Canada denies suppression of oil-spill science, accuses Tsleil-Waututh of 'baseless accusations'

Carl Meyer
Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti takes questions from reporters in West Block on Parliament Hill on Dec. 12, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk

Dec. 18, 2019

Canada has denied that scientific reviews of oil-spill research were suppressed during Trans Mountain oil pipeline consultations, and accused Tsleil-Waututh Nation of being “misleading” and throwing out “baseless accusations."

Attorney General of Canada David Lametti has argued in a memorandum of fact and law submitted to the Federal Court of Appeal and obtained by National Observer that the reviews in question were "internal notes," not actual scientific peer reviews.

While the government did not deny another key argument from the First Nation — that the reviews had been altered between a draft and final version — the memo said these alterations were just "part of normal departmental review and approval processes."

Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN) “engaged in a pattern of making baseless accusations of wrongdoing” against elected and federal officials, Lametti’s memo reads. “These accusations were not only vexatious and untrue, they further delayed progress on substantive dialogue as Canada was forced to address them.”

Canada is addressing arguments this month from TWN, Coldwater Indian Band, Squamish Nation and others presented at the court in connection with the Trans Mountain expansion project.

The court is focusing on the government’s reinitiated consultations with First Nations, which were launched after an earlier court decision had quashed the approval of the pipeline in August 2018. The court had found that the federal environmental review was flawed and the government had not upheld its constitutional duty to adequately consult with First Nations affected by the project.

A lawyer for TWN had argued Monday that Canada had commissioned secret “peer reviews” of expert reports on oil spills that had been presented to the government, and federal officials only handed them over in late May, after consultations had wrapped up. TWN and other First Nations said in their own memo to the court that “Canada suppressed and altered the peer reviews.”

According to that memo, the documents showed that government scientists had agreed on a central issue raised in one of the expert reports — that diluted bitumen, a heavy oilsands product that’s been blended to make it flow through pipelines, would sink in freshwater in a matter of days, making it harder to clean. Instead, they said Canada maintained a view during an April meeting that diluted bitumen would take much longer — two to three weeks — to sink.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson speaks at an announcement at the University of Calgary on Dec. 17, 2019. Photo by Sarah Lawrynuik

'Relevant' scientific reports accounted for: Wilkinson

Lametti’s memo turns the tables on TWN, suggesting it was actually the conduct of the First Nation, not Canada, that “hindered the consultation process.” It dismisses the story of the peer reviews being suppressed and altered as “one of TWN’s unfounded allegations,” and challenges the First Nation to provide evidence to the court to support its claim.


“Canada did not suppress information from TWN,” Lametti’s memo states plainly. “To the contrary, Canada voluntarily shared internal notes that were prepared to allow for Canada’s engagement on diluted bitumen issues during the consultation meetings. These documents changed as time went on as part of normal departmental review and approval processes.”

Lametti’s memo goes on to argue that the documents were “simply notes intended to inform the consultation team,” and therefore should not be treated as actual scientific work by outside scientists to validate the findings of the expert reports. “TWN misleadingly calls them ‘peer reviews,’” the memo asserts.

“To the extent that TWN is relying on any of these matters as a basis for alleging that Canada’s consultation was flawed, they should be discounted.”

The expansion project, now being built by Canada through a Crown corporation, would nearly triple the capacity of the existing pipeline system, to transport up to 890,000 barrels per day of bitumen and other petroleum products from Alberta to a marine terminal in metro Vancouver.

Supporters say it is central to boosting economic growth and will give the government new revenues to fund a desperately needed low-carbon-economy transition. Critics believe the project will push Canada's climate change goals out of reach, and say the risk of oil spills damaging the environment and wildlife is too high.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-approved the pipeline expansion project on June 18, 2019, saying that the government had listened and responded to the concerns of dozens of Indigenous groups.

On Tuesday, National Observer asked Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson at an event at the University of Calgary whether he felt that altering the reviews in question was a concern.

“We took into account all of the relevant scientific-related reports, with respect to all elements of the project, before we took the decision to approve the project a second time,” Wilkinson said in response.

Wilkinson was in Alberta this week to meet with academics and experts focused on balancing the Trudeau government's twin goals of continued fossil fuel extraction with cutting carbon pollution to net-zero by 2050.

“The discussions around soliciting the input and active engagement in consultation and accommodation with First Nations communities up and down the proposed pipeline were deep and exhaustive,” the minister said.

“Having been part of that process, in my previous capacity as minister of fisheries and oceans, I would tell you that we went to enormous lengths to do that, we listened very carefully, we worked to respond to the concerns that were raised. And I do believe, as I think the government said at the time, that we have discharged our duty to consult and accommodate.”

— with files from Sarah Lawrynuik

[Top photo: Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti takes questions from reporters in West Block on Parliament Hill on Dec. 12, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk​]