The Northern Gateway to nowhere.

AuthorWhitaker, Reg

Every few decades an issue arises that unexpectedly becomes a defining moment for the country. Such issues can creep up and catch decision-makers unawares. The great free trade election of 1988 was one such: when Brian Mulroney signed the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement he had no idea that it would precipitate an election/ plebiscite widely understood as a choice between two very different paths into the future for Canada. It was one of the rare instances of an election in which a great public policy issue overshadowed parties and personalities.

When the federal and Alberta governments, along with Enbridge and the various other corporate players in the Alberta oil sands, came up with the idea of a pipeline megaproject--Northern Gateway--that would pump bitumen from Alberta across northern British Columbia to the Pacific coast, whence supertankers would ship the cargo to refineries in Asia to feed the giant Chinese economy, it seemed a no-brainer. In a world in which nonrenewable energy resources were being rapidly depleted, Alberta's oil sands were increasingly seen as the export driver not lust of the Alberta economy but of the Canadian economy as a whole.

With a Prime Minister and a governing party in Ottawa with their deepest foundations in Alberta, Alberta and Ottawa had apparently come full circle from the bitter federal-provincial battles of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1950s, a U.S. secretary of defense notoriously declared that "what's good for General Motors is good for America." In 2012 it seemed that Ottawa, as well as most of corporate Canada, the business press and academic economics departments, were all singing our of a hymn book that began "What's good for Alberta is good for Canada."

But a skunk had sneaked into this elite garden party. When Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair warned that the Alberta-driven petro-economy was pushing up the value of the loonie to unacceptably high levels and threatening an onset of the "Dutch disease" in which Canadian nonresource exports could be squeezed out, the Establishment vented its fury at the impertinence of questioning the new Canadian consensus. Mulcair's words were "divisive" and "destructive," pitting region against region and Canadian against Canadian. From the tone of the ripostes, one could be forgiven for thinking that Mulcair had blurted out a racist epithet.

As is so often the case when an elite consensus is challenged, Mulcair's views were caricatured more than engaged. This is...

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