Symbolic Keystone pipeline gesture divides two neighbours

The early decades of the 21st century may be looked back on as the time when a sea change took place in our relationship

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Keystone pipeline

NEW YORK Nov. 15, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The dead horse that is the Keystone pipeline has finally – many would say mercifully – been shot behind the barn. The entire seven-year debate and ultimate decision signifies far more than the end of a massive construction project which would have bisected the continent from Alberta to Texas.

Of greatest interest is the way that both the U.S. and Canadian governments viewed the project through different eyes and reached different conclusions. Former prime minister Stephen Harper and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau support it. U.S. President Barack Obama and his possible successor, Hillary Clinton, oppose it.

It brings to mind how the world’s longest shared border is marked by geographical wonders that also look different, depending on where one stands.

Anyone who has visited Niagara Falls, as seen from the Canadian side, cannot help but find themselves in awe of the breathtaking cascade of water exploding into Lake Ontario from Lake Erie. There is an almost primal feeling experienced by the onlooker despite the inevitable kitsch of the surroundings.

Niagara Falls is perhaps one of the most dramatic visual symbols of both the divide and union between the United States and Canada – at least one provided by nature. Certainly there are man-made structures that symbolize the same. Bridges and busy border crossings evoke commerce and trade – they bring to mind human and consumer interaction between the two nations.

We are not used to having concerns of commerce ignored while those of nature are invoked – which is why it was interesting to hear Obama reject the Keystone XL pipeline using words that had nothing to do with economics. He said, “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change, and frankly, approving this project would have undercut that leadership.”

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton chimed in on Twitter saying that is was “time to make America a clean energy superpower.”

In responding to the Obama administration’s long expected rejection, TransCanada CEO Russ Girling’s comments are unintentionally relevant. “Today, misplaced symbolism was chosen over merit and science – rhetoric won out over reason.”

What the CEO fails to realize is that symbols and symbolism are often far more powerful than what any one person or company perceives as reality; that rhetoric and symbols are the foundation upon which fundamental shifts in societal orientation are built.

When Obama made the Keystone pipeline announcement, he was flanked by Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. To an American eye, the President of the United States making an announcement flanked by two of the top people in his administration is very symbolic indeed. The “optics” signal that what the president is saying is going to be of great import – hardly what one would expect for a pipeline project while the country is engaged in a war on terror.

Environmental concerns may accomplish what generations of trade, shared geography and cultural integration have not – they may finally make the U.S.-Canada relationship one of heightened mutual awareness based on a global, rather than a privately shared, North American perspective.

But back to Niagara Falls – actually the collective name for three falls. Both sides of the border also boast small cities with that name. From the American side, only a sliver of the world famous Horseshoe Falls can be seen.

Which brings up the issue of perspective and placement. Although looking at the same thing, it will be interesting to see if Canada and the United States share the same view and vision regarding climate change.

If so, then the early decades of the 21st century may be looked back on as the time when a sea change took place in our relationship. If not, then both countries may find themselves in different barrels going over the same falls.

Gavin MacFadyen is a lawyer and freelance writer living in New York State. Gavin is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan. You can follow Gavin at

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