, many different ways to “read” a flashpoint and many different stories that can be built from one. What I do here is examine the busy and somewhat disjointed public record of the evolution of the flashpoint, as it has been expressed in the media. To establish the timeline of events and identify key themes for further investigation, we used Google News and the search term “trans mountain pipeline” to search the daily record beginning on March 6, just before the 2018 protests began to ramp up, and concluding on June 7, shortly after the federal government’s decision to purchase the pipeline outright.1 For this search, we limited the news outlets to CBC, Global News, CTV News, the Globe and Mail, the National Observer, the National Post, the Financial Post, the Georgia Straight (Vancouver), the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Toronto Star, and the Star Vancouver. Our choices were intended to offer perspective from different scales and regions, although with a western Canadian bias. From this initial search we established the timeline of events and a representative sample of the media-structured conversation during that period. In particular, we sought to identify the arguments being made for and against the pipeline, and the key voices in the conversation.
We used this initial data set to identify key themes, on which we did a deeper dive drawing on a wider range of media sources. For this deeper dive we sought out more reflective and analytical sources—here we were not seeking to be comprehensive but attempting to identify the arguments and analysis being deployed. We were, in other words, more after the “why” than the “what.” Many longer articles and opinion pieces identified in the first search remained, but new sources came much more to the fore, including The Tyee, DeSmog, Yes! magazine, iPolitics, Policy Options, and Ricochet Media. The following analysis is organized according to several of the themes we identified, although these were reshaped through the analytical process itself.
Importantly, then, this is not primarily a media analysis and the conclusions do not speak in any comprehensive way to how the media reported the issue. There is material here to speculate on what narrative about the Trans Mountain Pipeline struggle will prevail over time and through history, to assess how the media itself has shaped the jostling conversation about what is important in this moment, or to critically assess the media representation itself. That, however, is not what I have done. Rather, the analysis here draws from a very diverse conversation themes and issues that may be important to ongoing efforts to build realistic and just pathways toward climate stabilization.
A Fractured Public Sphere?
Perhaps the most crucial insight arising from our examination of the media record is that there is not one conversation about the TMX; there are many. Further, these conversations are happening in virtually entirely separate contexts. Media coverage of any flashpoint such as this would typically be characterized by substantial jostling among different efforts to define or frame the key issues at stake, to determine the narrative. This is no different, but the parameters of that jostling—what narratives are considered “legitimate” enough to report on—vary widely among different outlets. Yet the debate is lively and rich enough internal to these outlets that it is possible to have the impression that those parameters are adequate, that particular issues are resolved, despite them having extensive play elsewhere.
A key example of this is offered by the in-depth investigative journalism published in the group of BC-based, largely reader-supported, online outlets such as The Tyee, DeSmog (renamed The Narwhal mid-flashpoint), and the National Observer. Through consistent, in-depth investigative reporting (including, in the National Observer’s case, an extensive series of special reports on the TMX), as well as regular and sympathetic coverage of the protests themselves, these outlets collectively established a rich conversation—about the failures of the energy governance and regulatory system, about the influence of corporate power on governance, and about the dubious economics of the pipeline itself—that offers a robust and powerful set of arguments against the project. Although widely read and praised in “progressive” media circuits (Green Majority 2018), these arguments have had fairly modest uptake in the wider mainstream print-based media and are virtually never represented as “game-changing” issues. For example, despite repeated critical analyses of the economic case for the pipeline (Allan 2018; M. Anderson 2018; Hughes 2018; Kilian 2018), overstated claims about its economic benefits—including the assertion that Canada is losing $40 million a day in the absence of a pipeline to tidewater—were widely reproduced across the print media (Ljunggren and Schnurr 2018; Schmidt 2018) with barely a mention that these had been questioned robustly elsewhere.2 Too frequently, whether as the result of a lack of reporting capacity or of editorial pressures, the mainstream print media reliably picked up and disseminated industry and government talking points, yet failed to pay attention to the substantive critical engagement with these talking points that appeared in alternative media sources. As a consequence, important conversations remained siloed.
