Reinvigorate Democracy

BC Legislature with fountain

Whatever Voting Systems Wins, BC Needs to Make Politicians More Accountable

As long as parties tightly control elected members, democracy is thwarted.

As you consider how to vote in British Columbia’s electoral reform referendum, don’t assume that either keeping the way we elect politicians in B.C., or changing it, will guarantee a more responsive government. Dec. 1, 2018, the day after ballots are due, should be the beginning of a wider conversation about how to make this province more democratic.

It starts with politicians being truly accountable to their constituents.

What most people are yearning for is not merely a fairer distribution of seats in our legislature. People want to feel that whoever they elect will stand up for them and defend their interests. Currently, my elected representative is supposed to act for me and my neighbours as laws are debated, since we can’t all show up every day in Ottawa or Victoria or at city hall to give a thumbs up or down to important decisions.

But as we all know, that seldom happens. Party interests generally override constituents’ interests, and party policy is largely decided by the party leader and his or her inner circle.

Between elections, citizens are left out of this process and subjected to partisan, “party first” rhetoric by elected leaders. While vigorous debate is part of a healthy democracy, the finger-pointing, personal attacks and “my team good, your team bad” nature of our politics is alienating voters.

Simply reshuffling the chairs won’t fix the problem if we leave in place numerous ways party leaders control their MLAs. These include party fundraising rules, the absence of independent staff on legislative committees, impossible recall thresholds, and the party leader’s role in nomination races. The most powerful weapon party leaders wield is called whipping.

It is extremely rare in this province for MLAs to vote independently from their party. That’s because they face punishment if they do. As former investigative journalist Sean Holman pointed out in his must-see documentary “Whipped,” the secretive party-discipline rules that “whip” votes along party lines have transformed Canadian politicians into “trained seals” following their leader.

One former MLA told me how his party changed his password to deny him access to the internal party member and donor database in the lead-up to an election as punishment for not towing the party line.

The controversy surrounding the recent leaked NDP “gag order” that would prevent NDP caucus members “from publicly criticizing the decisions of Premier John Horgan’s government” just codifies decades-old informal rules for most parties. The Green party claims not to whip votes, but the voting records of their three-person caucus are virtually identical. We’ll see if their “no-whipping” policy survives an expanded Green party caucus.

Whipping insures legislators stick within their parties rather than work across the aisle with other members to solve problems jointly. Might PR systems increase the likelihood of minority governments, forcing parties to work together? Yes. However, all proportional systems proposed in B.C.’s referendum have to top up the number of seats for parties under-represented in the direct vote. How these top-up seats are allocated has a dramatic impact on accountability. The top-up options will be determined by a legislative committee if the referendum passes.

Even if the legislative committee decides not to use party derived “closed” lists, parties can still influence the makeup of top-up lists. As a result, the dictator-like power our Westminster-system gives party leaders over MLAs will persist.

By policing internal challenges to their power, political parties paradoxically erode their authority. When pollsters ask Canadians to rank how much they trust various institutions — governments, industries, professions, charities, non-profits, religious organizations, universities, news organizations — political parties always come out at the bottom of the list.

Globally, people generally trust actual people more than institutions. Polls show young people trust younger people, older trust older, ethnic voters trust ethnic representatives. These trends hold in British Columbia.

It raises a question (perhaps to be decided by some future referendum): If we want to adjust seat counts to ensure they are proportional, perhaps we should recalculate around traits people actually care about — age, gender and ethnicity — not political party. After the Vancouver election resulted in all Asian candidates being defeated despite 45 per cent of the population being Asian, imagine a legislature that is proportionalized to reflect the real ratios of Asians, First Nations or women.

In the meantime, here are some other ways to change B.C.’s legislative process to make politicians more accountable to the people who elected them:

  • Develop new rules to allow MLAs more free votes and limit whipping;
  • Strengthen the role of constituency associations in choosing candidates and reduce the power of parties and their leaders to exclude candidates;
  • Democratize power of MLAs to choose their caucus chairs;
  • Empower caucus to review and remove the party leader, and elect interim leader;
  • Codify rules for how MLAs can be expelled from and re-admitted to caucus;
  • Increase the signature requirements on candidate’s applications — and require candidates to personally witness each signature — in order to force candidates to demonstrate wider local support before election; and
  • Enhance resources and financial support for all MLAs, particularly independent MLAs.

Constituents’ ability to recall an unaccountable MLA must also be strengthened. While recalling an MLA should be a difficult task, as a last resort it must be attainable by co-ordinated volunteer effort. Recent reforms to improve disclosure and transparency requirements and ban union and corporate money in recall campaigns are advances. However, the $5,000 third party spending limit and the 60-day timeline make it a mountain too high.

This piece isn’t meant to cool anyone’s desire to cast a vote in the current referendum. Whichever choice wins, however, there is still a lot of work required to get the accountable MLAs and accountable government we need and deserve.

Whatever Voting Systems Wins, BC Needs to Make Politicians More Accountable Read More »

Rachel Notley at Board of Trade

Kinder Morgan and the “rule of law”

Part one in a two-part series on whether arguments for the pipeline expansion are based on actual respect for legal procedure.

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it appears that our New Age prime minister has embraced the post-truth era quicker than anyone could have imagined. Quite simply, he is imitating U.S. President Donald Trump in his handling of Kinder Morgan: tell a big lie­­ and repeat it frequently. Attack any opponents as anti-prosperity, and their words as “fake news.” Unfortunately for Canadian democracy, the cynical “big lie” propaganda technique is now becoming the go-to-procedure in Ottawa for all things Kinder Morgan.

Building on a few other whoppers — Kinder Morgan will lower gas prices, Canada needs new tar sands pipelines in order to address global warming, Justin Trudeau’s promise to ensure a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations —we now discover the biggest lie of all: Trudeau cites the “rule of law” in support of his claim that his government’s Kinder Morgan approval was a science-based decision made after carefully weighing all the evidence. Credible reports based on newly available documents and government staff whistle-blower accounts indicate that Trudeau’s approval of Kinder Morgan was purely political, and worse, “rigged.”

Not surprisingly, the pro–Kinder Morgan crowd that has been attacking the B.C. government and other opponents with “rule of law” arguments has been silent in response to these rigging allegations. If they really cared about the procedural fairness that Canadian laws are founded on, they should be the ones calling most loudly for a thorough investigation of the federal approval process (more on the new evidence of improper process later).

Instead, Trudeau’s Finance Minister Bill Morneau once again trotted out the “rule of law” argument to justify his scheme to indemnify Kinder Morgan from all risk using taxpayer money. Morneau said, “As a government we need to ensure that the rule of law is respected and that investors have the certainty needed to complete the Trans Mountain expansion project because it’s in the national interest to do so.”

Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley, who in what might go down as the biggest political blunder in decades allowed Kinder Morgan to become the litmus test for the success of her government,  has the biggest serial spewer of “rule of law” blarney, doubling down almost daily with misguided references to support her threats to ban wine sales and cut off B.C.’s oil supply. This week she referenced it once again to justify her decision to skip the recent first ministers meeting in the Yukon.

582px version of Notley-Tweet.jpg

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s tweet this week. Screen grab from Twitter.

The hypocrisy of the “rule of law” crowd has a long history in British Columbia’s oil tanker and pipeline struggles. Not so many years ago when Stephen Harper was ruling the roost in Ottawa, we began to the hear the “rule of law” touted in support of Enbridge’s proposal to bisect British Columbia with a pipeline to Kitimat, where bitumen would be pumped into oil tankers for export to China. Pro-Enbridge cheerleaders touted the National Energy Board’s recommendation and the Harper cabinet’s approval. “The issue is already decided, they said, “opponents are ‘radicals’ threatening the economy and Canadian democracy.”

