Demonization of environmentalists stifles debate

Author: 
George Heyman
Source: 
Vancouver Sun
Date published: 
Mon, 2012-01-16

On Jan. 9, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver penned an open letter to Canadians that lumped environmental organizations and advocates with un-named "other radical groups." The letter came three days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper parroted the aggressive oil lobby, suggesting that public hearings reviewing the Enbridge pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the British Columbia coast at Kitimat and coastal crude oil tankers were being "hijacked" by "foreign interests."

Harper made his comments the same week that a supposedly volunteer interest group named Ethical Oil ran ads reminiscent of infamous United States-style political attacks. The ads, whose funders remain secret, portray a well-respected Canadian environmental law group as a puppet dangling from the strings of a foreign master with bags of money in hand. More troubling is the prime minister's clearly stated belief that only the Conservative view of economic development is the viable one, that "Conservative values are Canadian values."

Those who warn about dire and lasting environmental consequences from oil spills off British Columbia's spectacular coastline or in its northern fish-spawning rivers are vilified by Harper and Oliver as "ideologues" blocking needed development and job creation. The idea that there is a different, and equally legitimate, view of sustainable and long-lasting economic development - one that would bring greater benefit to Canadian families than to Chinese, Korean, European and U.S. shareholders - is "foreign" to them.

According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, foreign companies poured nearly $20 billion into the oilsands from 2007 to 2010 alone. Chinese oil giant Sinopec has pumped $10 million into the Enbridge pipeline project on top of a nine-per-cent, $4.65-billion stake in Syncrude Canada, helping to fund a strong and influential lobby dedicated to project approval. Oliver said that massive foreign investment in the Canadian energy industry is necessary for development, yet he characterizes comparatively minuscule foreign donations to environmental organizations as "billionaire socialists" promoting an "ideological" agenda. This might be laugh-able if it weren't so serious a threat to our open democratic processes.

This demonization of opposing social and economic viewpoints is worryingly reminiscent of the McCarthy witch-hunts in the mid-twentieth century United States. McCarthy and his followers succeeded for over a decade in silencing dissent and liberal viewpoints by branding them as anti-American.

The current rhetoric from Harper, Oliver and Ethical Oil is intended to marginalize legitimate debate on the crucial social, economic and environ-mental issues facing all Canadians. It ignores the fact that, despite the Conservatives holding a commanding majority of seats in Parliament, more than 60 per cent of voting Canadians supported viewpoints and parties other than theirs in last May's election. It ignores in this case the strong opposition of first nations along the pipe-line route and down the coast, nations whose land claims remain unsettled.

A Conservative government eliminated the Foreign Investment Review Agency and negotiated the first free trade agreements over 25 ago. We live in an age of economic globalization. It is a self-serving smokescreen to pro-pose that the voices questioning the massive expansion of oilsands bitumen extraction, and its dangerous transport across B.C.'s northern rivers and down our coastline, lack legitimacy because their work is supported with a small proportion of foreign funding.

Economists warn that unchecked global warming will mean severe economic costs and consequences in the not so distant future. British Columbians are already seeing serious impacts on our lumber industry as warmer weather has led to massive beetle kills in our forests. Unseasonably temper-ate weather in parts of Canada known for deep snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures has been making headlines this winter.

B.C. has more than 50,000 jobs in coastal fishing and tourism. Our commercial and recreational salmon fishery is worth more than half a billion dollars annually. Compared to 200 permanent pipeline-related jobs - and the possibility of a few more temporary jobs in oil spill cleanup activity - B.C. already has a significant conservation-based economy well worth protecting.

Thousands more jobs could be created in energy-efficiency retrofitting and other technological development that will contribute to reducing green-house gas emissions. These total tens of thousands more jobs than B.C. will ever see from piping carbon intensive fuels through our fragile northern and coastal ecosystems, bringing us closer to an environmental and economic crisis and further from finding and kick-starting the low-carbon alter-natives we know are critical to stop global warming before we reach critical tipping thresholds.

Canadians deserve better from our leaders than stifling legitimate debate about our economic choices and alter-natives. We deserve better than jingoism aimed at muzzling Canada's tradition of vibrant environmental advocacy, a tradition that has pre-served much that Canadians intensely value. We deserve a government that respects the fact that 60 per cent of Canadians did not vote for them - a government that respects democratic processes which allow an array of Canadian voices to be heard in crucial policy decisions with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.

George Heyman is executive director of the Sierra Club BC, a non-profit environmental organization.

   

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