Pipeline Politics

Despite dominating headlines, the Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute is a common story in real estate development.

Imagine this scenario: a big new project promises jobs and economic development. Most of the community supports the project, while a small band of vocal and influential community leaders oppose it. Come decision time, the politician is torn between the need for jobs and development and appeasing a small but influential interest group.

For mayors, the situation is routine. It plays itself out at some point in almost every development application, at every council meeting across the country. But when that politician is the Prime Minister and the development is a pipeline, an otherwise ho-hum local drama suddenly takes the national stage with an outsized significance and a timeless lesson for audiences young and old.

Such was the situation in February as a splinter group of Hereditary First Nations Chiefs from the West Coast took on a project and the federal government by opposing the $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline that would carry natural gas across northern B.C. Up until that point, the project appeared set to go after years spent in the approvals process.  The B.C. Environmental Assessment Office approved the pipeline project in 2014, and it was subsequently granted all other necessary permits between 2015 and 2018. The landowners along the route had agreed to as-of-right easements with the company. Even First Nations were seemingly on board. The company said it had signed agreements with the elected council of all 20 First Nations along the route, including the Wet’suwet’en.

Photo by Mike Benna on Unsplash

Enter the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, a group of five men — five! — who oversee the management of the bands’ traditional lands. Their objection to the project came from well outside the scope of the dozens of studies that showed the project would not have an adverse environmental effect. Instead, their objection stemmed from a decades-old Supreme Court of British Columbia decision that stated the government had to negotiate with the Hereditary Chiefs, not the elected councils, on title issues. And that’s not what had happened.

Suddenly the issue of the pipeline was re-framed. The question was no longer whether the pipeline was safe; it was whether the government had trampled on the rights of Hereditary Chiefs in decisions stretching all the way back to the 1800s. And just as quickly, this became a federal issue, and the Prime Minister was faced with an issue familiar to most mayors: does he side in favour of economic development and the apparent wishes of most local landowners and elected Indigenous councils? Or does he side with a small, aggrieved vocal minority who were central to his re-election platform.

The Prime Minister has far more resources to draw upon than any mayor would: about 150 staffers in the PM’s office; a Cabinet of 35; more than 600 political staff; plus, dozens of political consultants, pollsters and advisors in and around Parliament Hill. Yet following weeks of deliberation, the Prime Minister did what almost every mayor would do and caved to the demands of the vocal minority.

While the exact details of his agreement are still unknown, Theresa Tait Day, a former Wet’suwet’en hereditary leader, told MPs a pipeline project had been “hijacked” by five male chiefs and criticized Liberal cabinet ministers for making a secret deal with them. Speaking at a House of Commons committee meeting, Tait Day said the decision to meet with hereditary chiefs was a mistake. “The government has legitimized the meeting with the five hereditary chiefs and left out their entire community,” she said. “We cannot be dictated to by a group of five guys.” Sadly, in the world of real estate development, that is the rule rather than the exception.

Kevin Powers, good projects
Kevin Powers is Managing Principal of Project Advocacy, a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.
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