By June 17th, Canada's federal cabinet is required to decide whether the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline can proceed. From an institutional perspective, this marks the conclusion of a lengthy process. There was a day when all sides engaged in arguing socially contentious issues would acquiesce at the conclusion of such processes, but these days, institutions don't command that sort of respect anymore. It's hardly a risky proposition to suggest that approval by the feds resolves the matter.
My point here is not to argue the merits or demerits of the pipeline, nor to suggest that the process has been without its flaws. But a two-year review process by the National Energy Board, a federal agency that has subject matter expertise, which heard 1450 submissions in 21 affected communities over a two-year period cannot be dismissed as an undemocratic process. Their 429-page report recommended approval of the pipeline, albeit with 209 conditions to address various concerns that were raised. The formal consideration has been supplemented by the informal process of political debate: a steady stream of protests with organized groups on both sides of the issue angling to ensure sympathetic media coverage. There are few arguments left that haven't been aired.
Still, the population is divided. The town of Kitimat, which would be directly impacted by the construction of this pipeline, divided 60/40 against in a non-binding plebiscite earlier this spring. Depending on how the question is asked, British Columbians seem evenly divided on the issue, with polls showing up to 63 percent in support of the project provided conditions set by the BC government for its go-ahead are met. Polls of the entire Canadian population suggest that approximately three out of four support the development of pipelines, provided appropriate environmental protections are in place.
So what is the democratic way to proceed on issues which divide the population? Increasingly of late, the term "social licence" has entered into the popular vocabulary. Its proponents suggest that it is the "beliefs, perceptions and opinions held by the local population and other stakeholders about the project" that should be ultimately defining. The MP for the affected region, Nathan Cullen, adopted this logic in his Huffington Post article Monday, arguing that there is "no clear legal or democratic avenue to proceed" even if the institutional approvals would be in place. Mr. Cullen suggests that "blockades and civil disobedience" combined with litigation will ensure that the pipeline will never be built, regardless of government decisions. And he suggests that this "love of home" motivation is a triumph of democracy in opposition to a government that has not listened.
For those who argue that the lack of a social licence trumps the institutional democratic process, I have a simple question: is this really the sort of society in which you want to live? Disagree with the government by all means. Protest legally and raise your voices politically as loud as you can. Motivate your fellow citizens to make this the issue in the next election campaign and throw the bums out if you can. All of that is fair democratic game.
And in recognition of this, a government that would grant permission to the building of a pipeline and the companies engaged in this process would be well-advised to increase their engagement with affected communities. It remains in their political self-interest to ensure that those who are opposed—who admittedly are unlikely ever to agree based on core philosophic differences—have as little ammunition as possible with which to win over the less engaged public, whose views might be described as belonging to the "mushy middle" on this issue.
But to claim that thwarting legitimate public policy objectives that have been decided after due process because you disagree with the outcome, and justifying that disagreement as being more democratic because of some notion of social licence, is to pervert the concepts of both democracy and licence. Receiving a licence means receiving permission from someone authorized to grant that permission. Self-appointed advocates citing favourable opinion polls don't quite make the cut. Democracy in this context requires that everyone have a chance to have their say and have their arguments seriously considered. It cannot mean that everyone gets to have their way—something clearly impossible when public opinion is equally divided.
It has been long understood that the legitimacy of government action requires more than dotting the i's of technical process. Moral legitimacy is gained by following through on election platforms, by public opinion in support of that action, and by demonstrating careful and competent consideration of complex issues before making a decision. Recent notions of social licence being touted as establishing a legitimacy for actions outside of established democratic institutions and processes are concerning. While they are dressed up in language that is made to sound democratic, its characteristics have more in common with pre-democratic, "might-makes-right" notions of society. The call to apply for a social licence from an office that doesn't exist and which isn't ready to consider both sides of a question doesn't deserve the democratic adjectives with which it is described.