Real, early engagement needed to restore trust in energy decision-making: uOttawa/CWF report

Posted on Thursday, November 24, 2016

Canada needs to change the way energy decisions are made, according to a report released today by the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy project and the Canada West Foundation.

The report, A Matter of Trust: The Role of Communities in Energy Decision-Making, is the first to bring forward a deep, local community perspective to the contentious debate over the country’s energy future.

The report found consistently low levels of trust in energy decision-making authorities. In the communities surveyed, 62% of respondents said they don’t trust public authorities to make decisions about energy projects.

“The forces driving community conflict aren’t necessarily the ones that many decision-makers think,” said lead author Michael Cleland, senior fellow at the University of Ottawa. Local issues, including the environment, health and safety concerns, emerged as what matters most to community members, while climate change wasn’t considered to be as substantial an issue.

“Energy decision-makers — including policy-makers, planners and regulators — need to ensure that communities are engaged at the right time, in the right way and with a real commitment to take local concerns seriously,” Cleland says.

“What makes this tough is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Trevor McLeod, director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy at the Canada West Foundation. “Every community is unique, so the decision system must be designed to ensure communities are heard.”

“We need to be creative about how to strengthen local confidence in regulatory decision-making. This could include expanding membership on regulatory boards. People want to see people like them in decision-making positions,” said University of Ottawa professor Monica Gattinger, chair of the Positive Energy project.

Researchers completed case studies in six provinces:

Stephen Bird, uOttawa Centre on Governance

  • Gas-fired power plants, two in the Greater Toronto Area

Louis Simard, uOttawa Faculty of Social Sciences

  • Wind farm, St. Valentin, Quebec

Stewart Fast, uOttawa Institute for Science, Society and Policy

  • Fracking, New Brunswick

Shafak Sajid, Canada West Foundation policy analyst

  • Oil pipeline, Northern Gateway
  • Power line, Western Alberta Transmission Line
  • Hydropower project, Wuskwatim, Manitoba


The research team did in-depth interviews with a range of local residents, public authorities and opinion makers. Public opinion polling was also conducted to assess views of all community residents. The communities studied were diverse, featuring a mix of remote, rural, urban, Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

The case studies revealed that the debate over energy projects is often hobbled by lack of understanding about the scope of regulators’ decision-making power. Many community concerns are fundamentally about values, such as the qualities of a rural environment or traditional lifestyles. That means they may be difficult, if not impossible, to address through existing regulatory processes.

Canada West Foundation (CWF)

The Canada West Foundation focuses on the policies that shape the West, and by extension, Canada. We provide practical solutions to tough public policy challenges facing the West and Canada as a whole, at home and on the global stage.

University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy project

The University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy project uses the convening power of the university to bring together academic experts and key decision-makers from industry, government, Indigenous communities, local communities and environmental NGOs to determine how energy resources can be developed in ways that garner social acceptance.

Media inquiries

Sarah Foster
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa

Jamie Gradon
Communications Manager
Canada West Foundation

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