There were occasional breakthroughs, of course, when issues broken by alternative sources were picked up more widely (De Souza 2018b), although such breakthroughs tended to occur when these investigations began to directly influence decision-making processes (McCarthy 2018). Similarly, issues raised by these alternative outlets would find their way into mainstream print media through articles in “Opinion” sections. However, the majority of the core themes covered by this extensive reporting—flaws in the approval process, corporate influence in decision making, the risky economics of the pipeline, the implications of the pipeline with respect to climate change, and so on—generally occupied a marginal position in mainstream print sources, which preferred to characterize opposition in very vague or limited terms. The overarching narratives—the importance of the fossil fuel industry to the health of the Canadian economy and the necessity of getting Alberta’s oil to tidewater to ensure our continued prosperity—remained entirely dominant in some media bubbles, to the exclusion of other concerns (CBC 2018b; Cryderman and Bailey 2018; McKay 2018). The struggle over the TMX was thus not conducted anywhere as a wide-ranging, collective conversation. Although concern about media “echo chambers” and their influence on collective decision making is neither new nor surprising, this fracturing of the public sphere remains an important consideration that must be navigated in developing pathways toward change (Hoggan and Litwin 2016; Sunstein 2017).
The Power of the Fossil Fuel Industry
One of the most important characteristics of the political landscape to emerge through this flashpoint is the sustained power of the fossil fuel industry to shape the parameters of political possibility in Canada. In light of apparent setbacks to efforts to build pipelines recently—the rejected Northern Gateway pipeline, delay of Keystone XL, cancellation of the Energy East proposal, as well as Premier Notley’s advances toward a “carbon cap” for tar sands emissions and Prime Minister Trudeau’s efforts to advance a nationwide climate change strategy—it might have been possible to imagine that Canada was beginning to confront the challenge of transitioning away from its reliance on fossil fuel exploitation. This flashpoint put any such imagination to rest. Indeed, this may have been most centrally what was at stake for industry, the federal government, and some provincial governments in this flashpoint.
The power of the fossil fuel industry was perhaps most evident in how little the industry had to participate directly in the media conversation: the governments of Canada, Alberta, and Saskatchewan were doing an effective job of speaking on its behalf (Global News 2018; Hall 2018; Notley 2018), and in all possible forums, including paid advertising (Meyer 2018).3 That the voices of industry were relatively silent in the public realm, however, in no way suggests that they were not very active behind the scenes, both in the decision-making process (De Souza 2018a) and in lobbying efforts (Lang and Daub 2016; Nikiforuk 2018). Trudeau’s repeated assertion that “it will be built” and Notley’s sabre-rattling with British Columbia were clearly designed not only to reassure industry but to quell any notion that stopping the pipeline merited public discussion, let alone serious consideration—all this, again, despite reporting that repeatedly raised a range of substantial concerns about the project and its proponent (Nikiforuk 2018). When industry did speak, however—in the form of Kinder Morgan’s extraordinary ultimatum that certainty had to be provided by May 31—it completely commanded not only the public narrative but the government’s attention, leading to the yet more extraordinary decision on the part of the federal government to purchase the pipeline itself. In the process, Kinder Morgan managed to unload what was looking like a potentially substantial liability (Allan 2018), a success hailed by Kinder Morgan’s CEO, who celebrated “a great day, not only for our company but for Canada” and rewarded executives (with substantial bonuses) and those who devised the strategy (with promotions) inside Kinder Morgan (Ljunggren, Hampton, and McWilliams 2018). Little ambiguity exists here: the fossil fuel industry came away as the winner, with the risk posed by the pipeline transferred entirely to the public and assurances offered to industry that the planned infrastructure would be built.
Crucially, the discursive strategy through which this closure of public dialogue was effected was the creation of a crisis narrative, most notably expressed through the statements and strategic responses of Alberta’s then premier, Rachel Notley, but quickly taken up and expanded on by others. “Sky is falling” narratives included the claims that, should resistance to this pipeline be given any leeway, Canada would no longer be seen as a safe place for investment (Healing 2018); that democracy and the rule of law would be overturned by a rabble-rousing minority (Murphy 2018a); that this could mark the beginning of the end of the Canadian confederation (Gerson 2018); that troops should be brought in to ensure the pipeline could be built (Johnston 2018); and indeed that “people are going to die” protesting the Trans Mountain Pipeline (Kent 2018). Less dramatic, but likely more plausible, was the narrative that failing to build the TMX would spell the end of Trudeau’s federal climate change strategy (Hunter 2018), on the grounds that Alberta’s support for the national climate framework is contingent on getting a bitumen pipeline to tidewater. The frenzy generated by this crisis narrative was astonishing, as one fairly extreme statement or strategy after another was trotted out—including Trudeau’s unconditional assertion that the pipeline would be built (Snyder 2018), Notley’s ban on BC wine (Parish 2018), and subsequent legislation to turn off the oil taps to British Columbia (Romero 2018)—as if their very extremity offered evidence of the crisis.4 The overwhelming narrative was one of crisis and of the need for closure, although only one possible form of closure was envisaged: building the pipeline. The message was clear: no further discussion or dialogue, no further process of engagement, was possible at this moment. Those opposing the pipeline had to be stopped, with force if necessary.
