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David Anderson: Tanker-ban decision was not taken lightly

Former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau would certainly be pleased by his son’s directive Friday to formalize Canada’s longstanding ban on crude-oil-carrying tankers from the waters off Canada’s north-west coast.


Former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau would certainly be pleased by his son’s directive Friday to formalize Canada’s longstanding ban on crude-oil-carrying tankers from the waters off Canada’s north-west coast.

Forty-four years ago, when on the government backbenches as the MP for Esquimalt-Saanich, I had pressed him hard for such a ban. At the time I was in the midst of expensive and uncertain litigation in United States courts, under the recently passed National Environmental Policy Act, to require a thorough environmental impact assessment of the then-pending marine tanker traffic from Alaska to the Juan de Fuca Strait.

A Canadian government ban on all future traffic was important to my lawsuit, as it would demonstrate that Canadian objections were, on the one hand, not restricted to me and the Canadian Wildlife Federation, which had joined me in the suit, but to Canada generally.

Second, it would show that the Canadian objections were not restricted to the American tanker traffic from the port being built at Valdez, Alaska, but applied to all tanker traffic, regardless of origin.

Trudeau did not take the decision lightly. He had invited me to his office the evening he made the decision. There were many who advised taking no position on the issue.

He heard from the champions of industrial development, from his B.C. cabinet ministers, from industry, from the bureaucracy and from business leaders in the communities of the coast. Although the looming threat at the time was tankers carrying Alaskan crude transiting the near-shore inland waters of the coast, he had been made well aware that his decision also would shut the door to some possible future economic development opportunities in Canada.

He had also heard from residents of the coast, from First Nations and from Canadians across the country, who supported protection, and he was well aware from briefings from Environment Canada and the coast guard of the woeful accident record of the tanker fleet worldwide.

So that evening, I went to his office with some trepidation, not sure what his decision would be. Few colleagues thought I had a chance. Conventional wisdom suggested he would go with the proponents of economic development.

Fortunately, Trudeau was not a conventional person. The ban was announced, a ban that has been honoured by every subsequent prime minister, Stephen Harper excepted.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renewed this commitment to his father’s ban, and to the protection of our northern coast. He has asked his transport minister to formalize that decision, which may happen through legislation or by order in council.

Not mentioned by media accounts, and apparently overlooked in the prime minister’s instruction to his minister, was another decision made that night, namely the moratorium on drilling for oil and gas off the West Coast.

Few remember today almost 50 years ago, a drilling rig was built in Victoria, and soon after, 28 holes were drilled offshore.

That same night in 1971, along with the ban on further bulk crude-oil movements on the West Coast, Pierre Trudeau imposed a moratorium to prevent further drilling in the areas covered by oil-company leases. His moratorium is still in place; however the leases still exist, despite the time that has passed.

To complete the reaffirmation of his father’s commitment to protecting our coast, Justin Trudeau should cancel those leases.

Drilling techniques might have improved in the past half-century, but sea conditions and extreme weather conditions have not. There is still risk, oil is not as scarce and sensible climate-change policy should restrict supply as well as demand for hydrocarbons.

Incidentally, while Justin Trudeau is considering the offshore drilling leases around Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island, he might strike out on his own and demonstrate his commitment to taking serious climate-change measures. He could correct a mistake of the past by turning down the recent request by the leaseholding oil companies to extend their leases in Canada’s Arctic waters.

The West Coast is not a sensible place to drill, and neither is the Arctic. Drilling in either location makes no climate-change or economic sense.


David Anderson was a backbench MP from 1968 to 1972, during Pierre Trudeau’s government. He later served five years as environment minister in the governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

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