Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

November 23, 2009

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of diocesan social justice staff working in Western Canada. I always enjoy these meetings because it is a chance for us to compare notes about what we are encountering in our social justice works in our respective provinces.

This year the conversation with colleagues from Saskatchewan was especially interesting.

In the past year, both the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments seriously considered the introduction of nuclear power and had established expert panels to study the issue.

In both provinces, the bishops published pastoral statements asking ethical questions about nuclear power. An important theme in both these episcopal statements was that there should be full public discussion and consultation before final government decisions were made.

The Alberta Catholic bishops called for a "sustained consultation" where "all stakeholders can speak face to face with government decision makers in a public, transparent process."

This call for public participation in decisions concerning major issues comes from a foundational principle in Catholic social teaching: human beings, as ethical agents created in the image and likeness of God, are called to participate in decisions affecting their own lives.

The public consultation processes in our respective provinces turned out to be quite different. The Saskatchewan government organized a series of public hearings in 13 communities.

The hearings were well attended. Over 800 people attended the Saskatoon hearing. Individuals and groups from all sides were able to make presentations and participate in a public debate.

The consultation in Alberta consisted of an invitation to participate in an Internet questionnaire over four weeks, a series of focus groups and a public opinion poll. There were no public discussions or hearings.

DIVERGENT DIALOGUES

In further discussions with my Saskatchewan diocesan colleagues, it became clear that important, wide-ranging debates around an expanded list of energy-related issues are continuing in our respective provinces. As we spoke, it became obvious to me that the attitudes of our two provincial governments about public consultation were quite different.

Saskatchewan had recently mandated a seven-person legislative committee, consisting of government and opposition members, to conduct public hearings in communities across the province "to determine how the province can meet the growing demand for electricity in a manner that is safe, reliable, environmentally-sustainable and affordable for Saskatchewan residents."

In Alberta there is a heated debate about Bill 50 dealing with the construction of new high-voltage power lines across the province costing as much as $14.5 million.

One major feature of Bill 50 is that it allows the minister of energy to declare a future power line proposal as "critical infrastructure" and exempt it from the public hearing process that the Alberta Public Utilities Board has previously been legally required to conduct.

This Alberta debate has an interesting history. A recent public hearing process concerning high-voltage power lines was cancelled, after it was discovered that the provincial government had engaged in a clumsy attempt to hire spies from a private security company to infiltrate farmers' organizations opposed to a previous high-voltage power line proposal.

A Nov. 4 editorial in the Edmonton Journal addressed this issue of Bill 50 and public consultation: "(Bill 50) will remove the opportunity for consumers - the people who will foot the bill for the next 40 years - to try to ensure the proposed transmission lines really are in their best interests." Farmers who own land in the path of the proposed pipeline corridor have expressed their concerns about public consultation and Bill 50.

Why are we struggling so much with this issue of public participation in Alberta? Only 40 per cent of eligible Albertans voted in the last provincial election, one of the lowest voter turnouts in Canadian history. Why do many Albertans appear silent in this situation?

WEAKENED DEMOCRACY

Andrew Nikiforuk, in his recent book Tar Sands, suggests one answer. He cites Thomas Friedman's "first law of petropolitics," which correlates weakened democracy and reduced public participation in government with oil wealth.

In the presence of the wealth associated with abundant oil and gas resources, possibly we are getting apathetic and disengaged.

The Alberta bishops have strongly encouraged us to participate in the public discussions on nuclear energy, and communicate our views to the Government of Alberta. We can take this encouragement further, and apply it to the other important issues before us today.

What the bishops are asking us to do, in the words of our Church social teaching, is to take seriously our God-given responsibility to contribute to the common good.

Whether or not our provincial government puts meaningful frameworks in place for public consultations, we in Alberta can certainly be creative and find lots of effective ways to make our voices heard. After all if Saskatchewan can do it, . . .

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)