As then, so today. Until the new allegations of NEB rigging surfaced, Kinder Morgan’s promoters often referred to the “rule of law” as their rationale for moving ahead quickly with the Texas company’s controversial oil tanker-pipeline proposal.

But what exactly do they mean?

The dictionary defines the rule of law as: “the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced.”

Canada is not a dictatorship. Just because some handpicked board rubber-stamps something, or princely Trudeau (or the bully Harper before him) wants something, it doesn’t mean we all have to march in step to make it so.

What Harper, Trudeau and the pro-oil sycophants ignore is the fact that the Canadian system of law depends on the complex interplay of a wide range of institutions: police; courts; political parties; non-partisan civil servants; independent regulators; and legislatures. Each of these institutions must be perceived as genuinely independent and not beholden to private interests. They each must be impartial, loyal to the broader public interest and obedient to the rule of law.

The NEB recommendation and cabinet approval are just two steps in a process to ensure the rule of law is upheld. Enbridge’s now-defunct west coast oil-port proposal provides a cautionary tale of thinking otherwise. Like Kinder Morgan’s controversial proposed oil port expansion in Burnaby, Enbridge garnered a positive NEB recommendation (with conditions); it received both federal and provincial environmental assessment certificates, and then it got the thumbs up from cabinet in Ottawa. On the surface, it all seemed proper. Yet two separate courts ultimately struck down these recommendations and approvals. The courts determined the processes were fundamentally unfair because they failed to uphold government’s constitutional obligations to First Nations. The true rule of law — not the conveniently fictional one that Harper and the oil industry cited — eventually prevailed in the courts, thereby killing Enbridge’s proposal.

Kinder Morgan the latest “rule of law” sham

A similar scenario is smoldering with Kinder Morgan. Once again, promoters — citing the rule of law — are predicting the sky is falling and the economy will collapse if Kinder Morgan doesn’t go through. They claim the proposal has been over-scrutinized. Their refrain can be summarized as: “Enough already!” Their references to the rule of law should be translated to what they truly mean: “Shut up, get out of the way, and let us get on with what is really important: making lots of money.”

Trudeau and his cabinet claim, as Harperites did with Enbridge, that the “federal review of the Trans Mountain expansion was the most exhaustive in the history of pipelines in Canada.” But in determining whether the rule of law is being upheld, our legal system looks at the quality of the process, not just the quantity. Upon closer legal examination Enbridge failed this test, and, given the similarities, there are strong reasons to believe Kinder Morgan will fail as well.

The shortcuts and flaws in the NEB review of Kinder Morgan are well known. The Trans Mountain NEB review is haunted by the exclusion of many affected people and groups, the limited terms of reference, the lack of cross-examination to test the evidence Kinder Morgan submitted, the exclusion of relevant evidence (such as scientific studies concluding bitumen sinks if spilled), the expedited hearing schedule and conflicts of interest.

Even Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada (before they came to power) admitted the NEB’s review of Kinder Morgan was fundamentally flawed. Much has been made about then-candidate Trudeau’s statements that Kinder Morgan would not be approved, and the review would be redone if he became prime minister. However, a more damaging statement has been overlooked: the follow-up letter by Anne Gainey, then president of the Liberal Party of Canada, wrote just before the election responding to questions put to Trudeau about his statements. Gainey wrote: “regarding the Liberal Party of Canada’s position on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. As you are aware, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada have serious concerns with the process surrounding the approval of this pipeline. We cannot support the pipeline in its current form because the Conservatives have not ensured environmental, community or stakeholder consent. We agree with what you, and Canadians across the country, have been saying for a long time: Canada’s environmental assessment process is broken.”

Trudeau and the Liberal Party’s pre-election criticisms of the NEB review process was not unique; they were shared by virtually everyone — First Nations, municipalities, scientists, and property owners — who voiced concerns about the proposal. Concerns about the NEB’s Kinder Morgan review being rigged surfaced even then.

It is also worth noting that the NEB’s review of Enbridge — although ultimately determined to be fundamentally flawed by the courts — was much more thorough than their review of Kinder Morgan. Affected people, organizations, witnesses and evidence, excluded in the NEB review in Kinder Morgan, were permitted in Enbridge’s review, and the Enbridge process was not artificially truncated by Harper’s later gutting of environmental laws in 2012. That gutting occurred before the Kinder Morgan review.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr appointed an ad-hoc ministerial panel to make it appear Trudeau’s government was fulfilling its election promise to “redo the review.” The panel’s controversial make-it-up-as-you-go-along meetings were haunted by serious conflict of interest issues. Yet despite all its problems the ministerial panel surprised everyone and recommended that the Trans Mountain pipeline proposal not proceed without a serious reassessment of its impacts on climate change commitments, Indigenous rights and marine mammal safety. Trudeau and his cabinet gave the project the thumbs up just over three weeks later without addressing any of their own panel’s recommendations.

New evidence of “rigged process

If Trudeau’s false promises weren’t enough to threaten the legitimacy of the federal Trans Mountain approval process, we are now hearing credible reports — with documents and several government staff whistle-blowers — describing how Trudeau’s government instructed staff to put their thumb on the scale of justice. Reportedly, Erin O’Gorman — the then-associate deputy minister of the major projects management office — was instructed to “find a way to approve Kinder Morgan. O’Gorman then reportedly told various departments to do just that. In other words, it appears Trudeau betrayed not only his “Sunny Ways” promises, but violated a host of laws by predetermining the Kinder Morgan approval before all the evidence was in, or consultations with affected First Nation were completed.

As biased as the federal process was, the provincial approval process was arguably worse. Back in 2010 while Gordon Campbell was B.C.’s premier, his government signed an equivalency agreement with Ottawa that allowed an NEB review of major proposals like Kinder Morgan to substitute for the provincial assessment. In 2016 the B.C. Supreme Court accepted the Gitga’at/Coastal First Nations argument that the B.C. government acted improperly when it abdicated to Ottawa its responsibility for assessing the environmental impact of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. The court declared the environmental assessment certificate invalid.

This created serious problems for Kinder Morgan, which was also covered by the equivalency agreement. Then-Premier Christy Clark’s lawyers condemned the truncated NEB review of Kinder Morgan. Ultimately, her government officially opposed Trans Mountain, citing concerns about oil spills. Although no new evidence was introduced, the Clark government later flip-flopped and endorsed Trans Mountain after secret negotiations with Ottawa. Rumours abound that Clark’s flip-flop was payback for securing Trudeau’s approval of both Site C and Petronas’s now-defunct Pacific Northwest LNG export proposal near Prince Rupert.

But Clark’s flip-flop opened the door to another challenge by First Nations of British Columbia’s abdication of provincial review due to the equivalency agreement. As with the recent allegations of rigging of federal approval, some B.C. government employees allege that Clark’s government instructed staff to expedite a “Gitga’at–proof” provincial review of Kinder Morgan. Instead of initiating a rigorous process, as a shortcut, the B.C. reviewers accepted all the evidence Kinder Morgan had submitted to the NEB — evidence the province’s own lawyers had previously criticized as inadequate during the NEB review — and deemed that evidence as satisfying their obligation to conduct an independent provincial review. Some public servants objected and reportedly were taken off the file. After a few cursory meetings with affected First Nations, Clark’s government granted the provincial environmental assessment certificate.

