The failure of our national discourse

Originally Published in 2014: If you’re like me and believe that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to the BC coast will never come to fruition, then you have to ask yourself the question: what’s next for Canada’s energy debate?

Northern Gateway is trending because of the specter of an oil spill in the spirit bear’s habitat and due to industry’s desperate need to open up Asian markets.

But this is really a stalking horse for both sides for bigger issues; for bigger agendas.

In the minds of some, this is but a front in an imagined war between human economic prosperity and the future of the planet.

And never has a fake war been about so little.

In fact, what should be a critical multi-partisan issue, the environment is quickly becoming typecast as a one trick pony, defined by the increasingly tiring and simplistic debate surrounding the existentialism of the oil sands and their lifeblood, pipelines.

But this sad reality is unlikely to change any time soon, with Northern Gateway being but one of four major pipeline projects planned to help get bitumen from the oil sands to market.

The national – and international – Oil Sands War™ is just getting warmed up.

I’m not suggesting for a second this issue doesn’t warrant a healthy debate, but I do passionately believe it is taking up far too much oxygen in a much larger issue.

More importantly, the fifty percent-plus-one approach to policy-making both sides use to cultivate a social license is deepening the democratic deficit and, in the doing, threatening to stifle economic and environmental progress.

Canadians are being told our only option is to destroy our economic prosperity and save the planet or preserve our economic wellbeing and worry about Earth at a later date.

What an ugly choice.

Shouldn’t we – the top of the food chain, courtesy of our brains, not our brawn – be able to think more critically; have a more multi-faceted debate?

We are living in a time of remarkable opportunity in Canada, but I fear – as both a passionate Canadian and a young Canadian – that it will be an opportunity missed unless we can overcome the petty, ideological politics of those leading our national discourse and engage one another on a human level and in an adult conversation.

What passes for dialogue today simply doesn’t cut it.

Point and case: since the age of 13, I’ve worked to unite the voices of young people to save the spirit bear.

When Northern Gateway first came forward as an issue, my organization took a unique position.

Canada needs a national energy debate, but if we’re to have pipelines, our position was to ensure the planned route won’t further increase oil’s environmental footprint by, in this case, sending supertankers through the treacherous waterways of the spirit bear’s last intact habitat – a globally important carbon sink.

As the spokesperson for the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, I found my name being run through the mud, as malicious and libelous stories made the rounds.

I was attacked from the right as being an enemy of the country – part of that ridiculous ‘foreign funded radical’ non-debate – and became the subject of a whisper campaign that suggested I signed-up fake people to oppose Northern Gateway as part of the National Energy Board’s hearings on the pipeline.

Ironic, it was, for my conservation work is volunteer-based and the Youth Coalition has never received local – let alone foreign – donations from foundations or other funding bodies.

Moreover, we weren’t necessarily in opposition to pipelines, just the route of Northern Gateway, and our goal was to bring balance to the debate and enlarge the tent for a more nuanced solution.

Meanwhile, from the left, the environmental movement’s awkward home base, I was labeled as a traitor and a sell-out.

Some advocates, who will remain nameless, went as far as threatening me, suggesting that if I didn’t embrace their position of no pipelines ever, full stop, I would become a target in their public relations war.

The hypocrisy of some environmentalists screaming – rightfully – at their treatment at the hands of the Harper government, while engaging in the same practices themselves was not lost on me.

This experience underscored to me how few truly smart people are willing to really listen to opposing points of view – or listen, at all.

Apparently having an independent opinion is just not acceptable to some. By the same token, it seems the message to a larger swath of the Canadian populous is that there is no room to be both an environmental advocate and have small-c conservative values.

What a shame.

I’m far from perfect and don’t pretend to suggest for a second that I know best or have the perfect solution to the challenges we face.

But I’ve also had a front row seat to this conversation for long enough to realize we must reconcile humanity with nature and do so in a way that mixes Realpolitik with bold thinking.

In my mind, without asymmetrical balance and innovative thinking, we’ll be left with only stale ideological ideas that fail to connect with economic reality or weak political compromises that fail to grasp the severity of environmental issues.

Advocates, thought leaders and politicians of all stripes need to bridge this divide in our discourse or else the mistrust and a lack of common ground will entrench the left-right, environment versus the economy faux war.