Following the media pattern described above, efforts were made to resist or challenge this narrative, again primarily in the alternative press (Gilchrist 2018; Goulet 2018; Moscrop 2018). The federal commitment to purchase the pipeline, however, offered evidence of the narrative’s success. Here was an opportunity to open up a meaningful, and long overdue, public conversation about the future of fossil fuels in Canada (Rand 2018). Instead, the federal government, along with its provincial allies, bent over backward to shut down the possibility of such a conversation. This foreclosure, perhaps more than anything, offers an indication of the ongoing power of the fossil fuel industry in Canada.
How Will Canada Navigate Climate Change?
The ways in which climate change has—and has not—been part of the story of this flashpoint are complex. The flashpoint brought into sharp relief the potential fracture points that must be navigated in any effort to move Canada toward real action to mitigate climate change. At one level these are obvious: some provincial and territorial economies are deeply intertwined with fossil fuel production, others less so; some are more immediately threatened by climate change itself, and so on. What has perhaps been less evident to the casual observer of Canadian politics are the governance challenges this poses, at virtually all scales. Events around the TMX have not only exposed these challenges but reignited old grievances and potentially laid the groundwork for new configurations of conflict.
Perhaps most obvious in this regard was the extraordinary upsurge of tension between Alberta and British Columbia, which ignited and then advanced very quickly from expressions of frustration to a nearly full-on trade war, with corresponding inflammation of public opinion (Morgan 2018). Although the case can be made that with more cool-headed leadership, on the part of either Alberta’s premier or the prime minister, these tensions could have been navigated with substantially less heat (Cryderman 2018), the underlying historical, economic, and cultural differences between the two provinces, and how these intersect with the requirements for climate action, will not be easily resolved (Proctor 2018b).
Most extraordinary, however, was Trudeau’s handling of the situation. At least from the BC perspective, he exacerbated the tensions by clearly taking a side on the issue at precisely the moment when mediation was needed (Guly 2018b). The Trudeau government’s absolute unwillingness to recognize or engage with the concerns raised in British Columbia, with the exception of oil spill response preparation (McKenna 2018), left residents of the province feeling angry and alienated (Bains 2018). These feelings were validated when Québec weighed in on Trudeau’s rejection of the concerns raised by BC Premier Horgan, raising serious and substantive concerns about the precedents potentially set by asserting federal jurisdiction unilaterally in an area where jurisdiction is shared with the provinces, if in a somewhat murky way (Guly 2018a). That Trudeau justified his position in part by reference to his (tenuous) federal climate change strategy brought the longer-term challenges of action on climate change into stark relief (Leach 2018; Star Editorial Board 2018).
But, of course, the complexity does not end there. Although it was not particularly evident during the period considered here, municipal resistance to the TMX on the part of both Burnaby—where the pipeline would terminate—and Vancouver is long-standing and fierce (Boothby 2018; Lye 2018; Pearson 2018). In both jurisdictions, the TMX became an issue in the provincial elections, although the extent to which it definitively shaped the outcome is far from clear. Some polling indicated that overall support in British Columbia for the TMX had grown during the flashpoint (Zussman 2018), while other polling suggested that over 12 percent of citizens in the region would contemplate civil disobedience to express their opposition to the pipeline (Cruickshank 2018). The cross-scale resistance to the TMX remains unresolved, ranging as it does across many different areas of concern. However, dismissal of it does not seem likely to be an effective long-term strategy for building governance coalitions strong enough to navigate the challenges of climate action.