Talk about an epic rubberstamp.

Who’s really afraid of the rule of law?

Ironically, when all the evidence is in, it is Kinder Morgan’s cheerleaders, not opponents, that actually are undermining the rule of law. Their get-an-approval-by-any-means-necessary approach — by rigging review processes, ignoring conflicts of interest, trying to pre-empt review by courts, generally putting their thumb on the scales of justice, and using “big lie” propaganda techniques — is the real threat to the rule of law.

But luckily the rule of law doesn’t just include politicians, legislatures, ministers and the courts. Citizens have a critical role to play as well. More on that in part two.

Kinder Morgan and the “rule of law” Read More »

John Horgan

BC Needs To Use Full Toolbox to Stop Kinder Morgan

The government wins on tone but falls short on putting constitutional obligations to First Nations up front.

From the outraged hyperbole frothing from the lips of pro-Kinder Morgan supporters, you would think Premier John Horgan had flipped the Queen the bird with his campaign pledge to “use all the tools in the toolbox to stop” Kinder Morgan’s controversial oil tanker-pipeline proposal.

Just as Albertans expected their political leaders to fight back when Trudeau-the-dad tried to force his National Energy Plan on them in 1980, British Columbians expect our premier to fight to protect our province from bullies from across the Rockies trying to bisect British Columbia with an unwanted pipeline to deliver toxic bitumen to Burnaby for export on oil tankers.

The blowback against Trudeau Sr. changed Canadian politics for a generation. The “West Wants In” grassroots groundswell led to the creation of the Reform party, and the subsequent merged Conservatives led to Stephen Harper’s decade in power. A comparable political shift awaits if Trudeau-the-son keeps on huffing and puffing to force an unwanted proposal on our unwilling province (and let’s not forget unwilling municipalities and First Nations — but more on that later).

The pro-Kinder Morgan arguments about paramountcy, and the rule of law consume headlines, but there has been little analysis of whether Premier Horgan and his government colleagues have been fulfilling their pledge. Are all the tools in the provincial toolbox being used? What are these tools? And how effectively are they being deployed?

The escalating war of words

Horgan and Environment Minister George Hayman both deserve top marks in the verbal squabble with Alberta and Ottawa. While Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and our New Age Prime Minister appear anxious, aggressive and increasingly desperate with their multiple threats, both of B.C.’s main spokespeople on all things Kinder Morgan have appeared unflustered, undeterred and reasonable. Horgan and Heyman may be overwhelmed on the volume of hyperbole, but on substance and tone they win hands down.

Horgan’s strong performance is welcome news to anti-pipeline warriors who have been nervous because of Horgan’s uneven resolve before he formed government. Remember back to the day, after then-NDP leader Adrian Dix’s unexpected 2013 Earth Day announcement of opposition to Kinder Morgan, when Horgan knee-capped his boss by infamously speculating that the oil port could perhaps be moved to Deltaport or Fraser Surrey Docks. Perhaps personally witnessing the devastation of the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart oil spill in Bella Bella was the epiphany that strengthened his resolve on Kinder Morgan.

“No Tankers” supporters might still wish their B.C. representatives rattled their sabres more aggressively, but remember, in politics (well, in Canadian politics), the person that convinces people that they are the most reasonable usually wins. Avoiding unnecessarily aggressive language is also smart legally as many watching the controversy believe Kinder Morgan’s endgame is not to build its pipeline, but to position itself for a massive damages claim under the investor-state provisions (Chapter 11) of NAFTA.

In the legal arena

In the Kinder Morgan legal tug-of-war, British Columbia’s decision to refer the jurisdictional question to the courts was a master stroke though concerns about the timing remain. Some legal experts believe B.C. should have waited and not reacted to Kinder Morgan’s made-up May 31 deadline to walk away from the project. Trudeau and Notley screwed up by not accepting Horgan’s offer to join in the reference.

Left on its own, B.C. can now craft the legal question any way it chooses. It will likely go something like this: is there any formulation of provincial laws whereby British Columbia can regulate the health and safety aspects of the transport of bitumen through the province?

With a broad question like that, the answer from the court is obvious: “Of course, B.C. can.” Given the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent ruling upholding New Brunswick’s right to restrict Quebec beer being transported into the province, it’s hard to imagine the court ruling against British Columbia when it comes to toxic bitumen. Remember, health and safety are clearly under provincial jurisdiction in our Constitution.

While Trudeau, Notley and other Kinder Morgan cheerleaders cite the Constitution for their claim that B.C. has no jurisdiction over interprovincial pipelines, Canadian courts have been much less categorical about paramountcy (the doctrine that federal law automatically prevails when there is a conflict between provincial and federal laws).

Despite Trudeau and Notley’s huffing and puffing, the Supreme Court has rejected the notion that jurisdiction is siloed into separate watertight compartments. Our courts have made it clear that businesses operating in federal fields must also comply with provincial laws. The Supreme Court has called this “first general constitutional principle” and said finding otherwise “would create serious uncertainty.”

Our courts have consistently ruled that related provincial and federal laws can and will overlap and coexist. In the Supreme Court of Canada’s Tsilhqot’in decision (para 148) they said: “Interjurisdictional immunity — premised on a notion that regulatory environments can be divided into watertight jurisdictional compartments — is often at odds with modern reality. Increasingly, as our society becomes more complex, effective regulation requires cooperation between interlocking federal and provincial schemes. The two levels of government possess differing tools, capacities, and expertise, and the more flexible double aspect and paramountcy doctrines are alive to this reality: under these doctrines, jurisdictional cooperation is encouraged up until the point when actual conflict arises and must be resolved. Interjurisdictional immunity, by contrast, may thwart such productive cooperation.”

Despite how the pundits are trying to frame the issue, this is not primarily a federal-provincial dispute. The most important legal conundrum of the Kinder Morgan struggle is how Aboriginal rights and title (or jurisdiction) provides a check on unilateral federal and provincial powers. No one foreshadowed this better than Green Party leader Andrew Weaver when he suggested, “Notley ought to have a look at section 35 of our Constitution” in response to a question about how the newly announced NDP-Green alliance intended to stop Kinder Morgan. Section 35 recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Section 35 imposes specific obligations on both the provinces and federal governments to engage Aboriginal peoples who will be adversely affected by a proposed government action (for example, an oil port or pipeline).

Section 35 further complicates the balancing of interests the courts will inevitably seek in resolving the jurisdictional issue. Canadian courts have never considered the impact constitutionally protected First Nations title and rights have on the balancing in provincial and federal standoffs. First Nations’ jurisdiction is a true wild card.

While British Columbia’s reference of the jurisdictional issue was a smart move, it might not have maximized the impact of other legal tools, specifically using B.C.’s constitutionally imposed obligations to consult and accommodate First Nations as both a sword and a shield.

Although resetting and transforming the relationship with First Nations is a “foundational piece” of the power sharing agreement between the NDP and Green Party, the government has not kept this commitment at the centre of its responses to Kinder Morgan.

British Columbia’s mixed approach

The appointment of Thomas Berger to represent British Columbia as outside counsel on Kinder Morgan was applauded, but many of the subsequent choices have been ill considered. B.C.’s most egregious misstep was the decision to stand behind the evidence introduced by the previous Christy Clark government in the Squamish Nation’s challenge of the province’s Kinder Morgan approval. Ironically, while it is fighting off the big bad wolves from the other side of the Rockies, in the B.C. Supreme Court Horgan’s government defended the conclusion of the Clark government that Kinder Morgan would not have significant environmental impacts and that obligations to the Squamish had been fulfilled. Horgan’s government defended Clark’s approval despite knowing there were bureaucrats who were pulled off the Kinder Morgan file by the Clark government because they objected to the way First Nation and Squamish concerns were being ignored.

