by Kevin van Tighem, naturalist and writer, resident of southwest Alberta
In a confidential meeting with the Calgary Chamber of Commerce during the last Alberta provincial election campaign, Jason Kenney described his strategy for implementing a far-right exploitation agenda. He said the plan was to overwhelm any opposition by bringing in massive policy changes as fast as possible. And that is exactly what he has done.
The power of that approach is that it both confuses people and makes them feel overwhelmed and helpless. So they retreat into despair, and those who profit from extracting value from the public purse, the work of others and the environment win. But it’s a tactic based on overwhelming our senses, not on real power. In a democracy like ours, real power is distributed across many levels of government and many groups of people. And we can still tap into it to defend our province from those who would suck it dry and then discard it.
The coal mining assault on the Eastern Slopes is a case in point. We are meant to feel that there is nothing we can do to stop strip mines from opening, one after another, from Crowsnest Pass to Grande Cache, in the scenic headwaters of our prairie rivers. We’re supposed to go down without a fight as the habitats of native trout and the homes of bighorn sheep, alpine forget-me-nots and golden eagles get reduced to rubble in order to send coal to be burnt in foreign steel mills. But we have the power to keep our mountains free of coal strip-mines.
I and others have been encouraging concerned Albertans to write to the Premier and our so-called Minister of Environment and Parks with their objections. That’s still a good idea, because it does ensure that they know that their voters actually care about our home place enough to protest bad policy. But we need to be realistic: this is a government with a far-right ideology. They truly believe in what they are doing. We are not going to convince them to change course.
On the other hand, they have done almost everything they can to alienate the federal government and to let the ruling Liberals know that there’s little hope of winning seats in Alberta. Ironically, this could help Albertans who care deeply about our Eastern Slopes to persuade Ottawa to stand on guard for us and the places we love.
Provincial and federal governments alike have a duty, under our Constitution, to consult with First Nations whose rights are affected by major changes to land use policy. When Alberta arbitrarily revoked its Coal Policy — one that was originally put in place by Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government after extensive consultation — they consulted only with the coal industry. They are in breach of their Constitutional duty to respectfully consult Indigenous people. The federal government has a direct interest in that.
Almost all the current coal mining proposals affect the breeding habitat of species protected by law under the federal Species At Risk Act. These include Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Limber and Whitebark Pines, and Grizzly Bear. The province has submitted draft recovery plans for cutthroat trout and grizzly that are clearly substandard and they expect the federal government to rubber stamp those plans — even while instituting a policy that is intended to facilitate strip-mining of critical habitats. The federal government has a duty to protect those species.
The Government of Canada and Alberta are subject to international agreements to reduce greenhouse gases. This is an urgent priority in the face of our ongoing climate crisis. Burning coal releases stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Coal mined in Alberta might be burned in China, Japan or India, but there is only one atmosphere: we don’t get to play Pontius Pilate on this. The federal government has a duty to consider the impact of major new initiatives on our ability to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.
The Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains provide more than 80% of all the river water in the arable regions of prairie Canada. Water security is a critical strategic issue for this country, given the importance of irrigation agriculture and prairie towns and cities, and the costs of flood-relief and drought-relief programs. Coal strip mining destroys the surface hydrology of headwater basins and releases soluble toxins like selenium into ground and surface water. Existing coal mines in BC and near Hinton have failed to find a way to keep those toxins out of rivers and in fact more than 90% of the threatened west slope cutthroat trout population recently died in the Fording River because of coal mine pollution. Water security is a federal concern.
So the Federal government has jurisdictional responsibilities that are affected both by individual coal mine proposals and by the Alberta government’s decision to open up formerly protected Coal Policy zone 2 lands to new strip mining. The Federal government has both the responsibility and the power to intervene — and no political reason to avoid intervening.
We need to tell them this.
And we need to ask them to impose a solution. The simplest solution? Federal legislation dictating that ANY new coal mine proposals in Canada, including expansion proposals for existing coal mines, will henceforth be subject to a formal review under the federal Impact Assessment Act. With no exceptions.
This would ensure full scrutiny of all environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions, and full consideration of government duty to consult with affected Indigenous communities. It would mean that species at risk don’t get swept under the rug. And it would guarantee all Canadians an open, transparent and accessible process for citizens to intervene against bad decisions.
No less important: it would scare away a lot of investors, because they would be dealing with the kind of investment risks — i.e. full-cost accounting — that the Kenney government is trying to help them avoid. Mining investors prefer to deal with desperate third-world governments than with ones that hold investors fully accountable, because they don’t want to pay to clean up their messes or live with the damage they cause.
We CAN save our Eastern Slopes. This is one fight we can win, but citizens need to convince our federal Cabinet to step up to the plate. If you have visited the places that are now at risk, or even if you just think water security and endangered species matter, it should be pretty clear that this is one fight we have to win.
So here are some key Cabinet Ministers to whom you should send your thoughts and suggestions. Please feel free to borrow from any of the points raised above:
Prime Minister. Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau – firstname.lastname@example.org
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Hon. Chrystia Freeland – email@example.com
Environment and Climate Change Minister. Hon. Jonathan Wilkinson – firstname.lastname@example.org