Justin Trudeau Thinks He’s a Climate Champion Even As He Builds Oil Pipelines

Canada’s Liberal prime minister is building a massive tar sands pipeline

By Nick Cunningham

November 9, 2021


Protesters oppose the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project at the Burnaby Terminal tank farm on March 10, 2021. | Photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP

In the early hours of July 23, near the town of Blue River in interior British Columbia, dozens of oil pipeline workers and private security personnel dismantled makeshift barriers put up by an Indigenous community to protect their village. The security guards also took down a collection of red dresses erected to honor missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The sweep was aimed at clearing land to make way for a large “man camp”—temporary housing in trailers for roughly 550 pipeline workers. 

“This is an area where women walked down to the river for the whole three and a half years that we've been here,” Kanahus Manuel, a Secwepemc woman who helped establish the village, told Sierra. “We offered prayers, put tobacco ties on the trees, and put prayer clothes on the trees. And they just go and clearcut the area.”

The security guards also set up fencing of their own and installed cameras on towers for surveillance. When Manuel confronted them, multiple security guards filmed her with their phones and with handheld cameras and threatened to call the police. 

The Secwepemc land defenders set up their resistance camp three years ago in an effort to oppose the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a long-distance tar sands conduit traveling from Alberta to the Pacific coast of British Columbia. The pipeline is intended to nearly triple the capacity of the existing systems and, if completed, will eventually transport some 890,000 barrels of oil daily. As part of their efforts to block the project, the Indigenous-led land defenders built tiny houses along the pipeline route. 

But for the Tiny House Warriors, as they call themselves, blocking a tar sands pipeline is only part of a larger objective. The Secwepemc are asserting their rights to land that has been inhabited by Indigenous people for thousands of years and which was never actually ceded to Canada—no treaty was ever signed handing over the land to white settlers or to the Canadian government. 

“The pipeline is just one part of this bigger push to claim more land on behalf of the crown,” Manuel said. “It's not just environmental. We are fighting for our human rights, our Indigenous rights.”

Despite such opposition, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is dead-set on pressing forward with the project. In fact, Trudeau’s government owns the pipeline. In 2018, when the private company Kinder Morgan moved to cancel the project because of ballooning costs, Indigenous opposition, and legal uncertainty, Trudeau swept in and bought the project for C$4.5 billion in an effort to keep it alive. Today, a government-owned entity is financing and building the project. 


Canada’s election reveals Trudeau’s weakness  

In mid-August, just a few weeks after the pipeline workers and security guards ripped up parts of the Tiny House Warriors encampment, Trudeau called a snap election, hoping to build a large majority for his Liberal government. But it proved to be a miscalculation. 

Trudeau struggled out of the gate and soon slipped in the polls. In an effort to avoid losing votes to the more left-leaning and climate-conscious New Democratic Party (NDP), Trudeau offered up a range of new climate promises, since climate change appeared to be an issue of concern to voters. British Columbia had been engulfed in smoke as wildfires ravaged the province all summer. During the infamous “heat dome” in late June, temperatures in Lytton, BC, surpassed 121°F, a hellish event that was followed a day later by a fire that incinerated much of the town.  

During the campaign, Canadian politicians bickered over who had the better climate policy. The NDP noted that under Trudeau Canada’s emissions actually increased since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed. The NDP pledged to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2030, a more aggressive target than the Liberals’ 40 to 45 percent reduction. Trudeau accused the NDP of not having a realistic or detailed plan. Meanwhile, the Conservatives sought to water down Trudeau’s 2030 emissions target and even suggested reviving several other oil and gas pipeline projects that were canceled years ago. Trudeau hoped to burnish his green record by promising to end fossil fuel subsidies and to funnel billions of dollars into an economic diversification fund for oil and gas provinces.  

In the end, the September 20 election results led to no change in the status quo. The number of seats in Parliament won by each party was nearly identical to the previous election two years earlier, leaving Trudeau’s Liberals poised to lead another minority government. It’s not even clear that climate change played as big of a role in the election as had been expected

But at the same time, the election laid bare the hollowness of the prime minister’s commitment to ambitious climate action. Trudeau has cultivated a progressive reputation, but in truth has done very little to actually confront the oil and gas industry. “The Liberal Party is not yet willing to take on that expansionary aspiration of the sector,” Angela V. Carter, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, told Sierra

She said Canada’s promises of reducing emissions and reorienting its economy to hit climate targets on the one hand while promoting the relentless growth of oil and gas on the other is a complete contradiction. “There's two versions of reality here, and they're not aligned,” Carter said. “Either one of two things is going to happen. We're either blowing well past 1.5 degrees or we're aligning actions to meet [climate targets]. We can't have it both ways.”  

According to one recent study, Canada’s federal and provincial governments funneled over C$23 billion (US$18.5 billion) in subsidies to three major oil and gas pipeline projects in just the past three years, much of it to the Trans Mountain expansion. Experts doubt Trudeau will follow through on his promise to end such subsidies. “I'll believe it when I see it,” Carter said.  

But she added that international pressure on the oil industry is intensifying as the climate crisis worsens. Growing diplomatic pressure to limit fossil fuel production could force a reckoning within Canada. “I think this tension, this contradiction ... we're being outed now. Canada is being outed on it, and we're going to have pressure internationally,” Carter said. 

