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No easy decisions at Trans Mountain ground zero

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Political promises — Denise Mullen calls them bright “shiny” objects.

The Burnaby resident lives close enough to Westridge Marine Terminal to see the end point of Trans Mountain’s proposed pipeline expansion project as she walks her dog.

And when it comes to promises, Mullen says, there are few more attractive gifts in a politician’s arsenal than a vow to kill or keep the pipeline that has proven one of the defining issues of the last two federal election cycles.

Mullen, who is director of environment and sustainability of the B.C. Business Council, is in favour of the pipeline.

But speaking for herself, not for her organization, she says she’s disappointed with the way the complex politics around the pipeline — encompassing questions about climate change, energy policy, national economic direction and both First Nations and inter-provincial relations — have been reduced to a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ debate.

“I’m frankly frustrated with all the politicians,” Mullen says.

She said she wishes politicians, rather the making clear-cut promises, would talk about their intentions without descending into polarization.

“It’s a terrible choice among a bad lot. And what frustrates me the most is that there are so many promises that are incomprehensibly large and unfulfillable in any kind of pragmatic way, and yet they are thrown out there and sound bites are created about them.”

Swing voters and a pipeline purchase

Mullen’s Burnaby North-Seymour riding is considered ground-zero for the debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would twin an existing 1,150-kilometre pipeline from Edmonton to Burrard Inlet to allow the export of diluted bitumen offshore.

The seat spans both parts of Burnaby and North Vancouver.

The Westridge Marine Terminal, the terminus of the Trans Mountain pipeline, is seen in an aerial photo over Burrard Inlet. The Burnaby North-Seymour riding spans both sides of the inlet. (Jason Redmond/REUTERS)

As a result, Trans Mountain’s “tank farm” and Simon Fraser University co-exist on the south side of Burrard Inlet, while the homes of more traditionally conservative voters sit on the opposite, north shore alongside the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, whose members have launched multiple court challenges to the pipeline.

The seat swung to the Liberals in 2015, when then-newcomer Terry Beech won a tight three-way contest with 18,742 votes. The NDP’s Carol Baird-Ellan trailed him by about 3,500 votes, with a Conservative challenger less than 1,000 votes behind her.

The Liberals promised in 2015 to address climate change and to balance energy needs with environmental protection. And in 2017, Beech was one of two Liberal MPs who voted against a motion in support of the project in the House of Commons.

Baird-Ellan told the CBC she believes many of the voters who lifted Beech to victory were under the belief the Liberals would kill the pipeline.

She feels the government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion in 2018 in order to keep the project alive will play to the benefit of current NDP candidate, Svend Robinson.

“I think a lot of those voters, you could probably describe them as swing voters, they went Liberal because they wanted to defeat the Conservatives and they also wanted to defeat the pipeline,” Baird-Ellan says.

“I think a lot of those voters … feel quite betrayed and I would be surprised if they didn’t swing in another direction, and I would expect them to vote NDP.”

Interesting — even without a pipeline

Robinson’s return to politics is yet another factor in a fight that would likely have been one of the most interesting races in the country — even without the pipeline.

The contest was thrown into turmoil early on when the Conservatives dismissed candidate Heather Leung because of previous comments about “perverted homosexual preferences” and past support for conversion therapy.

Trans Mountain ground zero
Svend Robinson is running as the federal NDP candidate for Burnaby North-Seymour. He is opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

That history became a flashpoint in a contest that includes both Robinson — who was Canada’s first openly gay MP — and Green candidate Amita Kuttner, who came out as pansexual and gender non-binary in August.

Leung is running as an independent although she still appears on the ballot as a Conservative. She told the CBC she supports the pipeline.

So does Rocky Dong, the People’s Party of Canada candidate who is also vying for the seat and who told a CBC radio forum that while he believes climate change is real, “we don’t believe human beings are the main factor.”

Kuttner, by contrast, is calling for an end to both pipelines and fracking.

“Canada should be a true climate leader,” Kuttner’s platform says. “This means global stewardship, green innovation, community preparedness, practical preparation and not buying pipelines.”

The will of constituents

Robinson spent 25 years in Parliament representing Burnaby constituents before bowing out of politics in 2004.

The 67-year-old was a major figure on the frontlines of many of the country’s key cultural and legal battles during that time — from physician-assisted suicide to the logging of Clayoquot Sound.

He says the Trans Mountain pipeline is just that type of defining issue.

