It has been an interesting couple of weeks in the neighbourhood. Mayor Gordon, or rather Warden Gordon, raised an issue and a lot of hackles when he brought a motion before the Counties Council to approve the Energy East pipeline project. It started a whole new round of debates about whether pipelines are safe, or at least safer than railways. Presentations were made to the Committee of the Whole, accusations of paranoia were levelled at various parties, and the same arguments were brought out that have been heard at every hearing, public consultation and panel discussion since TransCanada first announced the Energy East plans.
But that, I think, was not the really interesting part of the week’s events. There were, in fact, two quite separate questions to be addressed in the whole affair. Aside altogether from the debate over oil, carbon fuels, safety and sustainability, the underlying issue was almost lost sight of, and that was all about variations of democracy.
First of all, the timing and origins of David Gordon’s motion to the County Council was somewhat mysterious. A joint meeting of the Wardens’ Caucuses of Eastern and Western Ontario were presented with new research concerning the pipeline project, according to the Warden. What that information was, and who presented it, are apparently not for the public to know. They are secret and under a “gag order”, so that, in itself, is fascinating.
The fact that this took place just after the National Energy Board, which was holding hearings across the country on the Energy East project, faced dissolution after three members were found to be having behind-the-scenes talks with TransCanada lobbyists (no less a person than Jean Charest, ex-Premier of Quebec and ex-federal cabinet minister) was also fascinating. The NEB hearings have been suspended and probably won’t restart for some time to come. In other words, there is no urgency about the entire issue right now, nor is there likely to be any for months, if not years, in the future. So, why a motion to officially approve Energy East by the United Counties of Leeds & Grenville at this particular point in time, and who wanted that approval on the record?
Then there’s the way in which the motion was dealt with by two local Mayors. Mayor David Gordon claimed that his introduction of the motion at the UCLG was in no way in conflict with the official position of the North Grenville Municipal Council, which has expressed concern over the safety of the planned pipeline. What happens at County has no impact on the municipal situation, he says, and therefore he did not need to consult his fellow members of Council in North Grenville before moving the letter of approval in Brockville. The two levels of government are distinct and his role on each is different.
The only dissenting voice at UCLG Council was Mayor David Nash of Merrickville-Wolford, who did not think the motion should have been brought forward at all. Before finally voting on the motion, he called a public meeting of residents in his municipality to get the sense of the community. Having listened to all sides, he decided to ask the County to postpone voting their approval, given that there was no urgency to do so, until all parties could consider the matter more fully.
He was voted down by all of his colleagues. Why the rush? Who initiated the motion to have local county councils officially approve Energy East at this point in time? Who were the researchers who briefed the Wardens, and why is their information being withheld from the public? How much were TransCanada involved in the whole affair? As Sustainable North Grenville member, Chris Weissflog asked at the Merrickville public meeting: how much money is TransCanada spending to garner the support of politicians, or in, as Chris put it in the words of Noam Chomsky, “manufacturing consent”?
There are two distinct approaches to democracy on display here. In one, initiatives come from mysterious sources and handed down to lower levels of government for their approval. This demands no obligation to consult or inform residents, and only allows dark whispers of gag orders to explain what’s happening. The other approach to democracy is to stop and ask what the facts are, who is behind it all, and to seek the opinion and judgment of residents before committing them to an official stand on the issue.
It seems that municipalities can be intimidated by provincial governments, perhaps even by corporations. They impose silence through laws and subtleties. This is not a question of oil or the future of the environment. It is all about how we are governed, and how much others think we need to know, or should be allowed to know, about things that matter. They will have their way, one way or another.