Two years ago, student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois rose to fame by becoming the face of Quebec’s so-called Maple Spring. He turned the episode that spelled the beginning of the end of premier Jean Charest’s tenure into a book titled Tenir tête.
Last week, the book won the Governor General’s 2014 French-language non-fiction prize. On Sunday, Nadeau-Dubois revealed that he was giving his $25,000 prize to a citizens’ coalition devoted to blocking TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.
He used the prime time television platform of the Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle to make his announcement. He said he hoped to lead by example. Since then, donations to the anti-pipeline cause have been pouring in.
This is only one small measure of how quickly Central Canada’s public opinion is gelling against the plan to link the Alberta oilfields to the refineries of Eastern Canada.
Once considered the pipeline bid most likely to succeed, TransCanada’s project is on the way to joining Enbridge’s Northern Gateway on the long shots list.
According to a poll on Friday, two-thirds of Quebecers oppose Energy East.
On that same day, the premiers of Ontario and Quebec put forward a list of provincial conditions that TransCanada would have to meet to secure their support.
In so doing, Kathleen Wynne and Philippe Couillard borrowed a page from British Columbia Premier Christy Clark’s handbook.
Two years ago, Clark presented Enbridge with a list of conditions to meet in exchange for her government’s support for its Northern Gateway pipeline.
B.C. had five conditions. Quebec and Ontario have seven.
On paper, the federal government and the National Energy Board have the final say on the way forward.
But there are myriad ways for a province to block or delay a federal infrastructure project and it would not be the first time that voters had forced governments to think twice about allowing a controversial one to go forward.
The fact that otherwise business-friendly provincial governments are putting more and more distance between themselves and the pipeline file is a sign that public opposition to these projects is fast spreading well beyond the environmental movement.
Knowing all this, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice is embarking on a goodwill mission to Quebec and Ontario. But this may be a case of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Like Clark, Wynne and Couillard have made social acceptability a condition of provincial support. But securing a social licence for its projects may amount to mission impossible for the energy industry.
In British Columbia, municipal politicians have joined the First Nations and the environmentalists on the barricades.
In Ontario and Quebec, opponents of TransCanada’s plan include the major natural gas carriers.
The Parti Québécois and its Bloc cousin have also joined the battle against Energy East, reconnecting in the process with social activists such as Nadeau-Dubois who had otherwise been keeping their distance from conventional sovereigntist politics.
So far, the main federal opposition parties support the notion of an expanded pipeline network to get Western Canada’s energy resources to markets. Both the Liberals and the NDP are cautiously on side with TransCanada’s pipeline.
But for how long?
Last weekend, a resolution urging Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to oppose Energy East was defeated by the party’s Quebec youth wing. The fact that it came to the fore at all confirms that the project will be on the federal election radar.
With a Quebec anti-pipeline backlash gaining steam and against the threat of bleeding support over the pipelines issue to the Green party in B.C. next year, pressure on NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to join the fight against pipeline developments is also mounting.
Nearly a decade ago, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government set out to aggressively champion Alberta’s energy ambitions.
In the name of Canada’s superior economic interest, the ruling Conservatives removed potential regulatory roadblocks from the pipelines’ path.
They cast environmental activists as public enemies and themselves as the best friends of the energy industry.
But instead of a clearer course to its goal, Canada’s energy industry is now left to cope with movable lines in the provincial sand and a politically poisoned pipeline well. This is obviously not the legacy Harper had in mind.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.