Chantal Hebert: Anti-pipeline front fails in B.C. vote

The outcome of the first electoral engagement to take place against the backdrop of the B.C.-Alberta trade war was non-conclusive. That is not to say it was meaningless.

On Wednesday, the voters in the provincial riding of West Kelowna had the somewhat dubious honour to be the first to have the opportunity to use the ballot box to send a message to the politicians in Victoria and Edmonton who have been feuding over the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. They took a bit of a pass.

West Kelowna is located in B.C.’s wine country. That places it right in the line of fire of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s retaliatory salvo against the province’s New Democrat government over the possibility that the latter might cap the amount of bitumen oil that transits through B.C.

In this region, the competing soliloquies of the two governments potentially add up to more than just a war of angry words.

The Liberals kept the seat formerly held by ex-premier Christy Clark with 57 per cent of the vote. That’s almost identical to her 59-per-cent finish in last year’s general election. If Notley’s ban on Alberta purchasing B.C. wine is meant to swing new votes toward the more pipeline friendly political option, it has not happened yet.

Kelowna West is not ground zero of the B.C. pipeline debate. Still, anecdotal evidence this week did suggest it is a top-of-mind issue for a significant number of voters.

But on Wednesday that did not translate into the anti-pipeline vote coalescing behind one of the two parties that oppose the Kinder Morgan project. The New Democrat and Green party scores (23 per cent and 12.5 per cent) were in the same ballpark as those in 2017.

In no small part the support of the Green party for Premier John Horgan’s minority government is contingent on the NDP’s keeping its promise to do all it can to block the Trans Mountain expansion.

But with two parties in contention for the votes of Trans Mountain opponents, the New Democrats cannot bank on the issue to secure a majority mandate in a general election. A plebiscite-style campaign revolving around pipelines would not necessarily be to the NDP’s advantage.

As it happens the B.C. throne speech – presented on the eve of the byelection – was remarkably discreet on the pipeline file. There was no mention of the issue until the tail end of the 20-page speech and then only in generic terms.

In more serene circumstances, the statement that Horgan’s NDP is “considering new protections” to improve the province’s ability to respond to bitumen spills could have been dismissed as a throwaway line. Any B.C. government diligent in the matter of protecting its coastal waters could have written it (and possibly did). Some have suggested that Horgan’s government overshot its target when it raised the notion of controlling the flow of bitumen oil to the Pacific coast; that it did not expect to trigger an all-out conflict with neighbouring Alberta, or to set itself on a collision course with Justin Trudeau’s government.

The vigour of the pushback from Edmonton and from Parliament Hill has taken many British Columbians by surprise. But that pushback may be doing more to solidify contrary positions than the opposite.

On that score, a just-released Insights West poll found British Columbians split 48 per cent for and 44 per cent against the Trans Mountain expansion. More than half of those who oppose the project would consider civil disobedience to disrupt its construction. If there is a middle ground to be found between pipeline opponents and proponents it remains elusive.

But there are those on both sides who do agree that a) this battle could spill from court rooms and legislatures unto the streets, and b) B.C.’s Indigenous peoples could have a pivotal role in the outcome of the debate.

Earlier this week, the prime minister delivered what he meant to be a landmark speech designed to reinforce his commitment to change the terms of the relationship between his government and the country’s Indigenous peoples.

Much has been said about the federal Liberal seats that could be in play in B.C. in 2019 as a result of Trudeau’s vocal support for the Trans Mountain expansion. But it is the depth of his resolve to change the paradigm between Canada and its Indigenous peoples that may be the most severely tested by this pipeline war.

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