Trudeau caught in middle of clash over energy, environment, Indigenous demands

OTTAWA — The competing demands of natural resource development, environmental protection and Indigenous reconciliation appear poised for a head-on crash — with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minority government caught in the middle as Parliament resumes Tuesday.

The NDP is asking House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota for an emergency debate on anti-pipeline blockades that have shut down swaths of the country's train system and interrupted traffic on highways and bridges for more than a week.

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The blockades are in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural-gas pipeline project that crosses the First Nation's territory in northern British Columbia.

Trudeau faces a blockade of a different sort — from his own Liberal backbenchers — over another energy project.

Many Liberal MPs are openly campaigning against approval of Teck Resources' proposed Frontier oilsands mine in Alberta, which they see as antithetical to Trudeau's pledge to combat climate change.

Cabinet must decide by the end of this month whether to approve the project and risk the wrath of Liberal MPs and voters concerned about climate change, or nix it and risk raising "roiling western alienation to a boiling point," as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has warned.

Either issue is politically explosive but the combination makes for something of a perfect storm for Trudeau's fragile minority.

NDP House leader Peter Julian wrote to Rota on Monday to request that emergency debate on anti-pipeline blockades.

"The prime minister's refusal to take more substantive and timely action has allowed tensions to rise, put significant pressure on the Canadian economy and threatened jobs across the country," Julian wrote.

"He has said that no relationship is as important to him as Canada's relationship with Indigenous Peoples but those words must be backed up by actions," he added, calling for a "swift and just resolution."

Trudeau, who was overseas last week trying to drum up support for Canada's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, spent hours Monday holed up with some of his cabinet ministers trying to figure out a way to end the blockades quickly and peacefully. He has said governments in Canada do not order the police to clear out protesters but it was unclear Monday what other action the government might take to end the standoff.

The Conservatives, who've called for police enforcement of court injunctions against the protests, have an opposition day on Thursday and may use that opportunity to further pressure the government over its perceived inaction on the blockades, if the issue isn't resolved by then.

Or they could pressure the government to approve Teck's Frontier project. Conservative MPs have echoed Kenney's contention that the project would create thousands of jobs and bolster Alberta's struggling economy and that rejection would be a blow to national unity.

But many Liberal MPs aren't buying those arguments.

Toronto MP John McKay says Liberal caucus members are "darn close" to unanimous in their opposition to the Teck mine.

"My guess is that (Trudeau) will not go against the views of caucus," he says, adding that he sympathizes with Trudeau's having to make a "lose-lose" decision.

Some aren't convinced the project will ever be built, pointing to Teck CEO Don Lindsay's admission that the mine will only proceed if oil prices substantially increase and the company obtains joint-venture partners.

Nor are they buying Kenney's portrayal of the project as the sole saviour of Alberta's economy. They note that there are some 20 other oilsands projects that already have approval and are ready to go but are on ice because they're not economically viable given low world oil prices.

University of Alberta environmental economist Andrew Leach says some of those other projects could be viable at much lower oil prices than Teck but they are on hold because of production limits imposed by the Alberta government.

"It's easier for Premier Kenney to be able to say it's not happening because of the federal regulatory process than for him to say ... the provincial government hasn't given final approval or, in the general case, it's not happening because of broader economic circumstances that are sort of beyond his control and don't have an obvious someone else to blame," Leach says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2020.

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