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Bill C-48 - Third Reading - Oil Tanker Moratorium

Honourable senators, I rise today to join the debate on Senator Sinclair’s amendment to third reading of Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act.

As a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, I have grown quite concerned about the serious and irreversible impacts that can potentially result from energy projects and their related operations. We have seen time and again how, despite the best efforts to mitigate these risks, they seem to be an inevitable and unavoidable result of the operations being undertaken.

It seems to me, colleagues, that at times we run the risk of taking a cavalier approach and playing roulette with the well-being of our environment as well as the collective health of those individuals who live in these impacted regions.

I understand well the need to balance the needs of the environment with the needs of the economy. There is a fine line to walk in that regard, but I believe the onus is on us to make sure both remain healthy and vibrant. I think Senator Sinclair’s thoughtful amendment accomplishes this by implementing a review of this tanker ban five years after its implementation.

Industry is a well-oiled machine — no pun intended — which has the capacity to make compelling arguments as to why we should exercise trust and understanding when it comes to the carrying out of their projects and initiatives. However, there are certain instances where we need to ensure that we step up and advocate for the environment as well.

We hear more and more troubling reports every week it seems about the dire situation our delicate ecosystems are in. There comes a time when we need to be risk averse for the sake of environmental preservation so as to avoid some of these potential perils. This is what we are accomplishing through this bill.

Honourable senators, I could speak at length about the importance of Bill C-48 and what it means for the region and the peoples who depend on it. However, I would like to take this opportunity to allow the voice of those individuals in this region to be heard. I would like to read into the record a letter I have received from Chief Marilyn Slett, President, Coastal First Nations:

Dear senators . . . By now, we’ve all heard the arguments for and against Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, which would protect B.C.’s ecologically unique and fragile north coast from risk of catastrophic spills by banning large tankers carrying more than 12,500 tonnes of crude or persistent oil from docking, loading or unloading in these areas.

Every argument against this bill is driven by short-term and unsustainable economic interests that are based far away from the coast and, therefore, from any consequences if a spill were to occur in these coastal waters.

Every argument in support of the bill comes from those that would have to live with the consequences — the coastal fishing communities and First Nations with thousands of years of culture and history in a region that not only provides their livelihoods but defines who they are. Their calls to ban large oil tankers in these waters can be traced back almost 50 years, from unanimous motions passed in the B.C. legislature in 1971 and the House of Commons in 1972 opposing oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s coast, to what eventually evolved into the voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone, 1985, that is still in place today.

On the other hand, arguments against this bill and against a half century of measured reasoning from across the political spectrum are relatively new. They have intensified drastically since the global price of oil dropped, making energy companies and their proponents more anxious than ever to get raw oil products to market from inland. And that’s only natural, since opposition to Bill C-48 is almost exclusively driven by a thirst for those short-term oil profits.

But this is not a typical economy versus environment debate, and supporters of Bill C-48 are not only focused on protecting the fragile ecosystems that line the north coast and the abundant wildlife that depend on them. Economic development is vital for coastal communities, just as it is for every other region across Canada. Indeed, there is nothing that drives that home more than having your livelihood under constant threat from a devastating environmental disaster beyond your control.

Just ask the Heiltsuk Nation, which is still feeling the negative economic effects of the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat grounding in 2016 that spilled more than 100,000 litres of diesel and other fuels into nearby fishing grounds. What if that tugboat was a massive tanker, loaded with toxic diluted bitumen? Nathan E. Stewart was catastrophic, but an oil spill would have been exponentially worse. That’s almost too frightening to comprehend.

The arguments in favour of a ban on large tankers have been scrutinized for decades now, and they still stand the test of time. The arguments against a ban derived from political expediency and short-term economic thinking from special interests vying for profit.

What we’re asking you to do is simple. We assume you’ve already given some careful, reasoned thought to Bill C-48, as currently written, but we ask now that you provide some sober second thought on the unprecedented and, frankly, reckless calls within this Senate to reject the bill entirely.

We ask that you step back and take the long view. A perspective that recognizes the long history of efforts to ban tankers in this region and the many reasons for doing so and that also takes into account the promises made, over and over again, to the coastal First Nations in the spirit of reconciliation.

As coastal First Nations people, we hold a deep interconnection of mutual respect with the ocean. Reflecting on the words of Heiltsuk elders who also provided testimony at the 1977 West Coast Oil Ports Inquiry “an oil spill would finish us.” We hold no intentions of leaving our home in search of other opportunities if our territory was to be destroyed by an oil spill, which is a high possibility if this bill is not passed. There is much work to be done, and the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act is a significant step towards improving the marine oil spill response regime.

Further, the passing of Bill C-48 honours Canada’s calls for reconciliation allowing First Nations people of the coast to continue to live in relationship with their ancestral territories. The teachings of coastal First Nations communities are rooted in our relationship to the natural world and harvesting cycles. We have survived attempted assimilation and attempted cultural genocide. We are pleading to the senators of Canada to allow us to continue to live our way of life connected to a healthy intact ocean.

We also ask you to take the long view when it comes to the economic effects of this bill. As oil executives and Alberta politicians offer exasperated calls for ’national unity’ and for clawing away at regulations that stand in the way of their short-term profit, we ask that you consider economic interests of not just current generations, but future generations as well.

Along the North Pacific Coast, the coastal First Nations have been establishing such a sustainable economy for many years. Protecting resources here is a matter of survival; the ocean is our breadbasket, and the source of our food and income.

In other words, we ask you to consider the economy right here along the coast that would be threatened by oil spills — the more than 7,500 permanent jobs in traditional territories, and almost 400 million dollars in revenue generated every year — not just the economy hundreds of kilometres inland.

Signed yours truly,

Chief Marilyn Slett

President, Coastal First Nations

Honourable senators, sometimes a letter of this nature, which conveys such a reasoned and passionate perspective, needs to stand on its own.

It is a well-established boom-and-bust cycle that exists inland, removed from the impacts of a potential catastrophe. The highs and lows of this cycle can be difficult to predict. However, as Chief Slett has indicated, the economy of the coastal region, on the contrary, is stable, constant and much less volatile. The coastal economy and livelihood of its inhabitants, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year, would be faced with a potentially irreversible risk of destruction should Bill C-48 not pass.

After the five-year mark of the implementation of Senator Sinclair’s amendment, the Coastal First Nations will have their voice heard alongside the provinces to determine important aspects of the regional assessment process. I think this is a balanced and inclusive approach on how to examine this issue in the near future.

Honourable senators, I ask that you stand with me in heeding the advice of Chief Slett. Let us support Senator Sinclair’s amendment as well as Bill C-48. In doing so, let us take the long view in recognizing the economic effects of this bill. Thank you.

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