Writing Democracy. Or not.

Writing a letter

Copyright © De-V/Shutterstock

by Donna Sinclair

When social justice types run out of new ways to make our voices heard, we can always fall back on writing letters. I like this approach. It gives me a chance to do research and offers the recipient a chance to read and reflect on my argument carefully.

Well we could always fall back on writing letters until now that is. This is the first time for me in almost 60 years of environmental awareness and activism (if you count lobbying my parents for a bike when I was ten) that even writing a letter is problematic.

It’s one (more?) signal that Canada is plunging into a significant democratic deficit.

Here’s what happened:

When I heard that Enbridge was looking for National Energy Board approval to reverse one of its pipelines in order to carry tar sands bitumen to Eastern Canada, I thought I should write to the board. Enbridge, after all, brought the American Midwest its biggest oil spill ever – over a million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It took Enbridge 18 hours to turn off the flow. They’re still cleaning it up. As a citizen of Canada, and a person of faith who believes in the holiness of Creation, I thought I could help the NEB with their deliberations by bringing the other-than-material values attached to the land by many Canadians to their attention.

It is my right as a Canadian. Always has been. But under the new rules about communicating with the NEB, I was now required to fill out a multi-page form requesting permission to comment in writing on the subject of Hearing Order OH-002-2013 -Enbridge Pipelines Inc.

It took me four days of reflecting and looking up terms, along with some computer skills I’ve never needed before, to ask permission simply to write a letter.

This seems a deliberate effort to disconnect us ordinary folk from a crucial aspect of a democratic state. It is spring. I am a gardener. I have other things to do than figure out what “the application to participate form described in paragraph 29 of the Hearing Order is provided in Appendix II of this procedural update” actually means, and where to find it. It’s disheartening to see the complexity of bureaucracy that has fallen like a net over the public participation process.

I managed to fire my application into the electronic ether. Then I mailed a hard copy of the 11 pages to the NEB. Then I informed Enbridge (three different people) that my application was on file with the board. A polite process advisor at the NEB began addressing me by my first name.

(I admit I took some pleasure in flinging about phrases like “consider this email as notification that my Application to Participate is on the NEB’s repository.” I might write a poem, I thought; I have never used the word “repository” before.)

Thirty-five days later, on May 23, I heard back from the National Energy Board. I am not allowed to comment. Not even a letter. My efforts to persuade the board that the land is sacred and we shouldn’t mess with it came to naught because in Northern Ontario I am too far away from Southern Ontario and Quebec (the land in question) to be affected. Also, my well-honed knowledge (70 years of Sunday worship, for starters) about some-things-being-holy isn’t an area of expertise the board finds helpful.

Here is their ruling:

Ms Sinclair applied to participate on the basis of being both directly affected by the proposed Project and having relevant information or expertise. Ms Sinclair supported these assertions on the basis of her religious beliefs and her Canadian citizenship in general. The Board is of the view that this is only a general public interest in the proposed Project. Further, Ms Sinclair lives in North Bay, Ontario, which is not in the vicinity of the Project.

The Board’s Ruling

In the Board’s view, these individuals did not demonstrate how they would be directly affected by the Project, nor did they demonstrate that they had relevant information or expertise that would assist the Board in its assessment. Accordingly, the Board has denied standing to these individuals in this proceeding.

This is a harsher blow to our democracy than you might think. The criteria for public participation in this matter of pipelines have been narrowed to a point where we cannot comment on climate change or water contamination emanating from the tar sands operations that produce the bitumen. We cannot express affection or principled care for any land beyond our own area. We cannot discuss the dangers of tanker traffic should the augmented line eventually make it to tidewater. We are silenced on a matter of urgent importance.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Donna Sinclair is an award-winning writer who has traveled widely in Canada, Africa, Central America, Britain, and Eastern Europe. She is the author of The Spirituality of Bread, The Spirituality of Gardening, A Woman’s Book of Days, A Woman’s Book of Days 2, and numerous other titles. Donna lives with her husband Jim in North Bay, Ontario. Her most recent book is The Long View: An Elderwoman’s Book of Wisdom (2011).

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Categories: Donna Sinclair, Ecology and Environmental Issues, Ethics, Featured, Peace, Justice, and Equality, World


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8 Comments on “Writing Democracy. Or not.”

  1. Eleanor Thompson
    May 31, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    This whole story is an outrage to the concern and desire to be heard in an issue of great importance to all those wanting a say in this pipeline issue and the environmental issues resulting from oil spills. As Canadians we need to be able to speak from wherever we live. Hopefully the senate issues will bring down this government and policies will change.

  2. Donna
    June 19, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    … Thanks for your comment Eleanor ..I am terribly concerned abut the erosion in our democracy and the rise in the power of transnational corporations. The great pacifist and physicist Ursula Franklin said (eloquently) that we were an occupied country.. occupied by the robber barons of capitalism. I think she was right.

    • July 28, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

      Actually Eleanor, I thought I would look up the exact Franklin quote because it is so appropriate and devastating.. She said: “We are occupied by the marketeers, as Nazi-dominated European countries were occupied during World War II. And like these countries we have a puppet government in place to run the country for the benefit of the occupiers.” That was written before the current government took power btw.

    • Kurtis Benedetti
      August 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

      Unrelated to this article but would it be possible if you could send me a personal email? I read that you are from North Bay and opposing pipelines. I from Dec-Line 9 Ottawa and we are working on a campaign in Ottawa to stop the Energy East pipeline. There is an open house being run in North Bay on the 27th and I would like to connect with other allies. My email is sax_player@hotmail.com

  3. Mark Hathaway
    July 24, 2013 at 12:21 am #

    This is indeed an outrageous violation of democratic principles. Can only experts give an opinion? And who determines whose expertise is relevant?

    Thanks, Donna, for at least making the attempt!

  4. Donna
    July 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    Thanks for your note Mark. It is the latter question I find most disturbing. It seems to omit the expertise of all those who cherish the holiness of the land, and who would seek to honour the treaties.

  5. Margaret Sumadh
    August 10, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    Hello Donna – and thanks to Jim and Maria for passing this on …
    I am part of East End Toronto Against Line 9. We applied for standing at the NEB. We were also told that we were too far away – 8 kms!!! Perhaps that logic rests on not caring a jot for one’s neighbours.
    Our tack has been that we ARE all affected, especially as the pipeline will cross all the waters that flow into Lake Ontario.
    We have done a lot of pamphletting and have another public meeting Aug 25th 2-4pm East York Civic Centre Coxwell at Mortimer. Thank you for the quote from Ursula Franklin. I see Kairos has made a statement on piplelines etc. I do not yet see one at UCC and have written the Gen Sec asking for policy (reply pending).
    Strength to your pen Donna and all who would give strength to communication and teaching each other.

  6. Donna
    August 15, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    Thanks Margaret.. Strength to you!

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