Berger could have easily gathered this evidence and filed it in the Squamish case. An affidavit from one of these government officials attesting to the inadequacies of Clark’s approval would have gone a long way to helping the Squamish quash Kinder Morgan’s environmental certificate, thus killing the proposal. Instead Horgan’s government decided to defend Clark’s approval, arguing it was obligated to because constitutional convention and the “honour of the Crown demands that B.C. defend its actions.” Filing a revised factual record that more accurately reflects what happened would uphold the Crown’s honour, not undermine it.

The B.C. government also seems to have lost sight of resetting the relationship with First Nations when reviewing the 1,187 provincial permits Kinder Morgan requires. It has committed to reviewing and reconciling laws and policies with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Supreme Court’s Tsilhqot’in decision. This is no easy task; it will take time.

In the meantime, the government could implement the spirit and intent of its commitment in the power sharing agreement by instructing the staff reviewing Kinder Morgan’s permits to bend over backwards to engage affected First Nations on any issue, even if they tangentially involved. This doesn’t appear to have happened.

The controversy around Kinder Morgan is unlikely to go away anytime soon. While it roils, it is taking up a lot of political bandwidth in Victoria and Ottawa while distracting from other important work.

It is in the British Columbia government’s interest to make it go away as quickly as possible. So, while Horgan’s government has used most of the tools available to it, it has not always deployed them as effectively as possible.

As the battle heats up, B.C. must up its game considerably, particularly in using its commitment to transform relations with First Nations not just as a shield, but also as a sword.

Failure is not an option on this file. The consequences of messing up, both for the future of our magnificent coast, and for the NDP’s prospects of remaining government, couldn’t be more connected.

BC Needs To Use Full Toolbox to Stop Kinder Morgan Read More »

Christy Clark

Dirty donation déjà vu

I love all kinds of movies, but my hands-down favourites are about underdogs. Any movie where the little guy takes on a big, bad villain and wins gets a double thumbs up from me.

Most classic Westerns fit the bill: picture hapless frontier folk facing down greedy, well-armed bandits. While B.C. has recently been dubbed the “Wild West” of political cash, we locals have contended with unsavory shenanigans since at least 2001.

You see, although Dogwood “officially” launched our Ban Big Money campaign last spring, we’ve been trying to shine sunlight on B.C.’s sleazy political donations for more than a decade.

Once Upon A Time In The West

Back in 2006 after a comprehensive, line by-line review of BC Liberals’ 2001 and 2005 annual donation disclosure, Dogwood filed a complaint with Elections BC documenting how the BC Liberals systematically underreported donations in both 2001 and 2005.

Our investigation found the following:

  • Almost half a million dollars in donations ( >500 inaccuracies) the BC Liberal party failed to properly report in its 2001 financial disclosure as required by law.
  • Those mistakes amounted to almost a third of the $1.6 million donated directly to Liberal candidates in that election.
  • The BC Liberals hadn’t properly disclosed approximately six per cent of the party’s donations in 2001. The largest inaccuracies involved donations to candidates who later became cabinet ministers.
  • The BC Liberals’ 2005 financial report revealed similar systemic reporting mistakes.
  • Random spot checks of the NDP’s 2001 and 2005 filings did not reveal similar systemic reporting mistakes.

Elections BC responded to our complaint just as they did with recent allegations of illegal donations: by launching a comprehensive review of all parties’ donation reports.

The Searchers

The results were mixed. Elections BC confirmed the BC Liberals had violated the law in 2001, however, they chose not to impose a penalty. Elections BC stated in their May 16, 2006 letter to Dogwood:

“[We] concur that the [BC Liberal] party did not consistently report correct amounts for combined contributions… to the party and its candidates in the 2001 General Election … It was a systemic error that resulted in some contributions to some candidates not being included in the party’s combined report…”

But some good did come of it. Dogwood’s 2006 complaint had a big role in making sure all party donations are now available online in a searchable database: the Financial Reports and Political Contributions System.

Now with public pressure mounting, the BC Liberals have introduced legislation that would mandate “real time” disclosure of donations (instead of the current once-a-year disclosure). But their supposed efforts to increase transparency are too little, too late.

A Fistful of Dollars

Transparency alone wasn’t enough to rein in the sleaze in 2006, nor will it be in 2017. The reason British Columbia remains the Wild West is because the underlying rules are outdated or non-existent. While many provinces — and the federal government — have brought in tough new reforms, British Columbia laws have stagnated.

With lax enforcement of what few rules there are, the sleaze scale has increased dramatically: Last year donations over $100 accounted for $11.7 million of the BC Liberal party’s $12.15 million total. That included $1.7 million from just 11 top donors in 2016.

Right now in B.C. the picture is clear: it’s powerful corporations, lobbyists and high net worth individuals who are running the show.

But to double down on a cliché, there might be a new sheriff in town.

High Noon

This month Kathy Tomlinson reported in the Globe & Mail that a number of lobbyists made individual donations to the BC Liberals, then took reimbursements from corporations. That would break one of the few laws we do have, designed to stop people from concealing the true source of donations.

Lobbyists like Mark Jiles (whose clients include the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association) and Byng Giraud, (a lobbyist for Woodfibre LNG, an Indonesian firm hoping to build a gas plant near Squamish) admitted they paid for tables at fundraisers on personal credit cards, then billed the same amount back to clients.

That may just be the tip of the iceberg. Watchdog group Integrity BC has identified 727 suspicious donations to the BC Liberals, totalling more than $1.5 million. Those files have now been handed to the RCMP, which is taking over the investigation from Elections BC.

Dogwood has asked police to investigate donations by Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson, as well as six other lobbyists and staff connected to the controversial Trans Mountain expansion.

There are also allegations of irregularities related to $150,203 that accounting firm KPMG donated to the BC Liberals between 2005 to 2010. David McShane and Eric Watt are named in the Elections B.C. database as the KPMG executives who signed the cheques. But McShane died in 2004.

Watt, who acted as Premier Christy Clark’s financial agent in her 2011 leadership campaign, retired from KPMG in 2012. In 2014 the BC Liberal cabinet named him to the Knowledge Network board. KPMG also billed the provincial government $2,692,289 through April last year for accounting services.

With more such revelations appearing every day, public anger is approaching a tipping point.

True Grit

Back in 2006 we had to rely on mainstream outlets to publicize the issue, which they didn’t. Now Dogwood has enough supporters that the circulation of our e-mails, videos, blog posts and podcasts is starting to rival some media organizations.

Reporters are taking an interest, too. The New York Times, Globe & Mail, National Post, National Observer, CBC, Global, CTV, CKNW, Tyee, Metro and Vancouver Sun have all featured the current scandal in their headlines.

We haven’t won yet, but momentum is on our side.

Eventually the only option will be to ban big money from politics once and for all. When that happens, it will not be because political parties suddenly had an epiphany, but rather because people like you, and organizations like Dogwood and Integrity BC, organized a focused opposition demanding change.

Dogwood’s goal is simple: ensure whichever party forms government in May does so on a promise to fundamentally reform B.C.’s archaic political financing and access to government laws. With your help and some hard work, we know we can win.

If you want to put the big, powerful, arrogant, well-connected donors in their place, it’s going to take grit and determination. British Columbians like you and me are going to have to be the underdogs who force the issue and mobilize against any half measures that may be offered to distract us. We have to be the heroes of this story.