Trans Mountain ground zero
Liberal MP Terry Beech rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill. The Burnaby North-Seymour MP was one of two Liberals to vote against a motion supporting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

“Poeple who have voted Liberal, Conservative, many of them have said in this election that they’re voting on the basis of this issue and they’re supporting me because they know that I’ve taken a strong stand defending the community, standing up against this project,” Robinson said in a phone interview.

“It’s not just one issue, because many of the people that you speak to who are deeply concerned about the Trans Mountain pipeline issue are also very concerned about the climate crisis.”

Beech told the CBC he has tried to respect those opinions while in office, voting against the pipeline in the House because on balance during the past five years “the majority of my constituents have been opposed to it.”

But he says the Liberals have endeavoured to meet the main concerns of Burnaby North-Seymour residents, which include worries about oil spill response, meeting climate change targets and safety issues near oil storage facilities.

“Our government has done more over the last four years to fight climate change than any government before,” he says.

“But we have to remember that if we don’t have a strong economy and people feel like they’re falling behind, then we won’t have the social licence to invest to fight climate change — and we need to make sure that we get that right.”

First Nations consultation critical

It’s that type of balancing act Mullen believes the Liberals encountered once they took office and responsibility for a file that — according to an Angus Reid Institute online survey released last month — 53 per cent of Canadians want to see completed.

“When you do look at things more detailed, you clearly see that it is not clear. There is a lot of grey and decisions about these kinds of issues are always really, really hard,” Mullen says.

“It irritates me when politicians come out and make it seem like their platforms are easy and shiny and ‘I’ll get her done for you.'”

A First Nations canoe paddles near Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, British Columbia in May 2019. The Crown’s consultation with First Nations is still a critical legal hurdle to the progress of the Trans Mountain expansion. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Beyond the promises of any politician, the pipeline’s future also likely depends on Canada’s courts. Just last month, the Federal Court of Appeal allowed six challenges to the project to go ahead.

The appeals concentrate on environmental impacts and the Crown’s duty to consult with affected First Nations groups, including the Tsleil-Waututh.

While a significant number of First Nations along the pipeline route support the project, the courts have consistently upheld the need for governments to make a genuine attempt to accommodate Aboriginal rights and concerns.

That doesn’t amount to a veto, but it’s not a hurdle any party can bypass.

‘It’s all about trade-offs’

The same Angus Reid poll that measured majority support for the pipeline also found that 60 per cent of respondents want federal funding invested into renewable energy instead of non-renewable resources.

Mary Hatch wholeheartedly agrees with that half of the survey.

Her Burnaby home also looks out on Burrard Inlet and the Westridge Terminal. She has one of Svend Robinson’s signs in her garden.

The expansion of a pipeline is no abstract debate for the 73-year-old.

Burnaby resident Mary Hatch was one of the victims of a Trans Mountain pipeline rupture in 2007. She is a vocal opponent of expansion. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

Hatch was a victim of a 2007 accident that saw a backhoe rupture a Trans Mountain pipeline carrying crude oil down to the terminal. Her car and her garden were coated.

The incident turned the former teacher into an activist. She likes Beech personally, but can’t get over the purchase of the pipeline.

“Terry has had a lot of pressure put on him and he did vote against (Trans Mountain) — I know,” she says.

“Even though I think he has done a good job, I can’t put my vote there.”

Mullen wouldn’t reveal where she’ll place her vote but suggested that the controversy with Leung had closed the door on one leading contender.

She says she’ll hold her nose and consider the remaining options. And the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion won’t be her only consideration:

“I’m looking at the whole platform and I’m going to make a bunch of trade-offs but the pipeline itself is not a deciding factor,” she says.

“It’s all about trade-offs. It’s all about balancing and finding a way to satisfy the most number of people who are in the middle. Who often don’t ever speak up. The silent middle — who throw up their arms.”

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Abortions rights advocates urge Liberals to turn politics into policy

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned for re-election on a promise to support abortion rights, a stance that put his Conservative rival on the defensive, and now advocates are anxious to see the Liberals turn those words into action.

“It’s good that we are getting the federal support at least in words, but words don’t mean very much when it comes to people’s lives,” said Olivier Hebert, an LGBTQ advocate involved in efforts to save Clinic 554, a family practice in Fredericton at risk of closing without provincial funding. The clinic includes abortions among its services.

The clinic received national attention last month when Trudeau stressed he would remind New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs that his province has an obligation to fund out-of-hospital abortions, or risk having Ottawa enforce such requirements under the Canada Health Act.

The practice, which also serves the LGBTQ community, is up for sale due to financial difficulties stemming from the provincial government’s refusal to expand its health-care funding to include surgical abortion procedures at private clinics, a stance held by both Higgs’s Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals who governed before them.

