Critics are questioning how democratic the unelected Senate really is after a committee recommended to nix a bill putting a moratorium on oil tankers in the northwest pacific.
On Wednesday, May 15, five Conservative senators along with independent Alberta senator, Paula Simons, voted against the Bill C-48 by adopting recommendations that the Senate kill the act altogether. The committee is made up of 12 members, creating a 50-50 split.
Rest assured, I didn’t vote this way because I was pressured by industry or by online trolls or by Conservatives in the Senate. You should know me well enough to know I am not cowed by peer pressure – or digital bullies.
— Paula Simons (@Paulatics) May 16, 2019
The controversy lies in the fact that originally, 67 per cent of voting members in the House of Commons, representing the interest of 12 million Canadians, voted in favour of banning oil tanker traffic off the North Coast of B.C.
“It would undermine people’s confidence in the promises that any politician can make,” said Nathan Cullen, Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP.
The promise to ban traffic tankers was made by the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, the Green Party, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who won a majority government in the previous elections.
“If [Senate’s recommendations] passes, independent senators will feel emboldened that they can do what they want. Big money always had an effect on Canadian politics,” he said.
Cullen is concerned that more independent senators will allow big money to find its way further into the Canadian political system, undermining the mandates that Canadian citizens voted in favour of.
In a press release Senator Dennis Patterson, the Conservative critic for the bill in the Senate said that “Conservative Senators were prepared to engage in constructive debate and propose reasonable amendments to the bill. Unfortunately, Minister [of Transport, Marc] Garneau had made it clear during his recent committee appearance that the Trudeau government is not open to hearing other views in the debate.”
North Coast MLA, Jennifer Rice, said for a long time she had no opinion of the Senate.
“But when I saw the conduct of senators in Prince Rupert recently, it pushed me toward the idea of abolishing Senate,” Rice said.
Rice said that during the first Senate hearing, which took place in Prince Rupert last month, the committee was argumentative as to whether or not the bill was feasible and in their interest.
“Senators are not politicians and yet they act like politicians. They were deliberating with Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands of years – about their needs. They showed disrespect. Their job is not to represent just their constituents. That’s not their job. [Their job] is to represent the national interest, not theirs,” Rice said.
Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain said he’s disappointed. At the committee hearing on April 16, he said “It sounds to me that the Senators here have already made up their minds. What are you even consulting us for?”
Environmental and job concerns
Bill C-48 would put into place a moratorium on coastal tanker traffic starting from Vancouver Island up to the Alaskan border. It’s intent is to protect the marine life and Great Bear Rainforest from potential oil spills. If the bill passes, tankers carrying more than 12,500 tonnes of oil will be banned from loading or unloading in the ports.
Although it would not keep smaller tankers off the waters, the bill would still prevent spills on a scale that the province is not equipped to deal with, said Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fisherman’s and Worker’s Union. The bill would also require super tankers from Alaska to sail off of Canadian waters.
“There’s a difference between size and the ability to clean it up. Between diesel and bitumen. Just a world of difference,” Thorkelson said.
A potential spill could cause the fisherman to go years without adequate pay. The fisherman affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill are still in court to this day seeking compensation, according to Thorkelson.
“If senators think they can spend 20 years in court, they are wrong,” she said. “Even on the Florida coast, where the fishermen were given expedited settlements, not one will tell you they were properly compensated for their costs.”
Truth and reconciliation
Rice said if the Senate adopted the committee’s recommendations and voted against the bill it would go against Indigenous people’s inherent rights and against what the Truth and Reconciliation commission stands for.
“All Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in B.C. are diverse [economically] and depend on a healthy marine environment for survival,” she said.
No one on either side is disagreeing that First Nation communities on the coast have rights to be respected, but Senator Patterson sees that respect differently as stated in a press release.
“It is especially frustrating that this government claims reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is a top priority for them, but was completely unwilling to listen to dozens of First Nation communities who were opposed to the tanker ban. That includes the Nisga’a, who have a modern treaty signed with the Crown, but whose views were completely ignored by the Liberals,” he said.
Indigenous rights, said Rice go beyond economic development. Indigenous people have an inherent connection to the land with their culture and identity deeply tied to it.
“To the coastal First Nations water is life. To put that in jeopardy puts their entire existence and identity into jeopardy,” she said. “We are putting this into legislation to protect generations, so they can have access to sea resources depended on for thousands of years.”
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