Not Just a Pipe Dream: Indigenous, Provincial, and Environmental Considerations in Successful Canadian Pipeline Projects

Nicole Spadotto is a first-year student at the McGill University Faculty of Law and an Associate Editor with the McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University in Joint Honours Political Science and English. Nicole has previously worked as a political staffer on Parliament Hill and in marketing with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. She has experience in projects intersecting with policy, energy sustainability, and corporate social responsibility.

This past summer, I had the privilege of visiting Hardisty, Alberta on August 11 to tour the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project. Hardisty is a small town close to the Saskatchewan border, and is perhaps most famous for being a central hub for the oil and petroleum industry. While touring the pipeline replacement project, I had the opportunity to listen to speeches from Amarjeet Sohi, the federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, as well as from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and Albertan Indigenous representatives. Through touring the pipeline and learning from politicians from all levels of government in Canada, I gained understanding of some legal and policy factors that contribute to whether proposed pipeline projects fail or succeed in Canada. These factors include the duty to consult, provincial approval, and (increasingly) whether the pipeline is environmentally responsible.

When infrastructure developments have an impact on an Indigenous community’s land or rights, the Crown has a “duty to consult” with Indigenous groups before embarking on the project. The Indigenous community must be informed of the nature of the project, and given opportunities to answer the proposal.  For the consultation to pass constructional validity, the consultation must be “real and substantial” according to the Supreme Court of Canada – though the Indigenous community does not need to approve of the project for it to eventually move forward.

The exact provisions of the “duty to consult” still need to be developed through legislation and courts. Doing so will sharpen whether the duty to consult means only conversation with Indigenous peoples or whether it extends to taking Indigenous views into account, and meaningfully adopting them, while developing projects. What did become clearer over this summer is that improper duty to consult can cause a whole project to be cancelled. In Clyde River (Hamlet) v. Petrolium Geo-Services Inc. the Supreme Court found that the National Energy Board did not properly consult Inuit in developing oil and gas projects in the North. In this failure, the National Energy Board also neglected to assess the impacts the gas and oil exploration project would have on Inuit rights and existing treaties. Hence, treaty impacts must be assessed and environmental effects need to be considered from Indigenous perspectives.

Helping Indigenous communities participate in the consultation process should be a priority for governments and oil and energy conglomerates. Based on the importance of oral traditions to many Indigenous communities, spoken testimony from Indigenous leaders should be taken into consideration as a valid form of consultation participation. Funding is also often necessary to help Indigenous communities participate in the consultation process, especially given travel costs from remote communities.

The Supreme Court has addressed the scope of the duty to consult, as well as the negative effects pipeline projects can have on Indigenous rights and titles. With diversity in Indigenous communities, and a vast difference in opinion, consultations might need to extend across individuals, groups, and national Indigenous organizations like the Assembly of First Nations. Within Indigenous communities, there are different interpretations of territory, and its ancestral and spiritual relevance. Though some Indigenous voices may be heard in the process, some will necessarily be marginalized. Many individuals in Indigenous communities refuse to recognize the Canadian government’s authority over their lands and are directly opposed to the duty to consult framework, which they see as a colonial framework. While some Indigenous communities and groups may be willing to work with the government, others will refuse this outright and their voices will consequently remain unheard.
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Additionally, provincial support and approval of pipelines helps these projects move ahead. Getting provincial approval for pipeline projects is vital politically; though Ottawa technically does have jurisdiction over these projects, it can be risky for the federal government to overtly assert their decisions over pipeline projects. Doing so without provincial consent can upset the idea that each level of government has different competencies in their own spheres. However, pipelines are vast projects that necessarily trigger both federal and provincial competencies. Overlap therefore necessarily exists between the federal and provincial jurisdiction over pipelines. While in the future, cooperative federalism could possibly help with working through the provincial-federal issues stemming from pipeline projects, the current interpretation of federalism is still very much rooted in the lists of competencies set out in ss. 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. A trans-provincial pipeline project could thus very well have to be abandoned if one province consistently opposes it.

The importance of provincial approval of such projects manifested this autumn, with the TransCanada decision to cancel the Energy East pipeline project. The project had huge opposition, especially in Quebec, by politicians and the public alike. Had the project been approved, the pipeline would have transported crude oil beginning in Hardisty, Alberta and ending in New Brunswick. In the process, the pipeline would have passed through the province Quebec (including through Montreal) and along the St. Lawrence River to get to the East Coast.

The failures of recent pipeline projects demonstrate that provincial acceptance of such projects increasingly determines whether the projects will actually occur. However, provincial dissent over pipelines also seem to be deepening divides and resentments between certain provinces. After the TransCanada pipeline project was cancelled the Mayor of Montreal at the time, Denis Coderre, praised the cancellation along with several Quebec Members of the National Assembly. Quebec’s opposition, at least partially, very likely contributed to the cancellation of the project. As a result, Saskatchewan’s premier, Brad Wall, sharply criticized Coderre, the Quebec National Assembly, and the federal government. Bernard Drainville, a member of the Parti Québécois provincially at the time, sniped back over Twitter that Saskatchewan was engaging in blackmail. “It’s either the pipeline, otherwise, no more equalization,” Drainville tweeted. The federal government thus needs to navigate the dangerous political landscape of provincial sovereignty while also smoothing dissent between provinces to help the likelihood of success of pipeline projects in the future.

Finally, environmental responsibility increasingly helps validate pipeline projects to the public. Even beyond validation, environmental arguments have recently helped pipeline projects move forward politically. For example, though the Kinder-Morgan pipeline will not necessarily get built, the Liberal British Columbia government did agree to further pipeline negotiations only after Kinder-Morgan agreed to invest funding for over 20-years into environmental projects in the province should the pipeline be built. Similarly, much of Quebec’s opposition to the TransCanada pipeline was rooted in environmental costs, without enough economic benefit to offset concerns over sustainability.

To mitigate environmental concerns, many pipeline companies have committed to investing in sustainable development technologies. According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, the body which manages Alberta provincial pipelines, the number of pipeline accidents declined 44% over the past 10 years with this commitment to safe and sustainable transport of energy. The University of Calgary has a special research branch part of their school of engineering, the Pipeline Engineering Centre, which focuses on the advancement of pipeline engineering. The Centre places special emphasis on “integrity, maintenance, and management” of infrastructure. This summer, researchers at the University of Calgary actually developed technology that would prevent pipeline leaks and better protect the environment. Though the technology is expensive, implementing it on existing pipelines around rivers and lakes could have beneficial environmental impacts that outweigh the monetary costs of installation.

These initiatives are in place to meet the demands of provincial and Indigenous governments, environmental groups, and the public to have environmentally responsible pipelines. Recent cancellations of pipeline projects have happened at least partially due to widespread public and civil society concern about how projects will affect the environment. As such, the federal government and oil and energy companies would do well to ensure that proposed projects are as environmentally sustainable as current technology allows.


Further Reading:

Rachel Ariss, Clara MacCallum Fraser and Diba Nazneen Somani, “Crown Policies on the Duty to Consult and Accommodate: Towards Reconciliation?” (2017) 13:1 McGill J of Sus Dev L 5, online: <>.




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