“A Liberal government will always defend women’s rights, including when challenged by conservative premiers,” Trudeau said Oct. 15 in Fredericton.

The issue of abortion played a prominent role in the federal election campaign this fall.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was pressed to clarify his stance abortion over several weeks, eventually confirming that he remains “personally pro-life” but would oppose any attempt to revive the issue in the House of Commons. The Liberals drew attention to the confusion throughout the campaign, especially as the Bloc Quebecois began to surge in Quebec, where anti-abortion views are unpopular.

Now, abortion-rights advocates are watching closely to see whether Liberal politics become policy.

Sarah Kennell, director of government relations for the advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said she would have liked to see Trudeau raise the issue in his one-on-one meetings with opposition leaders this past week, particularly with New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Singh, who criticized Trudeau for being slow to push the issue, campaigned on a promise to enforce the Canada Health Act right away. One of the ways to do that could include holding back the funding that Ottawa transfers to New Brunswick to pay for its health-care system.

Kennell said she also wants to see the mandate letter for the new federal health minister include a clear commitment to resolve the issue quickly.

“It’s imminent, the closure of the clinic, and that’s why swift action is needed now,” she said.

The issue did come up in Trudeau’s meeting Friday with the Greens’ Elizabeth May, though she was the one to raise it.

“It’s abortion access that’s about to be closed. We need desperate help from some level of, I think the federal government,” she said in front of Trudeau before their formal session began.

May emerged encouraged.

“I was very pleased that there was common ground on acting to stave off the loss of abortion services in New Brunswick,” she said afterward. “Clinic 554 is in danger of closing imminently and I am pleased that he also is concerned about that and wants to take steps within the Canada Health Act to ensure abortion access in New Brunswick. I’m not quite sure what he’ll do with it in terms of the emergency of this particular clinic closing that provides services for abortion services as well as health care services for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Ginette Petitpas Taylor, a New Brunswick MP who has been the health minister since 2017, sent a letter to her provincial counterparts in July warning them that making women pay out of pocket to terminate pregnancies, even at private clinics, went against the Canada Health Act.

The timeline for picking things up where she left them remains unclear.

Matthew Pascuzzo, a spokesman for Trudeau, said it is too early to comment on the content of the mandate letters or the speech from the throne.

He did leave the door open to the topic coming up when Trudeau sits down with Higgs.

“As the prime minister has said, we will ensure that the New Brunswick government allows paid-for access, to clinics that offer abortion services outside of hospitals,” Pascuzzo said in an email. “The prime minister is eager to work together to keep making progress, and looks forward to meeting with all premiers one-on-one in the near future, including with Premier Higgs.”

Higgs, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, accused Trudeau last month of playing politics with the issue of abortion services.

He also noted the provincial regulation limiting funding to abortions performed in hospitals had also been there under the previous Liberal government of Brian Gallant.

Abortion-rights advocates are not the only ones anxious to see how the Liberals will handle the issue.

Campaign Life Coalition has said that it welcomes the news that 46 Conservative candidates identified as being against abortion were elected in October.

At the same time, its November newsletter suggests the anti-abortion organization is worried the fact that the Liberals won a minority government means they will go even further to expand access to abortion services in Canada and elsewhere.

“We are concerned that Trudeau will co-operate with the NDP, Greens, and Bloc Quebecois to further liberalize euthanasia, the legal drug regime, and promote abortion throughout the land and abroad,” said the newsletter from the organization, which did not respond to an interview request.

Meanwhile, Alberta is another province where abortion rights advocates could end up urging Trudeau to intervene.

United Conservative Party backbencher Dan Williams introduced a private member’s bill in the Alberta legislature earlier this month that would reassert the Charter-protected freedom of conscience and religion for physicians and other health-care providers.

Williams has said his Bill 207 is a response to a decision from the Court of Appeal for Ontario this spring, which affirmed a lower-court ruling that found physicians who object on moral grounds to things like abortion or medically assisted death must offer to refer patients elsewhere.

He has also denied the charge from his Alberta NDP critics that his legislation, which would face an uphill battle without government support, is an indirect attempt to limit access to abortion services. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said he would not reopen the debate on abortion.

The Prime Minister’s Office was asked whether the federal Liberal government has a position on the bill.

“Our government has been clear that women have a right to access reproductive services. We will use all options available to defend a woman’s right to choose, including those that exist under the Canada Health Act,” Pascuzzo said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2019.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

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Jason Kenney hopes of returning to federal politics

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Well, if nothing else, we know he’s not interested in running federally.

