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It’s Official

Leaked documents reveal Harper government’s active targeting of anti-oil sands organizations

by Adam Kostrich


Documents obtained by the Climate Action Network via access to information legislation reveal that the Harper government drew up lists of “adversaries” and “allies” to the Athabasca oil sands in March of last year.  

The document, entitled the Pan-European Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy, states that it was produced in order to “refram[e] the European debate on oil sands in a manner that protects and advances Canadian interests related to the oil sands and broader Canadian interests in Europe.” It was created in response to EU sensitivities about the emissions-intensive nature of the Alberta oil sands project around the time of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of December 2009. 

In a list of principal actors, the document labels environmental NGOs and Aboriginal groups as adversaries of government economic interests, and lists the National Energy Review Board and energy associations such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Consumer Energy Alliance as allies.

Shortly after its release, the leaked report was supplemented by Greenpeace’s release of a copy of minutes from a meeting of government and oil representatives, obtained under the same legislation. Attendees of the March 2010 meeting included the deputy ministers of Alberta Environment and Alberta Energy, and David Collyer, the President of CAPP.

Stated goals of the meeting included CAPP “upping their game on oil sands outreach” and “turn[ing] up the volume on the existing approach,” denoting an effort to both expand and intensify attempts to gain public support.

Environment Minister Peter Kent stated that the documents are not indicative of the government’s approach to defending the reputation of the oil sands. But the government’s rhetoric is not well received by those who oppose oil sands expansion, the same individuals who have long been implicitly labeled “anti-Canadian” by government communiqués.

“While not surprising, Harper’s ongoing criminalization of Indigenous people is extremely disturbing,” Indigenous and environmental activist Clayton Thomas-Muller told the Leveller.

“The blanket labeling of Aboriginal groups as adversaries of Canada’s economic agenda is another instance of the two-faced bold lies that the Harper government is so comfortable operating in,” he said, referencing the fact that the Pan-European Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy papers were exposed on the eve of a Crown meeting between the Harper government and Aboriginal leaders.

Commenting on the influence of the oil industry in shaping public opinion through the media, Thomas-Muller said, “it’s a disproportionate playing field,” citing a $24 million public relations campaign undertaken by public relations firms such as Ethical Oil and CAPP. Both the Harper government’s duplicity and its relationship to Canadian oil companies, Thomas-Muller says, “tears at the very fabric of democracy.” In his view, this is not an accident.

“What there is right now is a skewed and polarized portrayal of these issues, and as long as it is so polarized there is no debate.”

On the issue of polarization, journalists and academics have drawn parallels between the Harper government’s list and the infamous lists drawn up by US Senator Joseph McCarthy, who worked feverishly to associate political dissent with disloyalty during the 1950s, and the “with us or against us” approach of former US President George W. Bush.

The report gives some context to the Harper government’s recent behaviour, which blurs the line between the economic interests of big business and Canadian interests.

At the Durban Conference in December 2011, Canada walked tenderly around commitments to reduce or limit carbon emissions before backing out of the Kyoto Protocol altogether after the conference had ended. All this in the name of ensuring economic stability – which in this case means continued profit growth for business. 

Last month, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver memorably accused “radical” groups – his loose definition of which seemed to include any coherent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and whom he claims are sponsored by “foreign money” - of attempting to “hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.” He claimed that these groups were receiving funding from “foreign special interest groups” to undermine the Canadian economy, “no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth.”

Minister Oliver’s comments about foreign money and hijacked regulatory systems seem more applicable to the government of Alberta than to political dissidents.

At a speech given during September 2011’s Canada-Asia Co-operation Energy Conference, Minister of Alberta Energy Ron Leipert said that Chinese industry had invested some $15 billion in the oil sands in 2010, in part because more than half of the world’s oil reserves accessible to private investment are in Alberta. In addition, China has pledged $2 billion towards the construction of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific coast, which is being met with staunch opposition from environmental and Indigenous groups. Foreign money indeed.

As for “attempts to hijack the regulatory system,” the CAPP delegation stressed to Alberta government representatives in a 2010 meeting the “opportunity cost” for intensifying public relations campaigns. They explained their “desire for coordination between industry and the federal and provincial governments on this issue.” This begs the question – who desires this coordination if it takes place outside the democratic process, and who is primed to benefit from it?

Increasingly transparent cases of the Canadian oil industry and the Harper government working in tandem to puppeteer public opinion on economic and environmental issues show that the Harper government prefers a welcoming business climate to a habitable environmental climate. Expanding oil sands production at the expense of Canada’s international reputation and the natural environment is an issue of respect. Respect for Indigenous rights, the democratic process, and the natural environment are losing the battle against the reverence of the almighty dollar.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 4, No. 5 (Feb. 2012).


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