It will be a struggle, but we’re up for the challenge and we know you are too.

Dirty donation déjà vu Read More »

We need courageous leaders, not empty promises and lies

It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Occasionally, a leader has the courage to take controversial action even though there may be enormous political consequences. Unfortunately, most of the time they take the coward’s path.

Legend has it, after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic but highly contentious Civil Rights Act into law on June 2, 1964, he turned to his aide, Bill Moyers (the now famous-PBS TV host), and said, “We have lost the South for a generation.”  Johnson enacted the momentous law despite the inevitable electoral blowback because it was the right thing to do. He knew his simple signature on the transformational law set him on the right side of history. Unfortunately, Johnson’s political prophecy was, if anything, understated. 

Johnson’s civil rights law changed America forever. The law ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The long civil rights struggle we mythologize now — lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts, marches and assassinations – set the stage for Johnson. His signature, along with the one he affixed a year later to the Voting Rights Act, are considered the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement and of his presidency. With the simple swipe of a pen, Johnson set a course that would help improve the lives of millions of people for generations.

Last week, when Prime Minister Trudeau announced his approval of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion, he couldn’t muster President Johnson’s courage to be on the right side of history. Instead, he took the well-traveled coward’s path.

Context is important. The proof of cascading global warming is multiplying daily. Not a week goes by without some new dire announcement showing the scientific modeling has underestimated the pace global warming is happening. Last week it was the news that the Arctic was 31 degrees hotter than normal and sea ice was at an all-time low.  

This is not lost on our boyish Canadian leader. He certainly understands the need for fast and courageous action on climate. You need only look at his statements prior to attending the Paris climate talks last year.

“We’ll demonstrate that we are serious about climate change … This means making decisions based on science…”

Over the last twelve months Trudeau’s modus operandi is becoming clear: he likes to be out front when a few flashy promises will garner headlines, but when the heavy lifting of true leadership is needed, Trudeau caves to the whims of Big Oil, the communist-Chinese government and Big Money donors from Bay Street.

Our “sunny ways” leader has information at his fingertips that shows new pipelines will dramatically increase domestic and global heat-trapping pollution — the math is obvious and unequivocal. Kinder Morgan alone could unlock as much as 162 million tonnes of atmospheric pollution every year, overwhelming many of Trudeau’s much touted climate measures. For instance, phasing out domestic coal-burning power will only drop nation-wide emissions by five million tonnes, and his well-publicized national carbon pricing plan will only reduce our emissions by 18 million tons.  

While the public is understandably confused by misleading press accounts from oil industry executives, lobbyists and lazy politicians claiming a Canadian pipeline bottleneck is hurting our economy, our photogenic leader knows Alberta doesn’t need any new pipelines to ship their bitumen to market. Cabinet documentsindependent studies, and academics all prove Canada has enough pipeline capacity to get current and projected oil to market for a decade or more.

Our Prime Minister also knows claims that selling oil into the Asian market will overcome the much-touted Canadian discount are entirely fictitious. Cabinet documents spell out clearly that the so-called Canadian discount doesn’t exist, and that the lower price for Western Canadian Select (e.g. diluted bitumen and heavy oil) comes from its lower quality and higher cost to transport, not its source. In fact, our celebrity leader should know the United States – our current customer – pays more for heavy oil than either the Asian or European markets. If Trudeau is being properly briefed, he knows zero oil tankers and zero barrels of oil are scheduled to be shipped to Asia, while the oil tankers currently transporting from Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby oil tanker port are all going to California.

Finally, Canada’s freshman leader should be well aware the Chinese market can’t handle diluted bitumen. In fact, China has no refineries equipped to refine heavy bitumen.

Given all this information Trudeau knows — or should know — why then did he approve Kinder Morgan? Because he lacks Lyndon Johnson’s courage to do what’s in the best interest of all Canadians and proudly make the inconvenient choices that would put him on the right side of history.

Not only was his Kinder Morgan approval cowardly, it also broke a fundamental promise that helped him win a majority. Perhaps you’ve seen the video from midway through Trudeau’s campaign when he told Dogwood’s Kai Nagata, “That process needs to be redone,” referring to the Harper government’s broken NEB review process. But what most people don’t know is that before we released that video, Dogwood sent a copy and a link to Trudeau’s press spokesman and asked if this change in position was now “official Liberal party policy?” Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau’s spokesperson wrote back confirming it was official policy. We then e-mailed and asked for clarification on what “redo the review” actually meant. We received a four-page letter from Anna Gainey, President of the Liberal Party of Canada, detailing that, if elected, Trudeau’s government would:

(1) launch an immediate, public review of Canada’s environmental assessment processes;

(2) modernize and rebuild trust in the National Energy Board;

(3) ensure that the Crown is fully executing its consultation, accommodation, and consent obligations on project reviews and assessments, in accordance with its constitutional and international human rights obligations [in partnership with First Nations]; 

(4) understand that governments may be able to issue permits, but only communities can grant permission and a Liberal government will undertake broad consultation with stakeholders and civil society on the issues that matter to them.

So much for promises. Each point we now know was either an outright lie or a sign of how easily Trudeau buckled under the pressure of Big Oil’s money and influence, throwing everyday Canadians like you and I straight under the bus.

Perhaps Trudeau signed the Kinder Morgan approval because his confidants told him it would win his party more seats in Alberta than he’ll lose in British Columbia. Hogwash! Trudeau’s insiders have deluded themselves that the approval will only cost them three B.C. MP seats in the next election. But while both Johnson and Trudeau underestimated the negative impact of their actions on their party’s future, only Johnson had the courage to take bold action anyway.  Recent Dogwood polling found 31 per cent of Trudeau’s voters in B.C. are less likely to vote Liberal again because of the Kinder Morgan approval.

Since our fearful national leader lacked the courage to step onto the right side of history, the people of British Columbia will have to do it for ourselves. We need to summon our resolve to take action against the monumentally stupid approval just as we have every time a reckless and unwanted oil tanker and pipeline scheme has been pushed on us over the last 40 years. While the Prime Minister and his minions may not be brave, I know tens of thousands of British Columbians have the gumption to stand up to Big Oil and their toadies in Ottawa and Edmonton.

It won’t be easy, but with hard work and the willingness to step out of our comfort zone, together we’ll beat Kinder Morgan just like we beat Enbridge.

Oh and Justin, British Columbians will see you in 2019.

We need courageous leaders, not empty promises and lies Read More »

Christy Clark

Corporate cash addiction corrodes B.C. politics

Would you pay $20,000 to eat rubbery chicken, drink a couple glasses of wine, shake some hands and listen to boring political speeches?

No, probably not.

How about $5,000 or $10,000 a table? Or $1,000, $1,500 or $2,500 a plate?

Still no?

Me neither. But CEOs of British Columbia’s biggest corporations routinely hand over big cheques to hobnob with Christy Clark and her cabinet at BC Liberal party fundraisers. Or more recently, with John Horgan and the BC NDP.

If this is not legalized bribery, I don’t know what is. Certainly the $2,500, $10,000 or even $20,000 price of entry isn’t paying for the food and drink. So what’s it for?

The corrosive impact of money on politics has been in the news a lot lately. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau is on the defensive for allegedly violating his own rules at a $1,500-a-ticket private fundraiser attended by a number of Chinese billionaires seeking access and favours from Trudeau’s government.