One reading of Trudeau’s actions in this regard could be that he prioritized appearing to be a strong and decisive leader capable of creating a stable and welcoming investment climate in Canada over ensuring equitable, responsive, and robust governance of decision making about large-scale infrastructure projects (Ball 2018a; McMillan 2018). Given how closely the effectiveness of decision making is connected with social support for those decisions (and thus with a stable and welcoming investment climate), the long game here seems strategically myopic (Shaw et al. 2015). However, it is consistent with both the short- and medium-term priorities of corporate Canada—especially the financial sector, which is, of course, heavily invested in fossil fuel production—and this could go a long distance toward explaining Trudeau’s fierceness on this point (Lang and Daub 2016).
The aggravation of these political tensions generated a fair amount of light and heat in the media (Climenhaga 2018; Connolly 2018; Gerson 2018; Graney 2018; Homer-Dixon and Strauch 2018). Although some of this commentary appears hyperbolic, there are a few issues that will likely persist and will influence history’s judgment of the broader implications of this flashpoint. Not least, as discussed above, Trudeau’s tactic of dismissing opposition to the pipeline in British Columbia has exacerbated rather than effectively navigating regional tensions exposed by the TMX proposal. The opportunity to develop a shared national conversation about what is required to address climate change has been ignored, in favour of an approach of forcing a trade off of one region’s interests against another. This approach alters the prospects for sustaining a federal climate policy across electoral cycles. In the absence of a shared conversation about what the energy transition should look like it is difficult to imagine how to sustain the regional political will given the required compromises. In addition, it is not at all clear that Trudeau’s choice to purchase the pipeline will facilitate actually getting it built. Substantial on-the-ground and municipal resistance remain, with the change of ownership failing to daunt resolve (Campbell 2018; Horter 2018) and simultaneously creating new layers of legal and political awkwardness around forcing the pipeline through against this resistance (Harper 2018; McKibben 2018b). The business case for the pipeline remains problematic (Allan 2018). Although the pipeline purchase eliminated the risks to Kinder Morgan shareholders, it has exposed the public to these risks in ways that could exacerbate the political tensions described above. The federal government is fully exposed as a self-interested proponent; there is not even a façade that it can act as a neutral arbiter to help navigate the situation. Finally, there is the most sustained, uncertain, and potentially explosive element of the flashpoint going forward: the rights of First Nations.
Who Will Decide? First Nations, Pipelines, and the Meaning of Reconciliation
The necessity of recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights to and central role in governing their lands has now been apparent for decades, with slow, incremental advances. A significant promise of the Liberal campaign in the 2015 federal election was to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), with Trudeau promising a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada. Unfortunately for Trudeau, the TMX has become a potent site through which the seriousness of these commitments will be judged (Khelsilem 2018; Palmater 2018a). It is possible that this is a slowly dawning realization for many—although the role of First Nations in resisting the TMX has been evident on the ground from the outset, the mainstream press has tended to ignore or marginalize their leadership (Ditchburn 2018; Lukacs 2018). Specifically, as mentioned above, it is largely through opinion pieces—rather than systematic reporting—that the role of First Nations has broken into the mainstream press (Hyland 2018; Phillip and Simon 2018).
As coverage of the flashpoint has evolved, however, the central role of First Nations resistance in—as well as their involvement with and support of—the TMX has begun to surface in the media. Unfortunately, much of this coverage has repeated variations on the theme that “First Nations are divided” on TMX (CBC 2018a; Hopper 2018; McKinley 2018; Paling 2018), with journalists seeking out “for” and “against” spokespeople from First Nations groups (Braid 2018; Cattaneo 2018; McNeill 2018). Although they were generally able to find both, those quoted were often careful to undermine this theme in their comments. Even the strongest proponents of the project tended to emphasize a shared experience of colonization and the constraints that economic circumstances place on communities (with support thus reflecting a lack of other viable options), as well as their recognition that the consultation and approval process has been inadequate and must be improved and that other communities may have entirely legitimate reasons to oppose the project (CBC 2018a; Markusoff 2018; McKinley 2018). In this way, despite the media’s apparent determination to promote themes of discord, public statements made by representatives of First Nations frequently offered a model of respectful, rather than divisive, discussion of the issues. The stress repeatedly fell on the need for government to act in good faith and do more to ensure that affected First Nations genuinely consent to proposed development (Gilmore 2018).
