Pipelines, the Stuff of Canadian Politics: the Canada Letter

Given that Canada’s economy still relies to a substantial degree on chopping down trees, digging up minerals and pumping out oil and gas, it’s perhaps not surprising that pipelines are one of the nation’s hot-button issues.

The construction of the Trans-Canada gas pipeline in the late 1950s.

When Stephen Harper was prime minister, one of his pet causes was getting approval from the Obama administration for Keystone XL, a pipeline to link the oils sands of Alberta with refineries on the American Gulf Coast. President Barack Obama, concerned about the plan’s environmental consequences and not exactly charmed by Mr. Harper’s declaration that approval was a “complete no-brainer,” ultimately rebuffed Mr. Harper’s pitch.

President Trump, of course, has since reversed course. And now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a leader on efforts to address climate change, is sticking up for pipelines. In a move that put him at odds with many voters in his Liberal Party, Mr. Trudeau said that the government would buy the Trans Mountain pipeline, which links Edmonton to suburban Vancouver, from its American owners for 4.5 billion Canadian dollars. The reason: to make sure that workers can begin threading a second pipeline along its length this month.

That move had a familiar ring to any of us who have taken even a high school course in Canadian history. In 1956, a Liberal government’s efforts to use public money to make sure the construction of a major pipeline could begin by a June deadline ended up in a legendarily raucous parliamentary debate — and became a key factor in the Liberals’ defeat in the next election.

There wasn’t a word about the environment or the land rights of Indigenous people during the great pipeline debate of 1956. Nationalism and using public money to help a private business venture were the points of contention.

Back then, the government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent brought in a bill to spend 118 million Canadian dollars — 1.1 billion in today’s money — to build part of the Trans-Canada Pipeline from Alberta to Eastern Canada, and also to lend money to the group of companies set up to run and own the project. (TransCanada, as it’s known today, is also the outfit now behind Keystone XL.)

John Diefenbaker, the Conservative leader at the time, was known for his jowly speaking style, which allowed him to summon righteous indignation like few Canadian politicians before or since.

Mr. Diefenbaker challenged the project’s American control. Members of the…

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