One wealthy attendee, Zhang Bin, has strong ties to the Communist Party in China and reportedly donated $1 million to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation soon after the exclusive event. Another tycoon in attendance, Shenglin Xian, received final approval soon afterward to open a bank in Canada. The Liberal Party maintains that government business is not discussed at these fundraisers.

Nonetheless, Federal Finance Minister Bill Moreau and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould have also garnered headlines and negative editorials across the country for participating in these cash-for-access events. So have many of Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario cabinet ministers.

Down south, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders built their campaigns around slamming the role big donors play in driving policy in Washington D.C. Yet here in British Columbia – the wild west of political fundraising – Christy Clark’s BC Liberals are raking in unprecedented amounts of political money from dozens of corporations (foreign and domestic) with businesses regulated by her government, including from oilminingcoalLNG and real estate sectors. Pay-for-access dinners happen frequently in British Columbia, generally without a peep from the press.

John Horgan’s NDP slipped into the cesspool last week when his laudatory announcement to end the grizzly bear trophy hunt was hijacked by news that he was hosting a $10,000 VIP fundraiser with undisclosed “resource industry leaders” later that night.

While fracking, mining and timber companies can’t win any immediate concessions by wining and dining opposition leader John Horgan, perhaps they are just hedging their bets in case he forms government after the May election. It is worth noting corporations also dramatically increased donations to the NDP immediately before the 2013 election – when the NDP was widely predicted to win.

For someone like me who believes in transparency, integrity and public service, it’s all pretty depressing.

But the news is not all bad. In September, the Green Party of BC announced that, effective immediately, they would voluntarily impose a ban on donations of any kind from corporations and unions.

It was an important step that raised the ethical bar higher for all other political parties in our magnificent province. Unfortunately, they are the only party so far to have mustered the courage for bold change.

Critics of the Green Party have dismissed their voluntary ban as a stunt, citing the dearth of union and corporate donations the party receives. But in 2015, the Green Party received $10,549 (just under 3 per cent of their total donations) from unions and corporations, and these donations totaled $23,568 (~ seven per cent of the party’s income) in 2014. These totals, while small, are not insignificant for a small party.

So while it’s certainly easier for the Green Party to take a principled stand, other opposition parties wouldn’t be crippled by following the Green Party’s lead.  While the Libs got an astonishing $5,308,788 (53.19 per cent of total donations) from non-voting corporate and union donors in 2015, the NDP raised only a tiny fraction of that – $520,156 (17 per cent of their total).

Bernie Sanders showed us small donors will flock to progressive leaders who take a strong ethical stand against crony capitalism. Bernie’s campaign raised over $200,000,000 (the equivalent of almost one dollar from every eligible voter in the U.S). Using a similar formula, the BC NDP could raise at least $3,100,000 from B.C. voters, more than offsetting the corporate and union money they currently collect.

The BC Green Party reportedly raised $50,000 from individual donors after their voluntary ban on corporate money. In other words, in a few days the Greens raised more than four times the amount corporations gave them last year and double the sum raised in 2014.

The BC Conservative Party would face an even smaller shortfall, only having to backfill $4,250 (7.85 per cent of total income) if they refused to accept corporate or union money.

To give them credit, the BC NDP has tabled a private member’s bill five different times that would ban non-voters from making political donations and cap individual donations. If elected, leader John Horgan promises to clean up political fundraising for good. But in the meantime, he continues to solicit union and corporate money, arguing he can’t “unilaterally disarm” in the face of Christy Clark’s fundraising blitzkrieg.

Unfortunately, the NDP seems to be ignoring the old Albert Einstein quote about the definition of insanity – doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.

Clearly the BC NDP approach is insane by Einstein’s definition. As they have almost every year for decades, the NDP is exponentially losing the arms race to Premier Clark’s money machine, and are unlikely to catch up by election time. Trying to compete with the BC Liberals when you are being out-fundraised ten to one is a mug’s game. Yet the BC NDP refuse to change course.

Polling commissioned by Dogwood and conducted by Insights West shows an overwhelming majority of supporters from both the BC Liberals (81 per cent) and the BC NDP (91 per cent) want an end to corporate, union and out of province donations before the next election. So the challenge to the BC NDP is: will they listen?

If not, British Columbians need a game plan for after the vote in May – because without a clear alternative to Christy Clark’s corporate cronyism, there’s a strong likelihood the BC Liberals will use their massive monetary advantage to grind out another win.

Join thousands of other British Columbians who are fed up with business-as-usual politics by signing your name to Dogwood’s Ban Big Money campaign today. Together, we can hold all politicians to account for the destructive role money is playing in our political system – before, during and after the 2017 election.

Corporate cash addiction corrodes B.C. politics Read More »

Donald Trump

In every crisis, there is opportunity

Perspective is hard, especially in this moment of time when the clouds of darkness have descended like a blanket of fog. But when times are darkest I find it useful to step back and consider outliers, black swans. The crazy, wild, out of the box notions usually relegated to late night harangues.

I’ve had some dark things happen to me in my life: living on the street, single digit odds of me or my daughter surviving health crises and divorce. Each time it was hard to breathe, and it seemed the sun would never shine again.

The bad things likely to happen under a Trump presidency will be well publicized – my social channels are already filled with speculation – but it’s worth taking a few minutes and contemplating some of the positive things that are now possible. As Rahm Emanuel said about the 2008 recession: You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

I’m not being Pollyannaish. Things I care deeply about are likely to get bad under Trump (there will be plenty of time to drill down on that later) but today let’s open our minds to positive things that are possible now.

Here goes:

Like the candidate Trump, President Trump will likely remain addicted to controversy. He can’t resist it – it’s part of his DNA. Thus, the next four years will be filled with serial crises of his creation. Expectations are high for change, but his supporters are ideologically diverse and don’t agree on much policy-wise. Keeping them unified will be nigh impossible; exploiting the massive differences will present myriad opportunities to hive off unusual allies.

Ironically, Trump and Trudeau’s victories reaffirm democracy. Charismatic long shots that tap into a cultural zeitgeist can overcome all the elite’s advantages and win.

The Trans Pacific Partnership is dead. No uber ‘Investor State Dispute Resolution’ rules will be foisted on Canadians, undermining our sovereignty and democracy.

The GOP is not unified; there are major splits between the Trumpites and Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Mario Rubio etc. that will not heal quickly. Trump is enough of a bully that he will require them to prostrate themselves, to grovel on bended knee — but many won’t. Trump’s inability to be a team player means fireworks are likely to ensue, which could destroy the GOP for a generation.

Massive backlash is inevitable. Because Republicans control all three branches of the U.S. government, Trump will have no one to blame when problems develop. He has portrayed himself as the “wizard” — that the buck stops with him — so the risks are very high for massive disappointment. If the resulting recoil is properly channeled, a truly grounded progressive machine could be built.

There will be an epic battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. The neoliberal wing will likely come under aggressive attack. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will be ascendant, and if they are smart and fight hard, the Democrats may finally rid themselves of the Reagan-lite forces that have so undermined the party’s grassroots connection to real people and real problems.

Democratic leaders are less likely to be obsequious and less likely to acquiesce to Trump as they did with G.WBush. Expect GOP-like intransigence against his more extreme nominees and policies, forcing Trump to react and creating more crises.

There will be no Trump honeymoon. People will take to the streets immediately creating opportunity for people-centred approaches to solving big problems like climate change, inequality, etc. Hillary was never going to take the drastic steps needed. With Trump, the needed mass movement is more likely to form since distracting half-measures won’t be an option.