“Clearly, it was an absolutely meaningless election,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, told Sierra. “[Trudeau’s] promises and commitments are quite meaningless,” he said. 

In early November, Trudeau traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN-sponsored climate negotiations, where he pledged to phase down greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector. He also promised to slash methane emissions from the industry by 75 percent below 2012 levels by 2030, and pledged to support an end to deforestation. 

But a new report from Environmental Defence Canada and Oil Change International finds that Canada’s top oil and gas producers still have plans to expand oil and gas production. None of them have “produced plans that came even close to the bare minimum for alignment with the Paris Agreement’s objective of limiting warming to 1.5°C,” the report said, adding, “The climate plans of major oil and gas companies operating in Canada rank among the worst worldwide and will accelerate the climate crisis.” 

Trudeau still has not been able to reconcile his promises to cut emissions with his support for the continued growth of Canada’s oil and gas industry. 


Pipeline resistance continues 

Canada’s ownership and support of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion is one of the clearest examples of this contradiction—but it’s not the only one. Trudeau has also given unflinching support to other major fossil fuel projects, including the Line 3 Pipeline that has been opposed by Ojibwe water protectors in Minnesota and the Line 5 Pipeline that is facing scrutiny in Michigan. 

In British Columbia, Trudeau also backs LNG Canada, a massive gas pipeline and liquified natural gas (LNG) export project. LNG Canada and the associated Coastal GasLink Pipeline are fiercely opposed by the Wet'suwet'en First Nation hereditary chiefs, whose territory the pipeline will cross. 

In February 2020, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began clearing blockades set up by the Wet'suwet'en. The incident received widespread attention and sparked nationwide solidarity protests that paralyzed Canadian railways for weeks as protesters blockaded rail tracks to draw attention to the Wet'suwet'en’s campaign. The conflict intensified again in fall as Coastal GasLink sought to drill underneath a river that is sacred to the Wet'suwet'en, prompting the land defenders to occupy a work site. 

The Indigenous-led resistance to LNG Canada and the Trans Mountain expansion have both been characterized by an aggressive, state-sponsored crackdown that has attracted the attention of international human rights watchdogs. In early 2020, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for the halt of construction of both projects, and the committee said it was disturbed by the “forced removal, disproportionate use of force, harassment, and intimidation” and “escalating threat of violence” against Indigenous people. 

For Kanahus Manuel, the construction of the Trans Mountain expansion is both an environmental disaster and a “land grab.” “Our elders say ‘every tree they cut, has title in it. Every rock they move from our land, has title in it.’ They owe us a lot of compensation,” she said. On top of that, she adds, the “non-recognition of our title and rights is a subsidy to the whole industry.” 

Over the past few years, Manuel and other Indigenous peoples have called on the more than two dozen global banks and insurance companies financing or underwriting the project—including Liberty Mutual, AIG, and Chubb—to cut ties with the beleaguered project. An array of environmental groups, including Rainforest Action Network, Stand.earth, Indigenous Climate Action, and the Sierra Club have joined in the pressure campaign. They argue that bulldozing through Indigenous land is not only a reputational hazard but also a financial risk. The effort to shame financial institutions can claim some success, having already forced at least 15 major international insurance companies to rule out covering the project.  

Farther downstream from the Tiny House Warriors encampment, where the Fraser River meets the Pacific Ocean and where the Trans Mountain Pipeline will send oil out for export, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and other Indigenous peoples and environmental allies have protested the pipeline for the past half decade. Chief Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs pointed to the early October oil spill in California, which he said offered a “graphic representation of the threat that accompanies this pipeline” to the Salish Sea. The pipeline, if and when it is completed, will result in a surge of oil tanker traffic near Vancouver. According to a study conducted by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, there is a 79 to 87 percent likelihood of an oil spill in the inlet over a 50-year period. 

Opposition near Vancouver included a tree sit-in that lasted for over a year, delaying construction. But the Royal Canadian Mounted Police recently removed the protesters so Trans Mountain could begin felling trees in the area to make way for the pipeline. 

These kinds of opposition tactics have dramatically increased the construction cost of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. A study from earlier this year said that Canada will lose as much as C$11.9 billion on the project, undercutting the argument that it is an economic necessity. 

“I don't think this pipeline will ever be completed. It doesn't make any economic sense. It's on the wrong side of history,” Chief Phillip told Sierra. For now, however, construction continues, with strong support from Trudeau’s government. 

Back upriver, the Tiny House Warriors continue their struggle, where construction of the man camp has picked up pace. “Here in BC, we come from the only inland temperate rainforest in the world,” Manuel said. “The amount of water that has been untouched because it's constantly dripping from the glaciers … there's no other place in the world that's like this.” She fears the impact on salmon and endangered caribou, vital sources of food and culture to the Secwepemc and many other Indigenous communities.  

“I think the biggest climate leaders right now are Indigenous peoples. Following the lead of Indigenous peoples as we assert our title and rights and our sovereignty is really going to benefit the planet,” Manuel said. “If Justin Trudeau claims to be a climate leader, then he needs to cancel this pipeline.”