The trouble with the Senate committee hearings on the oil tanker moratorium act in Prince Rupert wasn’t the pounding rain outside preventing people from finding their way to the Highliner Plaza Hotel, it was the seats, there simply weren’t enough.
On April 16 and 17, more than 50 witnesses spoke to senators in Prince Rupert and Terrace on Bill C-48, legislation that would effectively ban more than 12,500 metric tonnes of persistent oil and crude oil from being transported from the Alaskan border down British Columbia’s north coast to the tip of Vancouver Island.
Before the first speaker took the stand, senators were given a tour of the Port of Prince Rupert in the worst weather Kaien Island had seen in months. Bill C-48 passed through the House of Commons in May 2018, and now it’s up to the Senate to approve the bill. For some Senators, this was the first visit to Prince Rupert, where they heard from hereditary chiefs, elected leaders, industry spokespeople and residents.
Midway through day one, Alberta Senator Paula Simons spoke on what she’d heard so far.
“We heard from delegations of hereditary and elected chiefs who are passionately in favour of C-48, because they’re concerned the effect a potential oil spill can have not just on their fisheries, but on their culture, their spirituality, their relationship to the land and the sea,” Sen. Simons said.
|Alberta Senator Paula Simons in Prince Rupert for the Bill C-48 Oil Tanker Moratorium Act hearings on April 16. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)|
“We’ve heard from equally passionate hereditary chiefs and elected leaders who favour oil shipping through this area, and who say that this is the future of their peoples, that that’s the only way that they can get the revenues, they need to get young people back to work and to give people a 21st century kind of life.”
But she’s torn. A former journalist, now a senator who represents Alberta, Sen. Simons said she’s on a “quixotic quest” to see if a compromise can be found to protect most of the northern B.C. coast, but still allow for an egress through one corridor, where industry would “bulk up” a protection response.
Pausing, she then remembers the Exxon Valdez spill from 1989. An oil spill that spoiled 1,600km of Alaskan coastline when an oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound leaking 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ecosystem.
“I was a very young journalist at the time, and it was truly horrific,” she said, then adding that was 30 years ago and technology has changed, ships are safer.
“I would certainly like to find some way that we can still get our energy to Asian markets without compromising this extraordinary ecosystem.”
Support for the oil tanker ban in Prince Rupert
|Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fishermen and Workers Union (FAWU-UNIFOR) argues for the oil tanker ban at the Prince Rupert hearings on April 16. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)|
In the second half of the day, three local leaders from the municipal, provincial and federal level filled the third panel — all in support of Bill C-48.
MLA Jennifer Rice said for her constituents “water is life” and that First Nations communities have inherent rights to have their marine environment protected.
Then, the self-described pesky millennial Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain said while he’s in favour of developing the city as a trade gateway, he’s not in favour of oil tankers on the coastline.
“I can tell you that it’s not economical for a project to have widespread opposition. And so you look at Northern Gateway, it was a 10-year process, tens of millions of dollars invested in that to have nothing but widespread opposition. They even had their environmental assessment approved and they didn’t even move forward,” Brain said.
What the government needs to do, he said, is start investing in refining products in Canada because no one can guarantee that there’s not going to be an accident.
Then the man who first pushed for an oil tanker moratorium in 2014 took his turn to speak. Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen said that while Senators in the committee may be learning about the North Coast and its ancient cultures for the first time, this debate over oil tankers has been going on for more than 40 years.
“It’s unimaginably fatiguing that we have to go over it again and again, to remind people of what we value most,” Cullen said.
In the previous election campaign, the NDP, Liberals, Green Party and Bloc Québécois, all supported a North Coast tanker ban. His private members bill was then picked up and turned into Bill C-48.
“The bill received 67.2 per cent of the votes in the House of Commons, representing the expressed will of more than 11 million Canadians,” Cullen said.
He accepts zero tolerance for a major oil spill, bringing up the devastating economic, social and cultural impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill, and that was only considered a “medium spill” in industry terms.
As he raised the point of how windy the Hecate Strait is, the weather picked up outside and wind began to beat against the windows.
“I think the wind is supporting my argument. I didn’t know that it had that kind of influence,” he said. The crowd laughed.
Ending his five-minute speech, he said often, interest in improving the socio-economic status of Indigenous Canadians comes attached to a pipeline, but why not engage in recovering salmon stocks and more clean energy opportunities.
“I think we have an opportunity before us to put aside the divisive and often combative debate that has surrounded pipelines and oil tankers on the North Coast for more than 40 years, to bring some certainty with to what our future will look like, and allow people to get on with the work because we do not have the right to leave this place worse off than we found it,” Cullen said.
Questioning the oil tanker ban in Terrace
Is it rational to treat crude oil differently than any other industry? That was a question proposed by some B.C. municipal leaders vocalizing their opposition to the ban during the second day of hearings in Terrace on April 17.
Standing outside the Best Western Inn there seemed to be little consensus with two groups of protesters standing metres away from each other on the sidewalk, one group in opposition of oil tankers on the coast, the other in support.
Inside, Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, a former Haisla Nation chief, argued to the visiting senators that the ban was based on political ideology rather than facts.
|Skeena MLA Ellis Ross next to City of Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead in Terrace during the second day of Senate hearings on the oil tanker ban April 17. (Brittany Gervais photo)|
“If it was based on facts, these types of proposals would be aimed at all types of industries and jurisdictions equally, and that is not happening,” he said.
“My real concern here is there is no formal institution that is tasked with separating fact from fiction, or rhetoric from truth … we can’t expect the average citizen to decide what is legitimate information or an unbiased authority.”
He referenced the federal, provincial and United States government’s concern about the risk of oil tankers to orca whales, but noted there seemed to be no mention of the effects caused by other kinds of coastal traffic.
“Somehow BC Ferries, international cruise ships and Washington State oil tankers have a secret technology that avoids orcas, but Canadian tankers, including LNG tankers, don’t,” he said.
Bill C-48 and Bill C-69, which would change how major infrastructure projects are reviewed and approved in Canada, only put up more red tape to stall projects from moving forward, he said — the existing regulatory process is extensive enough.
Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead described oil as a “world-class” resource that can open up access to global markets.
“It’s going to create a long term economic benefit for our community, our region, our province, and our country,” Bumstead said.
Ross said he was open to ideas to placate concerns, including a provision to train and hire First Nations workers living on the coast to monitor tanker traffic, assess potential risks and be responsible for cleaning up any spills. This would not only reduce the amount of time it takes other crews to dispatch to a spill area, but provide jobs and economic opportunity to Indigenous communities located along the coast.
“If we worked in partnership with Transport Canada or the Coast Guard, we could be another set of eyes. Because let’s face it, we’re the ones on the coast. We’ve been watching tankers become a part in our territory for the past 60 years,” Ross said. “Instead of fighting it, how can we become part of it?”
Senators will take the conversation to Alberta and Saskatchewan next, wrapping up public hearings in early May before making their decision to approve or amend Bill C-48.
Shannon Lough | Editor
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