The tone and substance of the media’s coverage of the TMX proposal offers important insights into the longer-term implications of this flashpoint, as well as into immediate strategic considerations. The emphasis placed by the media on the theme of division might suggest a “divide and conquer” approach to dealings with First Nations, in which the support of some is used to override the objections of others. Given the resistance that rapidly emerged to the federal government’s proposed framework for the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights, with its promised “new relationship” with Indigenous peoples (King and Pasternak 2018), such a response raises the prospect of a new flashpoint, one with historical resonances. The 1969 White Paper, proposed by the government of Pierre Trudeau, also proposed a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state of Canada. That proposal galvanized a wave of resistance on the part of Indigenous peoples, leading to a new era of Indigenous-state relations that bore very little resemblance to the vision of assimilation laid out in the White Paper. The younger Trudeau might be well advised to consider the potential of the TMX flashpoint to frame the “new relationship” in similar terms: as a front for a continuing assertion of the priorities of settler society over the specific—and diverse—interests of Indigenous peoples.
In the meantime, the landscape of resistance posed by First Nations is both nuanced and complex (Brake 2018; Lukacs 2018; Manuel 2018). Expressed within it are both local, immediate concerns and the growing strength of international movements for Indigenous rights (Beaumont 2018; Morin 2017). Strategies of resistance include court cases, an area in which Indigenous peoples have consistently asserted their voices in relation to specific, concrete issues and have often won greater recognition of their rights (Ditchburn 2018; Gilchrist 2018; Kassam 2018; Paling 2018; Proctor 2018a). Such strategies build momentum, not only with regard to particular issues but also in terms of altering the trajectory of settler-Indigenous politics in Canada.
Put differently, many things are in motion that intersect with this flashpoint in potentially potent ways: the implementation of UNDRIP, the development of the “new relationship,” the building of a climate change strategy that does not reinforce existing forms of marginalization in Canada, and, not least, the future of Indigenous rights and jurisdiction. In short, the TMX flashpoint—what is revealed here and how it reshapes the political landscape of “reconciliation”—will likely have far-reaching implications.
One of the most striking things about the TMX flashpoint is how the environment and environmentalism figured into the public discussion. For many commentators, especially those writing from outside British Columbia, resistance to the pipeline has been assumed to hinge on the climate change implications of expanding tar sands production, which the pipeline would facilitate (Brown 2018; Gillis 2018; Homer-Dixon and Strauch 2018; McKibben 2018a), and indeed would require in order to be profitable (Kilian 2018). However, on the ground in British Columbia, and particularly in the Lower Mainland where the pipeline will terminate, the environmental concerns are much more focused on the prospect of oil spills and increased tanker traffic (Genovali, MacDuffee, and Paquet 2018). Insofar as these have a species focus, it is the endangered Southern Resident killer whales (orcas), whose population numbers have reached a critical low. However, when people who have been arrested at protests are asked why they chose to be arrested, they are as likely to identify the failure to gain Indigenous consent to the pipeline as the crucial reason (Pawson 2018). On placards and in chants at marches and protests, a broad range of issues are raised, and, for many, these issues are intimately, and logically, intertwined.
People’s concerns about the pipeline proposal are rarely explored in any depth in the mainstream media coverage of the flashpoint. On the contrary, there is frequently a fairly superficial gesture toward either climate change or oil spill concerns as motivation, without any sustained consideration of the diversity of the environmental movement or the complexities it represents. This lack of curiosity is amplified among those criticizing the resistance, who, like conservative columnist Rex Murphy (2018a), tend to dismiss environmental crusaders out of hand, misrepresenting them as foreign-funded radicals (“green fanatics”) out to destroy the Canadian economy—or, in the case of Chief Ernie Crey’s oft-quoted complaint about environmentalists “red-washing” their opposition to the TMX, out to sabotage Indigenous opportunities for prosperity (McKinley 2018; Shore 2018; see also Cattaneo 2018). These representations have multiple desired effects: of marginalizing and undermining the supposed authority these groups have but also of erasing First Nations’ leadership role in the resistance and—perhaps most worrisome—implicitly sanctioning aggression toward those who resist. In some ways, “environmentalists” have become equal-opportunity whipping boys, an easy target for everyone to bash. The caricatures are not surprising and their purpose is fairly transparent (if by no means benign). Troubling as they are, though, the extent to which they—deliberately or not—misunderstand how “environmentalism” is evolving and how resistance in this case is coming to expression is telling.
