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British Columbia Trudeau resolute on Trans Mountain pipeline expansion despite protests

A freighter is seen in the background as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tours a tugboat in Vancouver Harbour, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he accepts the likelihood of protests against his government's controversial approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, but they won't weaken his resolve on the issue and even First Nations have no veto on the project.

In his first visit to British Columbia since approving the $6.8-billion upgrade of the pipeline between the Alberta oil sands and the Lower Mainland last month, Mr. Trudeau defended the development as an inevitable necessity.

But the argument comes up against fears of spills associated with increased tanker traffic resulting from the expanded pipeline to the Lower Mainland. Those concerns have roused environmentalists, First Nations, Lower Mainland mayors and others with massive protests promised as a result.

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Asked what happens if the inevitable protests don't stop, Mr. Trudeau told a Facebook Live interview at the Vancouver Sun that questions about Donald Trump over the past year had taught him not to answer hypothetical questions.

"There are going to be protests. There are going to be people who feel strongly against this.," he said.

"At the same time, we know there are many people who feel strongly in favour of it, who understand we need to build the economy and protect the environment at the same time."

Mr. Trudeau, whom B.C. Premier Christy Clark had repeatedly challenged to come to B.C. and explain his government's pipeline decision, said critics will oppose the decision despite such federal measures as a new plan to protect Canada's oceans and put a national price on carbon.

"That's fine," Mr. Trudeau said. "People are more than willing to express their opinions, to campaign against me, and to support politicians who will agree with them, and not agree with me. That's fine. This is all part of our democratic process."

The Prime Minister acknowledged that First Nations such as the Tsleil-Waututh, who have launched a legal challenge to the project, are entitled to their views. "But no, they don't have a veto," he said, noting some First Nations along the route have signed benefits agreements.

Mr. Trudeau faced questions about the crisis of overdose deaths in B.C., the legalization of marijuana, political fundraising and other issues, but spent much of his airtime on the defence over his government's commitment to the Trans Mountain project.

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At one point, he cited his lineage to make the case. "[British Columbians] understand that a grandson of B.C. like me – the grandson of a fisheries minister no less – is not going to endanger these coasts and I wouldn't be making this decision if I wasn't confident we weren't going to be able to protect B.C. and its coasts," he said, referring to his grandfather, James Sinclair.

He described a cycle of accepting public concerns, and responding by highlighting the government response on the environment.

"You're going to have voices on either side of the debate. You have to respect those voices.You have to draw on their concerns and try to allay those concerns as best we can whether or not you can get unanimity on any given project," he said.

"Those are decisions a government has to make, and we're making those decisions in a respectful, responsible way that is consistent with the mandate we were given by Canadians."

He expressed some exasperation with critics of fossil fuels. "Where we have to recognize that we're not going to find common ground is in the people who say the only thing we can do to save the planet is to shut down the oil sands tomorrow and stop using fossil fuels altogether within a week."

He said the process of getting off fossil fuels will take decades as part of a responsible transition.

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The Prime Minister's visit comes after Alberta Premier Rachel Notley recently visited B.C. to make the case for the project, which Alberta and Ottawa see as key to getting Alberta oil to Pacific Rim markets.

B.C.'s Christy Clark has yet to fully declare her support for the project because its proponents have yet to meet the province's five conditions for supporting heavy-oil projects.

Mr. Trudeau rejected suggestions he had delayed his visit to B.C. "The fact is I have been criss-crossing this country regularly since I first got elected. There are lots of issues that matter to British Columbians. I have been here on the housing issue. I am here today on both pipelines and tug boats and fentanyl. I will always keep coming out here."

However, he also cited the presence of his 17-member B.C. caucus, including Burnaby North-Seymour MP Terry Beech, whom he acknowledged, "has had a lot of difficulty with this decision." Mr. Beech, first elected in 2015, was vocally opposed to expanding the pipeline.

Mr. Trudeau said he has been consistent on the issue since he launched his bid to lead the federal Liberals in in 2012 when he said, in Calgary, that one of any prime minister's "fundamental responsibilities" is to get Canadian resources to market while building a strong economy and protecting the environment.

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