Tim Uppal, a former Conservative Member of Parliament from 2008 – 2015, spoke with The Post Millennial on the state of Indigenous consultations on energy projects and the delay in building the Trans Mountain pipeline.
TPM: So the Trans Mountain Pipeline project was announced by Kinder Morgan on May 23, 2012. Once completed, it was to transport up to 890,000 barrels of petroleum products a day, and it would cost about $7.4 billion. Initially, there was a 15,000-page facilities application filed by the National Energy Board in late 2013. While you were in office, under the Harper government, did you feel at the time that there was a sufficient amount of consultation efforts up into 2015?
Uppal: Yes, there was a significant consultation that was done to ensure that those that would be significantly affected by the pipeline would have their say. And we feel strongly that that was done and strong enough that I feel that even when the court did the approval that many people felt that the current government should have appealed to the Supreme Court and should have appealed that decision. They could have continued doing the consultations that they’re doing now and also appeal to the Supreme Court. It is very possible that the Supreme Court could have ruled in their favour because qualifications were that okay.
TPM: There was a 29-month review done taking into account the scientific and technical examinations, taking into account traditional Aboriginal evidence as well as a comprehensive environment mental assessment. And after the nearly three-year review was concluded by the National Energy Board, the expansion project was found to be in the public interest. However, today, construction on the project has yet to commence despite numerous approvals by the National Energy Board since its $4.5 billion purchase by the LPC and which the Federal Court of Appeals has halted because of flawed consultations. How would you characterize the success of the Trudeau government’s consultation efforts up to date?
Uppal: I think right now, the biggest concern is that they are dragging this on; significant consultations were done. And now they are saying that they are to be more consultations, they have, again, now said that there’s going to be a delay and delay it by about a month. So I am concerned that this is being dragged on, just for, you know, for political reasons. At some point down the road before an election, they will make an announcement that they have approved this pipeline, but not in any meaningful sense where you would actually get work done and work started on this pipeline. And that’s a serious concern, not just for me, but for a number of Aboriginal people that I have talked to are very concerned. There’s at least one Aboriginal chief who said that they haven’t even been contacted by the Liberals for the consultation. So, you know, what does that mean that they’ve taken on this time, extra time? And there are still people who said that they have not been contacted, who feel that they should be. What does that mean for another potential court challenge? So, I think there are some serious concerns in the way that they’re managing this. And, and I’m not the only one that is very concerned.
TPM: You know, it’s interesting that you bring it up. The president of the Indian Resource Council, Steven Buffalo, he went on CTV to call out Minister Sohi and the Trudeau government for failing to get back to them despite multiple attempts reaching out. Sohi claimed to have met with 85 Indigenous communities in February, and in March, 100 such communities were contacted by retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci. So do we give any credence or any credibility to said claims, as in terms of the diversity of opinion in the First Nation communities, is there a concern that only one side of the argument is being heard?
Uppal: I think there definitely is a concern that a number of the pro-development, pro-pipeline, First Nations communities that would like to see this project and other projects as well move forward in a way that would benefit everyone. It’s not only their communities, but all Canadians, especially in Alberta, heading into BC, that their voices are not being heard, through the media, and even through some politicians. Many of the opponents of the pipeline are said to be Aboriginal communities, but many of the ones that are wanting to work with the government, in making this pipeline reality, are actually First Nations themselves. Jason Kenney is a great example of somebody who has said that he’s going to work with First Nations, and help to create jobs in those communities, and that’s a great way to set up that partnership. And we need to see more of that. And unfortunately, we’re just not seeing that in the general public. I’m not seeing because of how this debate is being covered.
TPM: There was an article released by the Edmonton Journal recently, where businessmen Calvin Helin, of First Nation origin, he comes from northwest BC, and he sees a threat posed more by, quote, “wealthy, big city, environmentalists” who are quote, “more concerned with landlocking Alberta oil and keeping the donations flowing than they are with supporting environmentally sound projects that will create jobs.” He labels this as eco-colonialism. Is this the first instance you’ve ever heard of the term eco-colonialism?
