OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government found itself taking fire over the stalled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from opposite flanks Wednesday: accused of helping to finance pipeline protesters on the one hand, and rigging the review system in favour of the project on the other.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer led off question period with the revelation that one of the successful applicants to the government's Canada Summer Jobs program is a B.C. group looking to hire someone "to help ... stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker project."
"Does he not realize that he is funding the very groups that are protesting against the project that is in the national interest?" Scheer demanded.
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"We are talking about taking tax dollars from people who are out of work in the energy sector and giving it to people who are trying to block a project in the national interest."
The B.C. group, Dogwood, however, has been receiving federal money for years — including from the previous Conservative government, Trudeau retorted.
"Unlike, apparently, the leader of the official Opposition, we believe in free speech," he said.
"On the issue of this particular advocacy group, it is important to highlight that it was also funded under the Harper government."
Dogwood spokesman Kai Nagata said the group has received funding under the program since 2010 and their work to stop pipeline projects has never previously been an issue.
The funding goes toward paying a university student who spends the summer doing outreach work on campaigns to stop oil tanker expansion on the B.C. coast, he said.
"That's never been an issue for the government in the past and the plan this year is to do the exact same thing," Nagata said.
The government has been under fire of late over the Canada Summer Jobs program — specifically a new requirement that organizations declare their support for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including women's reproductive rights.
Scheer tried to needle Trudeau on that count, as well: "There is nobody who believes that the prime minister is committed to free speech when he punishes all those in this country who do not agree with his personal point of view."
Trudeau seized on the chance to depict his rival as a kinder, gentler version of his predecessor.
"The commitment that this government has made to stand up and defend reproductive rights and the rights of women at every single opportunity is one that sticks in their craw," he said of the Conservatives.
"We will not apologize for ensuring that women's rights are protected across this country."
Scheer's question was far from the only Trans Mountain offensive the Liberals faced — indeed, question period has, of late, been dominated by the project, given what proponents say of its potential economic impact, as well as how it's likely to influence next year's federal election.
Kinder Morgan declared earlier this month it was halting all non-essential spending on the controversial expansion, which has been beset by protests and is at the centre of a fierce dispute between the governments of B.C. and Alberta.
The expansion — which B.C. is blocking — would twin an existing pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to Kinder Morgan's Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C., where diluted bitumen would be loaded onto oil tankers for export.
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Earlier Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and energy critic Guy Caron released a letter to Trudeau effectively accusing the Liberals of having decided to proceed with Trans Mountain well before the federal review process had completed its evaluation.
The letter cites recent media reports suggesting the government's decision to proceed was a purely political calculation, rather than a decision based on whether or not the project would indeed be in the national interest.
"These revelations throw into question the legitimacy of the government's entire review as they point to an approval based on political interests," the letter reads.
"To address these serious concerns, we urge you to release all relevant documentation associated with the review process, including those subject to cabinet confidentiality."
Caron pressed the issue during question period, but Trudeau waved off the NDP's concerns.
NDP accuses Trudeau of rigging process
"Under the previous government, the approach of not understanding how important it is to properly consult and engage in acquiring social licence needed to be fixed," he said.
"We actually added additional steps to make the process more rigorous. In fact, we extended the consultation process to ensure we were meeting and exceeding our responsibility to engage with and consult Indigenous people."
Trudeau has been unequivocal in declaring his government's support for the project — so much so that he has dispatched Finance Minister Bill Morneau to meet with Kinder Morgan to find a way to ensure the expansion remains financially viable.
He has also promised legislation to reaffirm the federal government's authority in deciding the fate of cross-boundary pipeline projects, although the details of what that bill will look like have not been released.
The idea behind Trans Mountain is to get Alberta's oilsands bitumen to tidewater, opening up new markets for Canada's oil beyond the U.S., its only real oil customer — a situation Trudeau says forces Canada to take a big hit on the price it gets.
Fearing the many environmental unknowns that surround diluted bitumen, or dilbit, B.C. wants to restrict the pipe's capacity until more is understood about how the material might behave in a marine environment, how it can be cleaned up and how a major spill might impact ocean life.
B.C. has said it plans to file a court reference by the end of April to determine if it can stop or restrict the flow of dilbit on the grounds of its own jurisdiction over environmental concerns.
Many environmental groups fear an increase in tanker traffic out of Burnaby along marine routes that are at times extremely narrow, worsening the risk of a major spill.
Trudeau has said he only approved the pipeline in the context of balancing the need for environmental protections with the need for economic growth. The government's $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan is designed to account for such spills, he said, suggesting the government would make additional investments if need be.