B.C. is a puzzle to the rest of Canada. It swings right and left like a pendulum in terms of governments in Victoria, with colourful political scandals involving drunk driving, decks, and fantasy theme parks. Its resource battles are the stuff of legend, with citizens packed off to jail by the hundreds.
All of this could once be dismissed as a curiosity that didn't matter much to the real work of Confederation. Until recently, that is, when Canada's centre of gravity shifted from east to west, and when our lateral outlook shifted from Europe to Asia.
Suddenly B.C.'s Pacific coast is on the front lines of the new Canada, with no better symbol of that than the battle over Enbridge's proposed tar sands Northern Gateway pipeline.
But the battle is also about more than just issues. Ultimately, it is also about the collapse of the "Laurentian Consensus" and about the fact that oil is now the foundation for a new Conservative coalition that has managed to cobble together a majority in Ottawa. In its most dramatic terms, it's about the future of Canada, with B.C. as the flashpoint.
It is an irony that Stephen Harper, a proponent of decentralizing power to the provinces, now wants to override B.C. objections by declaring this pipeline to be a matter of "national interest" and attacking anyone opposed to it. But, now that his Ottawa runs on oil, the industry must get its way, regardless of what the people want.
Has Harper miscalculated? Since going on the attack in January, his party has dropped 16 points in B.C. polls. To be sure, B.C. has pockets of deep blue sympathetic to the Conservative cause, but as with B.C. culture in general, these are populists who don't like to see far-away Ottawa throwing its weight around like a bully.
Team Harper also seems to misunderstand the power of First Nations in B.C. The province has few treaties, which leaves open the question of who controls things and which creates significant legal uncertainty. B.C. First Nations expect to be asked for consent for major industrial projects, but have so far received condescension.
The other reality is that if you politically map the Pacific coastline itself, you will see a sea of orange, not blue. Those who can actually see the water vote for Harper far less frequently. Vancouver has declared itself the "greenest city." Victoria has elected Canada's only Green MP. This is hostile territory for an oil regime.
And in an age when the impact of climate change will only become more serious and more visible, an idea is taking hold along the coast that it's just plain dumb to facilitate the export of carbon so that others can kill our shared climate. Protests against coal shipments have begun not just in B.C., but along the U.S. coastline. The Enbridge pipeline would also be a major offender, as would Kinder Morgan's proposal.
In sum, the battle over the proposed Enbridge pipeline represents the clash of the new oil-driven Conservative coalition versus an unwilling province packed with people who have never been known to roll over and play dead. This will rock the country.
The last time a political party in Ottawa used a "national interest" argument to impose its energy agenda on a province, it poisoned the well there for generations. And as the planet burns, this time around it is about more than political poisoning, but about the actual poisoning of our atmosphere that those generations need for security and prosperity.
We therefore have no choice other than to define and pursue an alternative Canada that isn't driven by oil. Our work begins now.