Pinpointing the role and impact of “environmentalism” in this flashpoint is not straightforward. Without the resistance that environmental organizations have helped—alongside First Nations, municipalities, and others—to articulate, organize, and coordinate, the construction of the TMX might have proceeded smoothly and silently (Kheraj 2018). However, it is far too simplistic to either credit or blame environmentalists for the resistance. What some environmental organizations have done is to work diligently to understand the concerns of diverse groups, to research and expose the stakes of the proposal along a range of axes (if it goes ahead, to climate change; if it spills, to wildlife and biodiversity; if it is a stranded asset, to the forgone investments that could have been pursued in its place, and so on), and to build coalitions that allow these concerns to be expressed in ways that support and are amplified through these relationships.
Frustrating as this might be to pipeline proponents, environmental organizations are not “pulling the strings” of the protests or manipulating First Nations to become the front for their agenda. Nor do these organizations have a shared secret agenda they are foisting on a naïve public. The resistance—whether expressed in demonstrations, protests, arrests, critical media commentary, electoral campaigns, legal cases, or through other forms—is making visible and giving voice to concerns that have come to be understood as shared. This understanding did not happen automatically: it has taken years of work for organizations to build this understanding, to communicate about the stakes of the proposal in ways that are responsive to a wide range of audiences. The resistance is rooted in those audiences, not controlled by the organizations. Nor is it exclusive to narrowly defined “environmental” issues. The interrelations among environmental risks, Indigenous rights, climate justice, electoral reform, and many other “progressive” issues are not only intricate but constantly in a state of flux.
Once this is understood, it changes everything, or at least it should. Insofar as the resistance expresses new forms of political identity and alliance, including but not limited to environmental ones, its trajectory will be unpredictable, because there is a chemistry that resides in this complex web of alliances that exceeds the logic or priorities of any single component of it (D. Anderson 2018; Lazaruk 2018).5 This flashpoint thus reveals an environmentalism that is evolving beyond a single-issue movement, as narrowly environmental concerns are coming to be understood as interrelated with broader, system-level forces. How this will translate to strategic or tactical changes is intriguing, with some hints offered by the transformation of the media landscape itself to include digital media platforms. These new media outlets both express and support the emergence of new political identities and relationships, in what could be a potent synergy.
Concluding Thoughts About the Not Yet Concluded
Although the federal government no doubt hoped to write the concluding chapter of this story by purchasing the Trans Mountain pipeline, initial indications are that the tale is far from over. The resistance has been rapidly recalibrating itself to respond to this new configuration of political and economic forces (Bains 2018; Cox 2018), leaving the conclusion still very much open.
However, the analysis above does reveal some preliminary insights about the political terrain facing those attempting to develop pathways toward rapid and just climate stabilization. The media landscape has been transformed by the rise of new digital media platforms, simultaneously facilitating more diverse and in many ways more satisfying conversations but also reflecting a more fractured public sphere. This new landscape is exciting in many ways: resources exist now for research and storytelling that are deeply critical, exposing the operations of power, discursive manipulations, and deep capture of political institutions. These conversations in turn help readers to “connect the dots” and build a more sophisticated movement, one able to connect diverse and previously divisive issues together into a shared narrative. As such, the new digital media platforms have helped reflect and build the basis for the diverse alliances that characterize the resistance. Resistance to the pipeline is not solely “environmental” but is embedded in concerns about social justice, public health, Indigenous rights, climate change, endangered species, and democracy itself. The resistance is stronger and more effective as a result.
Crucially, because of the complexity and wide-ranging social and political changes required by energy transitions (Shaw 2011), diversity of this kind is essential to building effective pathways toward climate stabilization. The challenge, of course, is in expanding not only the depth of these conversations, so that more diverse concerns are expressed and navigated within these outlets, but also their reach, so that these concerns are taken up and engaged substantially across different media. The flashpoint has likely helped to advance each of these goals, but they both require sustained strategic focus.
The need for these expanded conversations is nowhere more apparent than in relation to the other challenges exposed by the flashpoint, especially the grip of corporate influence on both politics and collective imaginaries. Although related, these two kinds of influence likely need to be tackled separately and on a variety of fronts. Yet no major political party is yet committed to the scale of change required to shift economies away from fossil fuels. In this context, the importance of electoral reform becomes clearer. By no means a silver bullet, electoral reform might nonetheless offer potential to disrupt the structural stranglehold on political power that provides the fossil fuel industry such a friendly landscape for influence. Enhancing the capacity for voters to express desires for change without risking dividing the vote could help ensure that the diverse and complex coalitions for change that are building in civil society might also begin to find expression in politics. Although pressures in this direction are mounting, electoral reform can feel like a long game at a time when more urgent action is needed; this flashpoint reveals that it is nonetheless likely a game worth playing.
