3 February 1997
Fear and loathing on the pipeline route

Brian Lee Crowley

One of the fastest ways to bring out the worst in people is to make them believe that they’re going to come into a lot of money. Look at how many great Agatha Christie murder mysteries hang on the contents of some wealthy codger’s will. It appears that that is what the prospect of natural gas wealth is doing to Nova Scotians in the debate over the route the pipeline is to follow. Some not very pretty anti-Quebec sentiments are boiling away under the surface of this discussion, and it’s time that we talked about them.

Before going further, let me make a few points. I don’t know which is the better route, whether straight to New England, or through northern New Brunswick, connecting with US and Canadian markets via Quebec. I just don’t have enough information to make an informed judgment. What I do know is that 99.9% of the people around here don’t know either. We don’t have enough information, partly because the government seems to take a perverse pride in drawing a veil over what is happening in the gas sector.

We should want the pipeline route that promises the greatest benefits to Nova Scotians, Atlantic Canadians, and the country as a whole. Most of us, if we’re given access to enough information, can figure that out for ourselves, with the help of the experts who will be heard at the National Energy Board hearings. But this implies being prepared to find that the best route is through the province of Quebec.

Apparently in much of Nova Scotia, them’s fightin’ words.

In spite of the fact that none of us really has any grip on the technical and other details that would allow us to reach an informed judgment on this issue, on one thing we can all agree. We don’t want those separatistes up there in Quebec getting ahold of our gas. It has got to go straight to New England by the shortest possible route, and the facts of the case be damned.

It’s funny. I was under the impression that Canada won the referendum in Quebec. That means that Quebeckers are still Canadians. They may have some annoying traits, but then they find us pretty frustrating at times too. If we take it into our heads to punish Quebeckers for being different, to show them that there’s a price to be paid for being difficult, then we are in fact advancing the case of the independentistes.

After all, what’s Canada about? Isn’t it normal that, if they’re willing to pay the going rate for our gas, then other Canadians, whether in Quebec or elsewhere, should get first crack at it? Have we drifted so far apart that people in this region would prefer sending our gas to the Americans over sharing it, at the world price, with our fellow Canadians?

Now of course there is a whole host of issues other than price that need to be talked about in deciding which route makes sense. For example, the fact is that Quebec may one day become independent. That makes all of us feel vulnerable and uncertain. But the people of Quebec have to co-operate with their neighbours whether they’re sovereign or not. So they have just as big an interest in defining now, by enforceable agreement, the status of the pipeline and the gas it transports. And if such an agreement is not forthcoming, or not strong enough, we can walk away.

Of course the prime minister and Lucien Bouchard made the Quebec pipeline route suspect by doing exactly what many Nova Scotians are doing: endorsing their preferred route before the arguments have been heard. They damaged their cause and made people wary of what looked like a deal done in some Quebec-dominated back room. Bouchard and Chretien may be wrong. On the other hand, they may be right. How about actually getting some solid information before we decide?

Some fear that our gas would become like Churchill Falls electricity, and that Quebec would skim off the economic benefit of the gas before allowing it to pass through to other markets. But this is not the way gas distribution works. Unlike electricity, gas doesn’t have to be sold to Quebec for it to move across its territory. Again, if doubts remains, why not reach a formal agreement with Quebec to remove those doubts?

It may be that at the end of the day, the New England route makes the best sense for us. I’d be prepared to live with that, just as I’d be prepared to live with the Quebec route, if their proposal looks most attractive. What I’m not prepared to do is to let the decision be made through appeal to dark and unexamined prejudices. And neither should you.