Pipeline protests should not deter good governance in Canada

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, December 29, 2016

Last month, Prime Minister Trudeau gave Canada, and particularly Alberta, an early holiday present of not one, but two oil pipeline project approvals—the Trans Mountain expansion and the Line 3 replacement project.

The challenge now will be to see things through. Some groups are already threatening heavy resistance to the projects, including actions on the ground akin to those in the United States at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Mike Hudema, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said that "If Prime Minister Trudeau wanted to bring Standing Rock-like protests to Canada, he succeeded."

Now, civil disobedience has a long and often distinguished history, but this is not your grandmother’s civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is most appropriate when a group faces oppression without representation, and members of that group are willing not only to break the laws but to face the full punishment for doing so. Muhammad Ali would be a case in point. Americans, particularly black Americans, were being drafted into the Vietnam War and had little recourse to avoid such legalized (and often lethal) indenture. Mr. Ali’s civil disobedience had a strong impact on America’s view of the war, and his willingness to risk serious punishment (he was fined $10,000, sentenced to five years in prison—later overturned—and suspended from professional boxing for three years) would later earn him heroic status in the eyes of many.

And while Canada’s democracy is hardly perfect, Canadians today have numerous opportunities to appeal undesirable activities by both the private and public sector. Canadians, in fact, have not one “social license,” but rather, they have at least four, all of them quantitative, measurable and legally binding. (I’m omitting a fifth, “voting with ones feet,” as today’s challenges involve people with a unique bond to their native lands, and relocation for many would be inconceivable.)

First, Canadians can always express opposition with their wallets. They can choose not to buy products they object to, they can support competing activities, and they can spend their money to rally public opposition to something they don’t like.

Second, Canadians can express their opinions with their ballots. As we have seen most vividly (and not just in Canada—Trump!), Canadians can replace governments they dislike, and vote in governments that promise to do things differently. Elections for federal and provincial offices are one of the most important ways Canadians can seek redress of grievances.

Third, Canadians can express their opinions and desires directly in testimony and submissions of materials to numerous administrative and regulatory proceedings of federal, provincial and even municipal government.

Fourth, Canadians can seek redress of grievances through the legal system, bringing legal suits, again, at the provincial, federal and municipal level.

Some will object that these systems are imperfect, and of course, as all human endeavours are imperfect, these are as well. But a well-regulated market economy, with sound rule of law, has proven to be, by far, the best system for providing the most people with the greatest good. Government by fiat, whether it’s governmental fiat or the fiat of protest camps and protestors threatening to violate the law, is not peace, nor order, nor good governance.

By all means, people should feel free to peacefully protest pipelines, but what’s critical moving forward is that governments at all levels send the signal that they, and their regulatory processes, are legitimate and embody the rule of law in Canada. Potential protesters should understand that the government will have the will to enforce its decisions for the good of all Canadians, not simply one interest group or another. Without that assurance, the recent pipeline approvals by the prime minister might ring hollow.

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