Conservatives defend calling Northern Gateway pipeline activists 'foreign radicals'

 Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says he isn't opposed to all environmentalists - just the foreigner ones who are trying to damage Canada's interest.

"We are not demonizing,'' Oliver said Monday after releasing a letter that referred to "environmental and other radical groups'' trying to "hijack'' with foreign money hearings on a pipeline that would bring Alberta oilsands bitumen to port at Kitimat, B.C.

"I have not called everybody radicals, nor do I think they are, nor do I think they're trying to stop every kind of development. But there are some that do.

"I thought we'd just get the facts out without being politically correct about it.''

Environmentalists - who called Oliver's letter everything from appalling to a hyperbolic rant - pointed out the vast majority of the people and money behind their campaign against the proposed Northern Gateway project is Canadian.

They released a poll taken last spring that suggests British Columbians are much more concerned about foreign money funding the oilpatch.

Policy experts criticized the letter for singling out Canadians who have concerns and wondered if the government is setting the stage for further attacks on environmentalists and the regulatory process.

"I'm appalled that the minister responsible for the National Energy Board would so brazenly demonize and discredit legitimate Canadian voices in this process,'' said George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia political scientist who's studied such issues for years.

"It's remarkable that they're saying these things.''

Oliver said in the letter that foreign-funded environmentalists and jet-setting celebrities are trying to further a "radical ideological agenda'' during hearings into Enbridge Inc.'s proposed $5.5-billion proposed pipeline, which are to begin Tuesday.

"Their goal is to stop any major project - no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams,'' Oliver wrote.

In an interview, Oliver said he didn't mean to describe all opponents that way.

"There are people with legitimate concerns and interests, including people in British Columbia on the coast. They have every right to express their legitimate concerns on environmental impact.''

The problem, he said, is when people start lining up to appear at the hearing not to bring forward new perspectives, but to slow things down.

"We just don't want the system gamed. We want it to take as much time as needed, but no more.

"In a court environment, if there's a group of people concerned, they wouldn't all be heard. The courts would take notice of their numbers, but if they all had the same thing to say, once their view is heard, it doesn't have to be heard again and again and again.''

Oliver's targets shot back Monday, saying one man's red tape is another man's hard look.

"Although minister Oliver and Prime Minister Harper may think this is a dictatorship and whatever they say goes, it's actually a democracy,'' said Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative, a Victoria-based group that opposes the pipeline.

"This aggressive language that they use with anybody who disagrees with them is indicative of their approach to governing.''

Environmentalists released an online poll of 830 adults taken last April that found about 15 per cent of respondents were concerned about U.S. funding of Canadian non-governmental organizations. The same poll found nearly 75 per cent of respondents were worried about Americans investing in Canadian natural resources.

The conservationists pointed to a series of polls over the last few years that consistently suggest about three-quarters of respondents oppose tanker traffic along B.C. coastlines. They say the great majority of their funding is Canadian - 80 per cent in the case of West Coast Environmental Law and 86 per cent for the Dogwood Initiative.

Oliver said he isn't bothered by the hundreds of millions that flow into the Canadian oilpatch from everywhere from France to China.

"There is not enough capital in this country to finance (oilsands development), so we welcome capital from other countries. These are countries that are supplying billions of dollars of capital to help build critical infrastructure to help us in our overarching objective, which is to move our resources from where they are to the new markets.''

Jessica Clogg of West Coast Environmental Law said that if anyone is importing U.S. influences, it's the pipeline advocates.

"In recent days, we've seen the petroleum industry advocates use misleading U.S.-style attack ads in an attempt to discredit the fierce local and First Nations opposition,'' she said.

"There have been a number of signals of a threat that federal environmental assessment legislation is on the cutting block. It would be a very sad thing indeed if the misleading information and attack ads from petroleum lobby groups were to create the political space for what would be a very sad turn of events.''

Green party Leader Elizabeth May wrote her own letter in which she suggested Oliver has been taken over by the "spin machine'' in the prime minister's office, which has in turn been hijacked by lobbyists from foreign oil companies.

"You should not have signed such a hyperbolic rant,'' she wrote.

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