Feds losing decision making power over national projects

Whether national projects go ahead now depends on Indigenous communities, activists, provinces and local communities

By Michael Cleland
Monica Gattinger
University of Ottawa

and Trevor McLeod
Canada West Foundation

OTTAWA, Ont. and CALGARY, Alta. April 17, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Anyone with a passing familiarity with Canadian history will recognize the terms “The National Dream” and “the great pipeline debate”. Most will recall that both stories were associated with scandal and great political controversy.

Fewer will remember that those who decided in each of these cases consisted of a very small number of people (men, actually): on the one hand Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald and a few cabinet colleagues and on the other Clarence Decatur Howe, a cabinet minister in the government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.

The other thing that marked both was that the projects – a national railway and a pipeline to bring western gas to eastern Canada – got built. And in so doing, they helped knit Canada together.

Almost 100 years on from the building of the national railway, the answer to the question, “Who decides?” started to be inverted. Most notable was the conclusion reached by the James Bay Cree in the 1970s that they would not stand passively by while the Government of Quebec and Hydro Quebec overturned their landscape and their lives.

In this case, the project also got built – establishing Quebec as a North American powerhouse – and it established a new model for the way local communities become a real part of the decision process.

Today, if the many energy controversies swirling around us are an indication, that inversion process seems to have tipped the question entirely on its head. National energy infrastructure, it seems, is not so much the business of the national government as it is of the provinces, municipal governments and First Nations governments, as well as various social activist groups. Some believe that they have a veto over such developments; still others that they should. Arguably, even if none has a legal veto, each certainly has a political voice with much the same effect.

Many threads of change run through this. Canadians and local communities are just a little feistier than they were in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries and that’s a good thing. But a not-so-good thing is that there appears to be a steep decline in Canadians’ trust and confidence in formal decision processes. Whether that is true, why and what can be done about it are the questions that underlie research being undertaken by the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy project and the Canada West Foundation. It is also reflected in a recently issued interim report.

There seems little doubt that future decision processes will involve much more than a handful of cabinet ministers in any one government. They will probably involve a broad sweep of communities including, notably, Indigenous communities. All will need to be able to become informed, will need to be heard and their views will profoundly shape the substance of project decisions from early stage planning to long-term operation.

This is all necessary, albeit slower, more uncertain and more costly. But at some point, someone has to decide and those decisions, once made, have to be stable.

We can see the real and potential costs of unstable decision processes. When project proponents have the rug yanked out from under them, they seek – and receive – compensation. When power projects that are needed for system efficiency and stability are delayed or cancelled, the power system on which we rely is put at risk. When export-oriented projects are subjected to years of regulatory processes, market opportunities pass us by. And when the system is bound up in protracted litigation, the only communities that win are the legal communities.

Communities play a role in changing the conversation by providing more input through authentic voices that speak to their issues and concerns.

We need to find new ways of framing decision processes to ensure that we do the right things and that we do them right. In the end, someone has to decide. This means figuring out what is required to restore trust and confidence in our institutions and then having the fortitude to stand behind them.

Michael Cleland is a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa. Professor Monica Gattinger is Chair of the Positive Energy project and Director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy. Trevor McLeod is Director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy at the Canada West Foundation.

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