Trump is a populist, not an ideologue. He has spouted policies that cross-traditional right/left categorization. If people build sufficient momentum behind particular policies, he will adopt them even if they conflict with other policies or the traditional GOP dogma.

Given all the sleazy deals Trump is involved in he is unlikely to make it through four years without being arrested or impeached. Malcolm Gladwell predicted he would be in jail within a year.

Financial markets hate uncertainty and are likely to remain unstable throughout what I predict to be Trump’s impetuous presidency. Once Trump and the Republicans have to balance the budget perhaps some sacred cows will get gored. For example, I could see Trump slashing the military budget to the extent no other living U.S. politician would ever be able to.

As the decider-in-chief, Trump will have difficulty keeping both the anti-elite rust belt voters and the evangelical-southern voters within the same tent. The expectations are too high and his consistent demonization of “compromise” means that each of these constituencies want to have their cake and eat it too. That would take a deft hand to manage, something Trump doesn’t have.

So, as we grieve the election outcome and buttress ourselves for a difficult four years, let’s remember President Kennedy’s famous words in the lead up to the Cuban missile crisis: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis‘ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

Ultimately, we all get to choose how to respond to the crisis of a Trump presidency. We can lament the woulda, shoulda, coulda’s, or we can take a day or two to grieve and gripe, maybe even howl like a wolf at the moon, then take a cold shower, put on work boots and thinking caps, and go out to find like-minded people who share our aspirations for the world we desire. And when we find those people, we need to help them organize themselves into a formidable political force that can’t be ignored.

Our task is no different than it was a few days ago. In fact, the path may have become clearer. No president in Washington D.C. or prime minister in Ottawa or premier in Victoria is going to voluntarily make changes at the pace and scale needed. Ultimately it’s up to us – concerned citizens organizing community-by-community – who wrestle the powers that be to the ground and force the changes needed. That was the truth on November 7, and it is still the truth on November 9, so let’s not despair for too long. There’s lots of work to be done, many opportunities to grab, and we are the ones who are going to do it.

In every crisis, there is opportunity Read More »

Never underestimate British Columbians

The last time a Prime Minister named Trudeau forced an unpopular energy policy on a western province, the backlash eviscerated the Liberals’ foothold in the West and created fault lines that ultimately transformed Canada for a generation.

Trudeau, the father, miscalculated the impact of overriding Alberta to force his National Energy Program through.  By approving a new pipeline to tidewater to appease Big Oil, Trudeau, the son, would be alienating British Columbians to benefit Alberta. Ironically, while trying to remedy the Trudeau brand in Alberta, Trudeau is duplicating his father’s mistake. The consequences could be enormous.

Pundits, Liberal insiders and even Kinder Morgan executives are all whispering that Trudeau’s Cabinet has decided to approve Kinder Morgan in December. Trudeau’s East Coast advisors seem to believe British Columbians will forget about Kinder Morgan well before the next election comes around. The assumption behind that miscalculation is that the expansion of oil tankers is just another issue and a controversial approval will be long forgotten by 2019. Fat chance.

As pundits and politicians regurgitate the benefits of tidewater pipelines and crude oil tanker export proposals in B.C., they continue to miss the deeper sense of alienation that’s taking hold. British Columbians, and especially First Nations, are growing increasingly resentful of decisions they feel have been imposed on them from the outside.

Trudeau tapped into this sentiment with his promise of a Kinder Morgan review do-over and reconciliation with First Nations, but he seems to have lost touch since he formed government. The initial optimism with our newage Prime Minister is fading fast with every approval of projects reviewed under Harper’s truncated processes —Fraser Surrey Docks’ coal terminal, Woodfibre LNG and Site C — but signed off on by Trudeau’s government.

Like Albertan decades-long convulsions over the National Energy Program, British Columbians aren’t likely to forget before 2019. This miscalculation is not unique to Liberal party headquarters. Virtually every politico east of the Rockies has underestimated the power of the B.C. climate and No Tanker movements. Stephen Harper certainly did, and it cost him almost every tidewater riding and 149,075 votes.

After forty years of successfully turning back every tidewater oil tanker-pipeline scheme proposed for British Columbia’s magnificent coast, do Trudeau’s advisors really think a few shirtless selfies and a carbon price (that won’t affect B.C. until 2021) are going to somehow invoke collective amnesia?

The slapdash make-it-up-as-you-go-along Kinder Morgan Ministerial hearings dug the hole deeper by confirming Ottawa wasn’t taking British Columbians seriously. Despite the rhetoric about a return to science and “evidence-based” decision-making, the hearings were anything but.

Liberal MPs who thought the charade would buy them “social licence” are in for a big surprise. A palpable feeling that the decision was preordained and that the panel was just going through the motions was shared by everyone attending. For heaven’s sake, the whispers of a December approval from credible sources are multiplying even before the panel’s report has been written.

As Dogwood organizer Mary Leighton’s dynamic speech illustrated, the hearings were just the beginning of our fight.

Perhaps it’s not surprising  the red team is arrogant and feeling invincible. Their poll numbers are good.  But arrogance is dangerous in modern politics, particularly in B.C.

Until recently, Trudeau’s Liberals have never faced off against the focused, strategic, resilient power of the battle-tested No Tanker movement. Having never faced a highly organized grassroots gauntlet, it is no surprise  Trudeau’s Liberals currently discount our impact; treating us as just another special interest, incapable of impacting electoral outcomes. We need to remind them that Harper also underestimated us and paid dearly for his miscalculation.

Dogwood has formidable networks of No Tanker supporters in 11 of the 17 B.C. ridings currently held by Liberal MPs. Plus, there are dozens of other groups opposed to the proposal and First Nations are prepping their lawsuits.

Together, we are well positioned to short-circuit this political (mis)calculation. Our people are trained, resourced and passionate. They have stood up to — and beaten back — decade-long attempts by Ottawa to push through unwanted projects deemed by the government of the day to be in the national interest. The Liberals think the wave of voters who swept their way in the final days of the election now form their base. Think again.

Also, keep in mind a rejection by Ottawa is not the only path to stopping Kinder Morgan.

First Nations are well positioned to tie up Kinder Morgan in the courts. Court rulings have confirmed that the B.C government also has to approve permits for oil tanker-pipeline projects to go ahead. Since there is provincial jurisdiction, British Columbians don’t have to wait for government to act — we can take action ourselves using B.C.’s unique direct democracy law.

Dogwood teams throughout the province have been prepping for years to launch a citizens’ initiative – like what happened with the HST  – as a democratic insurance policy against our Premier bowing to Ottawa’s bid to force an unwanted project like Kinder Morgan through our province. We have a ways to go to pre-organize the 10 per cent of the electorate needed to win, but we have already trained 22 teams of experienced canvassers and have more than a quarter million supporters.

Plus, we’re getting stronger every day. While Trudeau’s team is prepping for a Kinder Morgan approval in December, we’ll be organizing.

Starting today, we are launching Knock the Block – asking our staff, board and more than 250,000 No Tankers supporters to step slightly out of their comfort zone and knock on the doors of their neighbours, friends and family to encourage them to sign the Let BC Vote petition. If each Dogwood supporter signs up just one person, we will have the numbers of people needed for a citizens’ initiative.

If each of us takes a couple of hours to help organize, we can show our federal and provincial representatives just how many people in B.C. are concerned about being cut out of the decision-making process.

Despite the smiles and promises, it’s now clear we can’t trust Ottawa and Victoria to stand up for B.C. on oil pipeline and tanker projects like Kinder Morgan.  So it’s time to get ready to stand up for ourselves.  Sign up here to Knock the Block!