The flashpoint has also revealed that the struggle for a collective public imagination of a transition beyond a fossil fuel–based economy is underway but nascent (Abreu 2018). That the resistance has flourished as much as it has, and where it has, indicates that, for some, a future beyond fossil fuels is becoming imaginable. For others—many of whose lives are deeply intertwined with the fossil fuel economy (whether directly, as workers in extraction and production activities, or indirectly, as, for example, investors or pension fund members)—it remains unimaginable. The work of making a transition not only possible but desirable requires building this imagination at a community, regional, and national level. This in turn requires both the kind of critical work developed elsewhere in this volume and work on the ground at all levels to create the alternatives we need.
Expanding people’s capacity to imagine what is possible is not separate from what is happening at this flashpoint, however. On the contrary, in some ways this may be the most important work of the flashpoint. Resistance to the TMX has offered a focal point for what are otherwise divergent conversations at times, revealing how land occupation and the building of tiny houses are part of a solution to climate change, expressing as they do the resurgence of Indigenous visions and practices for their futures; revealing that public health and safety require a healthy environment and offer a basis for collective solutions; uncovering common causes—and critical focal points—among a plurality of interests and values. Debate provoked by this flashpoint has expanded many people’s sense of what is possible, and what is desirable, as well as pointing to some of the blockages obstructing the needed transition. Embedded in these emerging understandings are the key resources needed to build momentum toward a just and healthy climate. Importantly, the end game here is not the construction, or not, of the pipeline but rather the reshaping of the political landscape that this emergent configuration of political identity and alliance must achieve.
- 1. I say “we” because I was assisted in this process by two excellent research assistants, Dana Cook and Claire O’Manique. Several readers also offered vital feedback on earlier drafts: Paul Bowles, Bill Carroll, Shannon Daub, Shane Gunster, Matthew Paterson, and James Rowe. I owe thanks to each of them, and especially to Dana.
- 2. Note that citations are representative examples of the media’s coverage of an issue: they are by no means an exhaustive list.
- 3. Worryingly for the progressive press, polling data allegedly demonstrating the BC public’s support for the pipeline further suggested that the arguments forwarded in the mainstream media had exerted the greater influence (Zussman 2018).
- 4. Some would add to this list BC premier John Horgan’s pledge to use “every tool in the toolbox” to prevent the pipeline from being built. Although certainly a forceful expression of robust commitment, Horgan’s comment does not, in my view, necessarily buy into the crisis narrative, in that it resists an appeal to impending disaster. Trying as hard as possible to stop something does not necessarily imply that the sky will fall if it proceeds.
- 5. As just one example, for LeadNow’s National Day of Action on June 4, 2018, to “stop the Kinder Morgan buyout” (https://act.leadnow.ca/stop-km-buyout/), the organization aligned with 350.org, the Council of Canadians, the Leap, the Sierra Club of BC, Greenpeace, Coast Protectors, and SumofUs.org. Other organizations involved in the TMX protests include Stand, BROKE, Pipe Up, the Dogwood Initiative, the Georgia Straight Alliance, and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
- Abreu, Catherine. 2018. “Working on Climate Change Is an Act of Love.” National Observer, May 28, 2018. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/05/28/opinion/working-climate-change-act-love.
- Allan, Robyn. 2018. “What’s Behind Kinder Morgan’s May 31 Ultimatum? Follow the Money.” National Observer, May 15, 2018. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/05/15/opinion/whats-behind-kinder-morgans-may-31-ultimatum-follow-money.
- Anderson, Duncan. 2018. “Arrests to Continue as Kinder Morgan Protests Heat Up.” The Tyee, April 4, 2018. https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/04/04/Kinder-Morgan-Protest-Arrests/.
- Anderson, Mitchell. 2018. “Pipeline Expansion: US Refineries Win, Canadians Lose.” The Tyee, April 19, 2018. https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2018/04/19/Pipeline-Expansion-Refineries-Win-Canadians-Lose/.