Uppal: I don’t know about eco-colonialism. That’s true. That might be the first time I’ve heard of it. But, and I did read that article, it really comes down to what we’ve been hearing before about foreign entities influencing decisions that are made here in Canada, so through their funding, funnelling money into Canada, and trying to shape the debate on something that is very important to Canadians. And that’s a very serious matter. That is something that needs to be addressed. And especially, you know, with the federal election coming up, I think that is a serious concern of this foreign influence on our debate. Essentially, what’s going to have to happen here is that there are differences of opinion on this project. It is a very major project, one that is in the best interest of constituents, the benefit of Canadians, and difficult decisions will have to be made. The Liberal government, the Trudeau government, will not be able to please everybody. But that is their problem. That’s what they’d like to do. And I think they’re just trying to delay this decision. Because of the election that’s coming up, this has been delayed for political reasons. And it’s unfortunate, that’s happening, because people, you know, their, their livelihoods are at play here. There are people in Alberta who have lost their jobs, I have talked to so many people who are now working half as much as they were before. So there are many people who are now going driving up to Fort McMurray half the time, four days, then four days back. And it’s very difficult for them to be able to provide for their families, there are other people who are living off of lines of credit, because we can’t find jobs. And so we need to figure this out, sort of put the politics aside and get this pipeline approved.
TPM: The article in the Edmonton Journal, on eco-colonialism, says that conservatives have a “generational change in attitude, and are more inclusive about energy projects,” while the opponents to energy projects are quote, “tone deaf to anything Indigenous people have said.” In reference to the recent Alberta election, Kenney has pledged to create a $1 billion crown corporation to promote energy projects, Indigenous consultations, and reconciliation efforts. Do you think this is a step in the right direction?
Uppal: I do. I think a strong positive partnership with First Nations communities is very important. It is a way to help to create jobs in these communities, but it’s also a way to share the opportunities that we have.
TPM: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the crude-by-rail plan by the former NDP government. So initially, they intended to purchase 7000 rail cars, 800 locomotives to ease the ‘crisis’ in oil price differentials. In reality, they were only able to lease 4400 cars, no locomotives, and at a purchase price of $3.7 billion, which was approximately $700 million more than the original cost at, you know, half of what they said they would do. Experts say that this could have been done more effectively through the private sector at less cost. What are your thoughts on this plan?
Uppal: Generally, it was not very well thought out, I think this is something where the NDP was trying to put out a plan out there just to show that they had a plan, when they really realized how badly things were going to go. They were asleep when C-69 was presented, and when it was being debated. And, you know, that is when they should have been speaking up. We saw the government remain silent on C-48 too. So, you know, time came and all of a sudden, they needed to present a plan, because with the economic situation being so poor, they brought this plan forward and it was not thought out well. They didn’t even look into if these rail cars were available to purchase, what the actual price would be to acquire. I do believe that a private company would have saved money. But also, you know, you can increase the number of cars if available, but you cannot increase the number the tracks themselves. And so you are competing with grain that needs to be moved and other goods that also need to be moved. So you’re not creating another lane, while a pipeline would be for specifically for our oil sands sector. For our oil industry, this is, you know, another avenue that is also being used by other industries. Just goes to show that they were so far behind on overall management as well.
TPM: It remains to be seen, if the Trudeau government can turn the ship around in terms of convincing not only Indigenous Canadians, but all Canadians that they are the party that should be tasked with getting our oil to market.
Uppal: No, I think, first of all, I have no doubt that before the election sometime during the summer, the Trudeau government will come up with with an announcement that they have approved this pipeline. And that will be met with high levels of skepticism. Because there is concrete evidence of the Trudeau government’s attempt to slow down the industry through C-69 and C-48. They are absolutely hurting any possible future development of major pipeline development, and also C-48 as well, where there’s a tanker ban off the West Coast? So, if anybody was looking to make significant investments into Alberta, all of Canada, they would have to think twice because of the legislation. So, I don’t think people want to believe the Liberals when they do make this announcement, if they make an announcement in favour of it. I think they’re going to wait and see what their actual actions are. To date, they’ve presented legislation that has actually hurt the industry.