Together we can hold our political leaders to account and change Canadian politics for a generation.

Never underestimate British Columbians Read More »

Kinder Morgan supplementary hearing room

Trudeau’s new pipeline process: worse than National Energy Board?

First Nations leaders left in the dark. The public, once again, denied the chance to speak. Add to that a clear conflict of interest at the heart of the panel chosen to review Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal and you have a recipe for yet more lawsuits and squandered public trust.

It didn’t have to be this way. After nearly 10 years under Stephen Harper, British Columbians were yearning for a government that cared about public input and would actually listen to them.

We all know how much Harper scorned public consultation, highlighted by Minister Joe Oliver’s attack on well-meaning Canadians as “radicals” for having the temerity to accept the National Energy Board’s invitation to speak at Joint Review Panel hearings on Enbridge’s controversial pipeline and tanker proposal.

Conflict of interest, slapdash process drag down Liberals’ Kinder Morgan review

You may also remember the National Energy Board’s so-called public hearings this January in Burnaby, where the Harper-appointed panel barred the public from the room. That’s why the Trudeau government announced a new “supplementary process” on Kinder Morgan to restore public trust by actually listening to those most affected.

After all, as Trudeau said so often on the campaign trail, “governments grant permits, but only communities can grant permission.” Yet in what seems like a bad dream, those communities are once again being silenced in the mad rush to get bitumen pipelines to the coast.

At first Trudeau’s government was a breath of fresh air, promising broad public consultations on a wide variety of subjects: CBC’s future, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), Canada Post home delivery, legalizing marijuana, employment insurance (EI) reforms, environmental assessment reforms, electoral reform and a pan-Canadian climate change plan, just to name a few.

Canadians applauded the change in tone in Ottawa and welcomed the opportunity to have a say in issues that concerned them. But the reality is consultation involves more than sound bites. Recent developments on the pipeline file raise serious concerns about the Trudeau government’s commitment to actually listen to British Columbians.

Where did it all go wrong?

The afternoon before the Canada Day long weekend, Ottawa’s Major Projects Management Office finally released details for the long-anticipated redo of the Kinder Morgan review.

The government announced a series of 90-minute ‘roundtables’ in the middle of summer holidays in seven communities across B.C. Only one, Victoria, is on the oil tanker route. The sessions are divided up between First Nations, business groups, labour and NGOs.

Who gets to speak? That’s up to the Natural Resources bureaucrats. All the website says is “Should you wish to participate by making a presentation or comments to the Panel, please email us at to confirm your preferred location and date.”

If you’re counting, that email address contains 62 characters. The longest word in the English language, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, is just 45. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, made famous by Mary Poppins, clocks in at 34 letters.

In addition, four communities (Victoria, Vancouver, Burnaby and Langley) each get a “public townhall with open participation,” time and venue TBD.

After residents on the North Shore vented their frustration to local Liberal MPs, the government quietly added a fifth townhall in North Vancouver on a Friday in August. The rest of the province is out of luck.

For example, in Kamloops, members of the public were told they were allowed to go and watch, but without a chance to comment or ask questions. There are four hours scheduled for First Nations, while invited municipal, business and NGO “stakeholders” have each been allotted 90 minutes. There is no slot for the public to present their views. On the day of the meeting the supplemental panel decided to open up the process and allow people to speak or ask questions. Many people chose not to attend thinking there was no such opportunity.

So much for transparency and inclusion

Instead of a thorough review that could remedy the fatal flaws of the NEB process, Trudeau’s government appears to have adopted a “make it up as you go along” process that is nothing if not short on rigour. It’s unacceptable after 12 years of trying to get government to listen, each community only gets a few minutes to sum up their views on the Kinder Morgan proposal.

How about the literally thousands of pages of scientific review the NEB ignored, deemed inadmissible, or failed to consider? How will that be brought into evidence? One such item being the U.S. National Academies of Science report which documented the dangers of diluted bitumen spills (the stuff sinks in water). The NEB rejected the report because it was labeled as “prejudicial” to Kinder Morgan. How is that peer-reviewed science supposed to be presented this truncated format?

What about the thousands of pages of evidence Kinder Morgan submitted, but was never tested under cross examination? I’d like to see someone try to compress into the few minutes allotted to each speaker.

Finally, how is Ottawa deciding who gets invited and who doesn’t?

At the Edmonton hearing — the location of which was announced with only 48 hours notice — the majority of people in attendance were those personally invited by the government in advance. A similar situation is happening with the B.C. sessions. I can think of a lot of choice words to describe this “supplementary review,” but rigorous, transparent, open and inclusive are not among them.

I’m deeply disappointed, as will be many other British Columbians that were happy to think “Sunny Ways” was replacing a decade of Harper’s bully tactics. I thought when Prime Minister Trudeau promised Dogwood, on camera, to re-do the Kinder Morgan review that he sincerely wanted to hear from British Columbians. Instead, bureaucrats are racing through these summer meetings so Cabinet can stick to Stephen Harper’s original timeline and make a final decision in December.

Last chance to fix this

The decision whether to expand oil tanker traffic on the B.C. coast is too important to do on the basis of a slapdash PR exercise. This is not a political game. The entire Lower Mainland and South Island would be affected by an oil tanker spill, plus everyone who relies on salmon from the Fraser and Thompson watersheds — or the multi-billion dollar tourism industry on the south coast. And that’s before counting the enormous climate impacts.

As a leaked Finance Ministry memo made clear, there is no pressing need for this pipeline: “sufficient capacity is projected to exist to transport oil until at least 2025.” Kinder Morgan’s proposal is all about expanding the oil sands. That’s worth a broader conversation.

Given the legal risks and public dissatisfaction surrounding the NEB’s heavy-handed Trans Mountain process, Trudeau could have extended the deadline for the ultimate cabinet decision. He chose not to. He could have announced a do-over in June after the Federal Court of Appeal slammed Ottawa for its handling of the Enbridge review. Again, he chose not to.

As British Columbians know all too well, pipeline approvals are not simply a matter of technical feasibility. Social, legal and cumulative environmental impacts all factor into a public interest decision that ultimately must be made by accountable, elected members of government.

During the election campaign Trudeau and the Federal Liberal candidates in coastal B.C. seemed to understand this. Their apparent willingness to cancel Enbridge and demand a fair, open, rigorous review process for Kinder Morgan led to them gaining 15 seats while the Conservatives lost 11 seats in our province.

Then the lobbyists swooped in. Now that the Liberals have been in government for most of a year, the backroom pressure and political horse trading is starting to chip away at the government’s campaign promises.

Democracy unfortunately requires eternal vigilance. The people of B.C., together with First Nations, have kept Big Oil and their cheerleaders in Alberta, Ottawa and Bay Street from building a west coast oil port for decades. Together we have held off the greediest industry on the planet for years, thanks to concerted pressure on political decision-makers.

These hearings are part of that seemingly never-ending story. So before you throw up your hands in frustration, remember the real audience is not the panel itself — it’s your fellow citizens and the MPs watching the process unfold. The decision ultimately will be made by our elected representatives in Ottawa and Victoria.

They may have forgotten how to listen. They may have forgotten how strongly British Columbians oppose the expansion of oil tankers in our waters. These town halls, slapdash though they may be, will be our chance to remind them. Here’s where you can sign up. If the government is smart, they’ll pull the plug on these summer roundtables and come back with a real process.

Trudeau’s new pipeline process: worse than National Energy Board? Read More »