- Bains, Camille. 2018. “Pipeline ‘Betrayal’ Could Trigger Unprecedented Protests: Activist.” CTV News. May 30, 2018. https://bc.ctvnews.ca/pipeline-betrayal-could-trigger-unprecedented-protests-activist-1.3951639.
- Ball, David. 2018a. “Flawed from the Get-Go’: In Pipeline Feud, National Energy Board Process Questioned.” Star Vancouver, April 18, 2018. https://www.thestar.com/vancouver/2018/04/17/flawed-from-the-get-go-in-pipeline-feud-national-energy-board-process-questioned.html.
- ———. 2018b. “Protests Target Liberal MPs Countrywide over Feds’ Trans Mountain Buyout.” Star Vancouver, June 4, 2018. https://www.thestar.com/vancouver/2018/06/04/protests-target-liberal-mps-countrywide-over-feds-trans-mountain-buyout.html.
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- Boothby, Lauren. 2018. “Burnaby Mayor Predicts ‘Chaos’ If Kinder Morgan Pipeline Proceeds.” Burnaby Now, April 16, 2018. http://www.burnabynow.com/news/burnaby-mayor-predicts-chaos-if-kinder-morgan-pipeline-proceeds-1.23269571.
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- Cryderman, Kelly, and Ian Bailey. 2018. “Kinder Morgan Issues Ultimatum, Suspends ‘Non-essential’ Spending on Trans Mountain Pipeline.” Globe and Mail, April 8, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-kinder-morgan-cites-bc-opposition-as-it-suspends-non-essential/.
- De Souza, Mike. 2018a. “High-Ranking Federal Officials Sped Up Trans Mountain Review After Phone Call from Kinder Morgan’s Ian Anderson.” National Observer, April 18, 2018. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/04/18/news/high-ranking-federal-officials-sped-trans-mountain-review-after-phone-call-kinder.
- ———. 2018b. “National Observer Releases Its Trans Mountain Files.” National Observer, April 30, 2018. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/04/30/analysis/national-observer-releases-its-trans-mountain-files.
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- Gilchrist, Emma. 2018. “‘They’re Not Getting How the Constitution Works’: Why Trudeau, Notley Can’t Steamroll B.C. on Kinder Morgan Pipeline.” The Narwhal, April 13, 2018. https://thenarwhal.ca/they-re-not-getting-how-constitution-works-why-trudeau-notley-can-t-steamroll-b-c-kinder-morgan-pipeline.
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- Global News. 2018. “Full Transcript: Trudeau Defends Trans Mountain, Criticizes Trump Tariffs in Exclusive Interview.” Global News. June 6, 2018. https://globalnews.ca/news/4256498/justin-trudeau-interview-pipelines-tariffs/.
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- Graney, Emma. 2018. “Trans Mountain Pipeline Battle Not ‘Too Far Off’ from Constitutional Crisis: Rachel Notley.” Edmonton Journal, April 9, 2018. http://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/premier-rachel-notley-to-address-cabinet-day-after-kinder-morgan-announcement.
- Green Majority. 2018. “Kinder Morgan Pipeline Comprehensive.” Episode 602, Green Majority Radio Show and Podcast. April 13, 2018. http://www.greenmajority.ca/the-podcast/2018/4/13/kinder-morgan-pipeline-comprehensive-602.
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- ———. 2018b. “Liberals’ ‘Collective Insanity’ over Trans Mountain Creating New Western Alienation, Say BC Politicians.” The Tyee, May 10, 2018. https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/05/10/Liberals-Collective-Insanity-Trans-Mountain-Alienation/.
- Hall, Chris. 2018. “Bill Morneau’s Kinder Morgan Surprise Comes with Huge Price Tag, Lots of Political Risk.” CBC News. May 29, 2018. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/pipeline-morneau-nationalize-1.4682199.
- Harper, Tim. 2018. “Justin Trudeau Becomes the Pipeline Prime Minister.” Toronto Star, May 29, 2018. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/star-columnists/2018/05/29/justin-trudeau-becomes-the-pipeline-prime-minister.html.
- Healing, Dan. 2018. “Kinder Morgan Canada’s Pipeline Woes Hurting Investment in Canada: Observers.” CTV News. June 4, 2018. https://www.ctvnews.ca/business/kinder-morgan-canada-s-pipeline-woes-hurting-investment-in-canada-observers-1.3877328.
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