British Columbians stuck in the middle struggle to decide what to do with natural-resource projects
The province has significant opportunities to help sell natural gas, coal and oil to Asian customers. But the associated pipelines, tanker ships and coal trains have attracted vehement public opposition.
It’s kicked off a dysfunctional public debate. Too often it turns into a polarized contest between entrenched interest groups with little regard for facts. And if you’re stuck in the middle of such a heated debate, how do you make sense of it to reach a sensible decision?
Why is the discourse so difficult?
The Canada West Foundation has some suggestions. A recent report from the Calgary-based think tank outlines what’s wrong with our public discourse on resource issues and what we can do to fix it.
Over the next few days, I’m going to share my thoughts on what I see as the most compelling points, starting today with a big one: Canadians have lost trust.
The report begins by stating that the issues we’re debating are old ones, but the context these days is new. And out of all the things that have changed since past resource debates “the most important may be the decline of deference and the mistrust of elites.”
Canadians have lost trust
Canadians are not as trusting as they used to be. According to the latest massive trust survey produced by the PR giant Edelman, barely half of Canadians who consider themselves well-informed trust government, while business fared a bit better.
On the bright side, Canadians are generally more trusting of institutions than people in other countries. The study found that 51 percent of Canadians said they trust government, a score several points higher than the global average of 44 percent. Also, 63 percent of Canadians said they trust business, compared to the global average of 58 percent.
Canadians tend to trust academics more than other spokespeople, with 73 percent expressing trust. For CEOs and government officials, on the other hand, the figures come in at an unimpressive 33 and 36 percent, respectively.
We need experts to get through complexity
Why does any of this matter? Because resource issues are complex.
It’s not easy to comprehend the impact that a new gas pipeline will have on a labour market, an economy or a government’s ability to build schools or hire nurses. It’s not easy to understand the environmental risks involved with moving energy products over vast terrain. It’s even more daunting to try to weigh these two complex issues against one another and decide what to do next. To build or not to build?
For issues this complex, we need expert advice. But what good is it if we don’t trust them?
My next post on this topic will look more closely at what we’ll have to do to get through this challenge: It’s our institutions, stupid.
Peter Severinson is the research director for Resource Works.