Montana flashpoint for looming US-Canada war

Don’t say we didn’t warn you. From the The Missoulan, Feb. 8:

WHITEFISH – British Columbia’s top mining minister stepped down this week amid outrage at his anti-American sentiments, and Montanans who have been negotiating with the province over controversial coal projects were not sorry to see him go.

“Mr. Bennett’s resignation may clear the way for a more constructive government-to-government discussion,” said Dan Weinberg, a state senator from Whitefish. Weinberg’s district butts up against Bill Bennett’s, with only the international boundary separating the two. A wider gulf, however, might be the ideological divide.

“Let me be very direct with you, as you were with me,” Bennett wrote in a Jan. 29 e-mail to a Canadian constituent. “It is my understanding that you are an American, so I don’t give a s–t what your opinion is on Canada or Canadian residents.”

Bennett, 56, is a provincial lawmaker, a member of the Legislative Assembly, and until Tuesday he also held the Cabinet-level post of B.C. minister for mining. That put him in a position of influence regarding the Canadian Flathead, where companies have proposed various coal mining ventures.

Montanans have opposed those projects for decades, saying water quality and wildlife would likely be impacted in and around Glacier National Park.

Bennett has championed the mines, however, and has gone on the offensive with American lawmakers, including Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., whom he once said was not welcome in Canada.

Recently, Bennett received a note from Maarten Hart, a veterinarian, hunter and president of the Rod and Gun Club in Fernie, B.C. In that letter, Hart expressed concerns about new provincial hunting rules, saying Bennett’s government “bows to the almighty dollar and faces east three times each day (not to Mecca, but to Wall Street.)”

Bennett, in his response, focused on the fact that Hart, as a “landed immigrant,” was once an American citizen. He called Hart a “fool,” and said he was “dumb.”

Bennett wrote he was “not about to take that kind of bulls–t from someone who, for all I know, is up here as an American spy who is actually interested in helping the U.S. create a park in the Flathead.

“I will continue to work for hunters and anglers in the East Kootenay as I always have,” Bennett wrote, “and you will continue to be a self-inflated, pompous, American know-it-all.”

When news of the e-mail was leaked to the Vancouver Sun, Bennett resigned his Cabinet post.

And that, said Rich Moy, is not necessarily a bad thing.

For decades, Moy has been at the center of discussions between Montana and the province over upstream coal mining. He worked with a team of Canadian and American scientists who, in the 1980s, advised the coal projects be scrapped. Today, Moy works for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, as well as serving as chairman of the multi-agency Flathead Basin Commission.

For months, Moy said, he and others have been negotiating with Canadian leadership in an attempt to craft a “win-win” solution for the Flathead.

“But when you see something like this,” Moy said, “you have to question the sincerity of the B.C. government. We want them to work with us in good faith, and maybe, with Bill Bennett gone, we’ll have that opportunity.”

Moy said he was “shocked” by the anger in Bennett’s e-mail, “because we’ve been operating under the impression that the province did care what Americans thought.”

The e-mail, he said, was not about the ongoing coal mine talks, but rather “is an issue regarding the attitude toward Americans in general, and that’s what really disappointed me.”

Gordon Campbell, provincial premier, called Bennett’s e-mail “unacceptable” in the Vancouver Sun, and even Bennett told the paper it was “stupid and wrong.” He chalked up his “earthy” response to a rough life of bar fights and knife fights, and of never finishing high school.

But Hart was having nothing of it.

Bennett’s tirade, he said, was inappropriate, especially “for a man who is charged with representing sensitive mining and environmental negotiations with Americans.”

Weinberg – who went camping in the contested wilderness last summer with a group of Canadian lawmakers – said he remains encouraged that “we have a great deal more in common than we have disagreements.”

Recent meetings in Montana and British Columbia regarding the mine proposals “showed that an overwhelming majority of local residents agree that the transboundary Flathead Valley is a great place that should not be mined,” Weinberg said. “So it seems that most people on both sides of the border are in agreement.”

With Bennett gone, Weinberg said, the stage may well be set for a more collaborative approach to managing the shared ecosystem.

“I think most folks in Montana would welcome this opportunity,” he said.

Interesting that local resource conflicts are heating up just as there is tension in the corridors of power over perceived Canadian national insubordination to US global leadership.

See our last post on Canada.