"Scary time" for Canada
Critics say they’re “dismayed” by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s anti-democratic and “McCarthy-esque” tactics, regarding regulatory hearings for the Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline.
ForestEthics whistleblower Andrew Frank claims that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office is resorting to threats to quell environmental opposition against the Northern Gateway pipeline. There have been conflicting reports on what actually happened at Frank’s organization, but for others in the environmental community his serious allegations come as no surprise.
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In an open letter and signed affidavit, the former ForestEthics communications manager recounted how representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office attempted to silence pipeline critics, alleging that they blacklisted the environmental group as an “enemy of the Government of Canada”. Frank claimed that the PMO threatened the charitable status of the prominent Tides Canada Foundation, unless they agreed to pull funding from ForestEthics.
Tides CEO Ross McMillan would not comment on Frank’s allegations, saying his depiction of interactions with the Prime Minister’s Office was “inaccurate”. PMO press secretary Andrew MacDougall has denied that the office made any of the statements reported in the affidavit, and Frank has since been fired from his position.
Regardless of whether or not the Prime Minister’s Office named the organization an “enemy” of the state, the feeling of tension amongst environmental groups on the pipeline issue is hard to ignore. For John Bennett, Executive Director of Sierra Club Canada, Frank’s claims are simply another sign of the Harper government’s aggressive tactics.
“I can’t really comment on what was said there, but I can tell you that I have personally been yelled at by John Baird when he was the environment minister,” said Bennett.
“So I’m not surprised that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office might say something like that. It certainly rings true with how they talk to us whenever we do get a chance to talk to anyone.”
Bennett compares the Northern Gateway debate to other environmental battles in the past, noting some key differences in political strategy. After Resource Minister Joe Oliver called environmentalists foreign-funded “radicals” bent on “hijacking” regulatory hearings, Sierra Club Canada was one of many groups under the spotlight for accepting international support. Bennett says that in his 35 years as an advocate, he has never before had to work so hard to defend his organization and their funding.
“We used to argue over the facts—our interpretation and their interpretation,” he said.
“But they wouldn’t be doing things like calling you enemies of the country. They wouldn’t be talking about where your financing comes from. These are all tactics that have been developed in the United States by the Republican Party as a way of creating politics of division. Because they’ve discovered that if you divide people then you can win office.”
“A scary time for Canadian democracy”
Bennett describes the current situation as very “McCarthy-esque”, with the addition of what he calls a “new wrinkle” that involves creating surrogate or “pretend” grassroots organizations that support federal policies.
“They test the lines with these surrogate organizations and then the politicians start to repeat them. So we have Ethical Oil talking about ethical oil, but then the Prime Minister’s saying exactly the same thing,” Bennett said.
Ethical Oil’s “foreign funding” smear campaign against environmental groups was one thing, but for many the idea that oil sands critics could be targeted and directly threatened by the government takes the issue to a whole new level.
Bennett says it calls Canada’s whole history of public debate into question—before now, he says citizens could expect the government to listen to the opposing views on a subject before making a decision.
“Instead, what we have is a government that makes ideological decisions and then goes out and attempts to stifle public debate. So this is a scary time for Canadian democracy,” said Bennett.
Liberal MP Joyce Murray says she is also “dismayed” at what she has seen from the federal government.
“It certainly puts a chill over the public discourse in our country that is at the heart of democracy,” she said.
“It’s a whole pattern that we in the Liberal Party consider anti-democratic, of stifling independent voices. And we’ve seen that in a whole range of sectors. It’s a very strong pattern,” said Murray.
In an interview with the Observer, she listed a number of incidents where politicians and public officials have lost jobs or faced other consequences for speaking out—from the Veterans Ombudsman to Statistics Canada staff.
“When the RCMP Complaints Commissioner wanted to speak up, essentially he was sidelined. When the Nuclear Safety Commission chair Linda Keane spoke up for the shutdown of a facility for safety reasons, she was fired essentially in the middle of the night,” Murray recalls.
“So there’s been a systematic muzzling, sidelining, firing of high-profile and respected independent voices that might not agree with this particular government’s ideology, and I think we’re just seeing part of that pattern.”
Regulatory hearings before the Joint Review Panel have already begun, with over 4,000 groups and individuals signed up to share their perspectives on the Northern Gateway pipeline. But with all the rhetoric and accusations flying around, some people are losing confidence in the integrity of the process.
“Because it was a panel hand-picked by the government, and the scope determined by a government that is openly in favour of one particular outcome, they have further damaged the integrity,” said Murray.
According to the Vancouver-Quadra MP, the political argument around “hijacked” regulatory hearings lays the groundwork for the government to undermine and weaken the country’s entire environmental assessment (EA) process, not only regarding the Enbridge pipeline but for every future industrial development.
“I think this is a coordinated communications strategy coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office, that is intended to begin dominating the discourse around EA in general,” she said.
Murray stresses that Liberal politicians like herself are still pro-development, but says it must be done in a way that acknowledges and respects all involved.
“We’re not anti-economic development. But we think it’s very important that the public and the environmental groups—or anyone who feels that they have something to contribute—has their say at this Joint Review Panel,” she said.
Rob Fleming, NDP MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake and the party’s environment critic, is one of the individuals registered to speak at the hearings.
“I think it’s shameful that the Harper Conservatives have tried to polarize a genuine debate about British Columbia and its natural environment, and the clean marine environment that supports jobs in British Columbia. We have every right to be concerned,” said Fleming.
“I think in trying to bully the perspectives of those who may have criticisms of the Northern Gateway pipeline, they’re also putting political pressure on the independent panel and making it more difficult to do their job.”
While some believe the panel will act independently despite this political pressure, others say their final decision won’t hold much weight. For Bennett, the federal government’s arguments are an indication of what they plan to do in the months to come.
“I think what they’re really trying to do here is create a justification for shutting down the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings,” he said.
“They’re going to let them go for a little while, and then they’re going to curtail them and they’re going to just announce that the pipeline’s going to be built. And then of course, we’ll all be going to the Supreme Court and there will be people lined up across the construction lines. It will be a huge battle, but this government is just going to say they’re going to do it.”