When Alberta Premier Jason Kenney delivered his fiery “fair deal” speech last weekend, he was not only burning bridges with Ottawa but torching any lingering ambitions he may have had to become federal Conservative leader.

Oh, Kenney might have said he had no desire to return to the federal stage but the speculation has never faded since he entered provincial politics three years ago.

In a question-and-answer session on Facebook two weeks ago Kenney declared, “I have absolutely no interest or intention of pursuing federal office.”

But it was an answer that left wiggle room.

Might he have a sudden interest or intention tomorrow?

The conjecture only intensified after the federal election, which saw a bumbling Andrew Scheer unable to defeat a badly wounded Justin Trudeau.

The question around the provincial water cooler: was Kenney interested in replacing Scheer?

This was no idle speculation.

This was speculation that worked really hard.

On paper Kenney would make an ideal candidate for leader of the federal Conservatives.

Besides being a former cabinet minister and acolyte of Stephen Harper, Kenney is bilingual, a skilful organizer and tireless campaigner. Since becoming premier in April he has criss-crossed the country building alliances with other Conservative premiers. He was even called in to campaign for the Conservatives in Ontario and Manitoba during the federal election.

In many ways he already is the spiritual leader of the Conservative movement in Canada.

And Kenney is so obsessed with defeating the federal Liberals that during the Alberta election campaign he attacked Trudeau as much as he did his actual adversary, NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

This is a guy straddling two worlds: with one foot in Alberta and the other on the prime minister’s throat.

You could certainly argue Kenney’s socially conservative background would prove an impediment in a federal campaign, as Scheer discovered about his own history. But Kenney is more politically nimble than Scheer and Kenney managed to overcome that handicap in the Alberta election despite being aggressively targeted by the NDP.

Taken together it almost seemed Kenney was destined to return to federal politics.

Then came his “fair deal” speech in Red Deer last Saturday.

“Albertans have a right to be fed up,” declared Kenney. “I get it. I’m as fed up as anybody else is in this province.”

Kenney is fed up with delays in getting a new energy pipeline to the West Coast. He is fed up with “hostile and discriminatory policies that are being aimed at our province.” He is fed up with “the divisions that welled up in Canada during the Trudeau government’s first term.” He is fed up with anyone not supporting Alberta’s oilsands.

Most of all he is just fed up with Trudeau, who managed to irritate Kenney by surviving with a minority government in October’s election.

Kenney’s solution: he wants Alberta to have a “fair deal.”

That includes possibly withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, having Alberta collect its own income taxes and replacing the RCMP with an Alberta provincial police force.

He has appointed a panel of “eminent Albertans” — including former Reform Party leader Preston Manning — to see if the ideas are feasible. If they are, Kenney would put them to a vote by Albertans.

Alberta has been down this bumpy road before.

In 2001, a band of disgruntled Alberta Conservatives (including Stephen Harper, before he became a politician) was so upset after the federal Liberals won yet another election that the unhappy group wrote what came to be called the “firewall letter.”

They wanted Alberta to distance itself from Ottawa by collecting its own income taxes, forming its own provincial police force and creating an Alberta pension plan.

The idea was to make Alberta something of a western version of Quebec but this would be a province seemingly acting out of spite, not a province trying to protect a unique linguistic and cultural identity.

Ralph Klein, premier at the time, didn’t support the letter but, to quell grumblers within his own party, he did create a panel to look into the suggestions. The panel concluded that many, particularly collecting income tax and creating a provincial pension plan, would be cumbersome, expensive and unnecessary.

Here we are again, but this time the main grumbler is Alberta’s premier.

“We’ve had it with Ottawa’s indifference to this adversity,” said Kenney, referring to Alberta’s economic downturn. “Albertans have been working for Ottawa for too long, it’s time for Ottawa to start working for us.”

This is Kenney as Captain Alberta. He has wrapped himself in the provincial flag and it’s difficult to imagine how he can ever untangle himself to run one day as Captain Canada.

In Canadian history, no provincial premier has ever won a federal election to become prime minister. Premiers are seen as too parochial, too regional, too insular.

Viewed from anywhere but Alberta — and probably Saskatchewan — Kenney’s speech is arguably all three.

Stephen Harper, of course, did manage to become prime minister despite co-authoring the firewall letter. But he wasn’t premier when he wrote it.

Besides, Kenney didn’t pen a mere firewall letter; he delivered a fire-breathing speech.

