Energy East carries election issues from Quebec to English Canada

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TransCanada's Energy East pipeline has been catapulted to centre stage in Quebec. It wasn't on the public radar a year ago. But now, after a summer of energetic citizen mobilization against it, a phone survey in October indicated only 33 per cent of the population was in favour of the pipeline being built.

Since then opposition has continued to mount. TransCanada's west to east project has been hitting the tender nerve of Quebec sovereignty, the complex concept of who has the authority to make decisions about what happens there.

TransCanada leaves Quebec out of the loop

The Albertan company is planning to build 700km of the largest tar sands pipeline on the continent through the 'nation' of Quebec to get to the Atlantic for export. But, as reported by Le Devoir on Jan 20, TransCanada has neglected to formally submit to the Quebec government their intent to proceed on Energy East. This surprised many; the project was officially submitted to the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) on Oct 30, 2014.

According to TransCanada the project is not on hold. But without having received formal notice, Quebec cannot initiate their BAPE process, which would provide information to the public and do "consultation on projects likely to have a major impact on the environment." With no movement to date on the BAPE, its results may be unavailable or incomplete at the time of the NEB's important fall hearings on Energy East.

This insult followed shortly after it came to light TransCanada did not submit Energy East documents in French to the NEB and the federal regulator has made no requirement for translations to be produced. This is being challenged in court by a coalition of groups. 

Gilles Duceppe, former leader of the Bloc Quebecois (which went from 49 to four federal seats in 2011), penned an article in the Journal de Montreal on Jan 21 blasting TransCanada's disregard for Quebec. He also criticized the provincial Liberal government for not taking matters into its own hands, for deferring to Ottawa's authority. 

Duceppe and the many others who have decried the project may be trying to strategically fan the flames of sovereigntist discontent for political gain, but they aren't missing the mark on public opinion by much. Eighty-seven per cent of Quebecers believe the province, not just the federal government, should have authority to approve or refuse the project according to a November survey

Quebec vs. Ottawa vs. Energy East

The discontent for Energy East has grown far beyond environmental circles.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the most militant of the student associations during the 2012 protests, received a $25,000 literary prize, donated it to awareness group Coule pas chez nous, then challenged Quebecers to double his giving. Since November over $385,000 has been raised, more than 15 times the initial amount.

The month before, Nadeau-Dubois drew from his student politician days and uncovered close ties between TransCanada and the Quebec Liberal Party.

Those Quebec Liberals, led by Philippe Couillard, were elected in April before Energy East was on the public radar. This January Couillard travelled to Europe, advertising Quebec as open for business and voicing his support for Energy East in principle. Back in Quebec, Environment Minister David Heurtel's office went on the defensive when news broke of potential BAPE delays, assuring the public that Quebec laws will be followed pertaining to Energy East.

The public's sovereignty concerns are not hard to see.

Harper tried to appeal to those sentiments in 2006 by passing a motion stating Quebec is "a nation within a united Canada." That, aside from making First Nations feel snubbed, opened questions around what it looks like in practice, what it means for sovereignty and decision-making.

The Energy East pipeline presents a real cross-border issue. Many Quebecois wonder if their government will show the fortitude to study the project by its own standards, or let Ottawa decide its fate.

And what would Canada do if Quebec were to refuse passage?

Activism brings the pressure (and noise)

Outside of government, there are strong movements forming in La Belle Province. Printemps 2015, named in reference to the whirlwind months of protest in 2012, will be making noise this spring focusing on anti-austerity and fossil fuels. How loud it gets, including around the April 11 premiers meeting in Quebec City, is a matter of fervent speculation. How will strong nationalist sentiments interact with movements for social transformation?

Austerity and environmental happenings in Quebec get scarce or poor coverage in English media. Thankfully there are some sites helping bridge the divide through translation. Language and Dissent is the reincarnation of Translating the printemps érable, posting translations of anti-austerity stories. Quebec Climate News provides summaries of climate coverage, focusing on Energy East -- including many of the articles linked to in this article.

Anglo Canada has good reason to pay attention to what their French neighbours are up to for the social movements and for this year's federal election. Quebec holds a big chunk of seats in the House of Commons: 78 of 338. And Energy East is playing a major role in its political dialogue.

The pipeline has the quiet support of Harper, who helped facilitate its planning, while Mulcair and seemingly Trudeau have expressed their support for the pipeline more recently.

But none of them are jumping to make it an election issue.

Only Elizabeth May and the Green Party oppose it outright. The Bloc Quebecois, now with two seats in parliament, is against the project and demands a BAPE environmental review.

Whether anyone in politics puts forward a strong vision to move away from investing in fossil fuel infrastructure, only time will tell.

Strong opinions on Energy East are now flooding out of Quebecers. How vote-seeking campaigns will handle this bitumen-heavy political mess, and associated social movements, will be interesting to watch. 


David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects and doing corporate social responsibility consulting. He is trying to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

Photo: flickr/Peter Blanchard

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