On Catherine McKenna and the Pressure to Compromise

Jonathan Kates

Last week, as interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose grilled the Liberal government in the House of Commons on their yet-to-be announced decision regarding the Pacific Northwest LNG project in British Columbia, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna was giving Ambrose her answer over 5,000 kilometres away.

In Richmond, B.C., with Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc, and B.C. Premier Christy Clark at her side, McKenna announced that the Liberal government had approved the $11 billion project. The project would see Malaysian-owned energy company Petronas move liquefied natural gas (LNG) via a TransCanada pipeline from the province’s northeast to a terminal to be built on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert for export to Asia.


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that his government’s decision is “balanced,” but many disagree. The project was approved with 190 legally binding conditions that have led some (here and here, for example) to question whether the project will even get built. Petronas may balk at this laundry list of demands, especially since there is a current oversupply of LNG on the market, and demand for the product is declining in Asia and elsewhere.

This project is in line with the Liberals’ election promise to create jobs and grow the economy. If built, it would provide a significant and much needed investment for the northeast region of B.C., and is expected to contribute to the economy to the tune of 4,500 infrastructure construction jobs and a sizeable bump in exports on federal and provincial balance sheets. But the economic opportunities seem to be at odds with two other Liberal platform planks: protecting the environment and reconciling the relationship between the federal government and the Indigenous population in Canada.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine Mckenna served as a facilitator for negotiations at the COP21 climate conference in December 2015

In terms of the project’s environmental impact, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) released a (controversial) draft report in February 2016 that estimated the pipeline would add roughly 5 megatonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution each year. This estimate is about the equivalent of adding one million new cars to the road. The Twitterati was quick to point out that this bump in GHG emissions is in direct contravention to the climate change agreement Canada committed to at the COP21 conference in Paris in December 2015.

For those who fear that approval of this pipeline will open the floodgates for other massive pipeline projects waiting on their own decisions, the government has said that each project has been, and will continue to be, assessed on its own merits. From a political perspective, the approval was also a very effective short-term strategy for turning down the heat emanating from Camp Conservative. The fact that the most Ambrose could muster post-announcement was “Mr. Trudeau has to champion this as a Canadian project,” a far more muted criticism than the Conservatives have been launching at the Liberals recently.

Local Indigenous communities’ opinions on the project are mixed. Compare Ken Lawson, a Lax Kwa’laams fisherman, to leaders of the Metlakatla, Kitsumkalum and Kitselas First Nations. Lawson has been occupying Lelu Island for the past year in an attempt to prevent what he believes will destruct a prime fish habitat, while the latter group of leaders support and welcome this and other LNG pipeline projects, according to the B.C. government. First Nations groups were consulted and even funded to ensure their voices were heard in the environmental assessment process. That is not nothing, despite charges that the process was “flawed”. This battle is likely to continue in court.

Back to McKenna: although she certainly had the unenviable task of delivering the approval news, it is important to recall that she is just one minister in a 30-person cabinet. And despite her high-profile status, she, like all employees, must respect her boss’s wishes. No matter what she may believe privately, public-facing cabinet solidarity is so ingrained in our political system that it even appears on the Privy Council Office’s website. The personal attacks claiming that McKenna lied to constituents and potential voters about her wishes to fight climate change may be nothing more than unfounded vitriol.

But whether the criticisms of McKenna have merit or not is not really the point. The point is that a decision of this magnitude would have invariably left people upset no matter the outcome. To quote Margaret Wente (likely a PPGR first), “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

Social, political and economic realities sometimes require tough compromises to push the needle.

She’s right. Social, political and economic realities sometimes require tough compromises to push the needle. The government’s decision to approve this pipeline involves three competing priorities—promoting economic growth, protecting the environment, and rebuilding relationships with Indigenous people—that recall the classic “pick 2 of 3” sleep/study/socialize triangle that post-secondary students are all too familiar with. Since the Liberals had to have known that it would be virtually impossible to satisfy all three of these priorities at once, challenges should be directed towards them, not McKenna. At the end of the day she was just doing her job, and sometimes we have to do things at work we don’t like.

Jonathan Kates is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and he holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon campus at York University.  His policy areas of interests are cities, social policy, innovative approaches to governance and service delivery, and how individuals are influenced by their environments. When not perusing the internet, Jonathan is probably checking his fantasy basketball team…ok, teams.

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