In so doing, he ignited the passions of many Albertans. However, any ambitions he might have had to run federally have been reduced to ashes.

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Trump public impeachment hearings opens

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To the surprise of nearly everyone, there was a surprise.

The opening of the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was expected to be an effort to tell a narrative, to put into compelling context the private testimony that already has been released by the Intelligence Committee. The theory was that having the witnesses’ words said out loud – their accounts of whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals – might engage Americans in a way their words on paper never could.

That storytelling effort was in evidence during the daylong hearing Wednesday, but as it turned out, news also erupted, and during the first 90 minutes. Bill Taylor, a veteran ambassador with an unflappable demeanor and deep voice out of central casting, revealed that he had learned just last Friday that a staffer from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev had overheard a phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a political donor the president had appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

In the account relayed by Taylor, Trump was talking so loudly that he could be overheard in the restaurant on the cellphone. He reportedly asked about “investigations;” Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.

It was July 26, the day after the now-infamous call in which Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do “a favor.” After the call was over, the staffer asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor quoted the staffer as saying.

That exchange represented an important piece of evidence bolstering the Democrats’ case that Trump pushed Ukraine to launch investigations into the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and into the 2016 campaign, holding as leverage the promise of a White House meeting and the release of millions in military aid. It showed the influence of a rogue foreign policy operation being led by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now the president’s personal attorney. It raised questions about the distance Trump last week tried to put between Sondland and himself. “I hardly know the gentleman,” he said then.

And it started the drum roll for Sondland’s testimony before the committee, scheduled for next week.

Rule One of investigations: You can never be entirely sure where they are going to lead.

The committee quickly scheduled a closed deposition on Friday with David Holmes, an aide to Taylor.

Steve Bannon: Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment strategy ‘actually quite brilliant’

Trump pushes back, refers to ‘circus’

At the White House, where he was meeting with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump dismissed the proceedings taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I’m too busy to watch it,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. That said, he did manage to post a series of tweets deriding the hearing as nothing more than a “circus” and a “fraudulent hoax conspiracy theory.”

On Capitol Hill, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff described high stakes in exploring the president’s behavior. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief,” the California Democrat said in the vaulted hearing room on Capitol Hill.

He referred repeatedly to the Constitution and the Founders.

Democrats had described their goal as explaining to Americans who may not have been paying much attention up to now what they believe happened between the Trump administration and Ukraine, and why it matters. The deliberate pace, with extended opening statements and then 45 minutes of uninterrupted questioning by each side, was unusual for Congress.

Republicans, meanwhile, portrayed the whole inquiry as a sham pursued by Democrats bent on overturning the results of the 2016 election. They noted that neither Taylor nor deputy assistant secretary of State George Kent had firsthand knowledge of what Trump had done; they said that made their testimony hearsay.

California Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican, sarcastically congratulated the two witnesses “for passing the Democrats’ Star Chamber auditions held for the last six weeks in the basement of the Capitol.”

They didn’t respond to that, though both denied they had a partisan agenda. They said “no” when asked specifically if they were “never-Trumpers,” those opposed to Trump from the beginning of his political climb.

This impeachment is historic, different

Impeachments are by definition momentous and historic events. An early effort to remove the forgettable Andrew Johnson in 1868 failed. More than a century later, Richard Nixon chose to resign under fire when it became clear he was going to be leaving the Oval Office, one way or another. Bill Clinton survived an impeachment trial in 1999.

But the impeachment of Trump is different from those that have gone before in some fundamental ways. For the first time, a president in the midst of running for a second term is facing the Constitution’s most serious penalty. The allegation involves not personal misbehavior, as it did with Clinton, but an abuse of power that allegedly involved threatening an allied government and encouraging foreign interference in a U.S. election.

Movie nights, baseball, phone calls: How Trump is uniting the GOP to fight impeachment

And the hearings are taking place when the nation’s politics are so bitterly divided that even the polarized Clinton era seems less fierce, and the time of Nixon a virtual golden age of bipartisanship.

Americans now seem divided into warring tribes, resistant to persuasion. An average of the latest national polling by FiveThirtyEight.com calculates that 48% of Americans support impeachment; 44% oppose it. That’s not significantly different from the returns in 2016, the election that put Trump in the White House. Then, 48% voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, 46% for Trump.

Whether the testimony Wednesday and the hearings that follow will change anybody’s mind isn’t yet clear.

Next up: Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine who was unceremoniously dismissed after being targeted by Giuliani, is scheduled to testify Friday.

Will there be more surprises?

It’s possible.

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