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June 04, 2012

What on Earth Is Happening to Canada? Answer: Black Out Speak Out

Canadian tar sands

June 4 is "Black Out Speak Out Day" in Canada. It's not a holiday. It's a rare national day of protest against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's conservative government's attack on civil society organizations including labor, environment, immigration, and students. Over 13,000 Canadian websites will be blacked out in protest. Many U.S. groups, including the Sierra Club, will join in solidarity. How did this happen to our friendly neighbors to the north? Why did Harper become so oppressive? Canadians pride themselves in being reasonable, open to discussion, tolerant, process-oriented-a bastion of democracy.

Harper's attacks are happening for many reasons, not the least of which was the success of environmental groups in Canada, the U.S. and Europe threatening what Big Oil wants most: unlimited tar sands expansion and pipelines like the Keystone XL to send its oil around the globe. The tar sands are the second largest oil reserve in the world behind Saudi Arabia. From day one in office, Harper set out to make Canada an "energy superpower." He put the interests of the oil industry first and looked the other way when it came to enforcing laws about air and water pollution, endangered species, and the health of downstream communities. As a result, tar sands oil companies are destroying a pristine forest the size of England, accelerating the rate of climate change, causing thousands of wolves, bears, migratory birds, and caribou to die, and leaching toxic chemicals into rivers, as downstream communities experience a spike in cancer rates.

Harper has recently become the Tar Sands Advocate in Chief. His communications experts have brazenly tried to rebrand tar sands as "ethical oil," and he and his Ministers promptly incorporated the term into their rhetoric. At Copenhagen, Harper earned the Fossil Fuel Award for obstructing efforts to address climate change. He then sent government officials and lobbyists to the U.S. and E.U. to lobby against climate bills that would threaten the future market for tar sands oil. What he didn't expect was an American president to say "no" to an unsafe, toxic, high-carbon tar sands oil pipeline.

When President Obama postponed and then denied approval of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, Harper and tar sands oil companies became desperate fearing they can't get enough tar sands oil to market. The oil is landlocked, putting expansion plans at risk. The U.S. and Canada have all the tar sands oil they can consume, so oil companies have to get access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts where the oil can be exported to Asia, Europe and South America. Unfortunately for them, 100 First Nations have blocked the best Pacific route (the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline) and American environmental groups with the help of President Obama have blocked the best route to the Gulf (the Keystone XL pipeline).

The oil industry is getting desperate, and desperation breeds radicalism. Harper and Big Oil are desperate to cash in their wealth before fuel efficiency measures and the inevitable carbon pricing policies kill their market, so they need to disarm their opposition. To do so, Harper's government has threatened the charitable status (and thus the fundraising ability) of environmental groups who oppose tar sands, attacked them as pawns of U.S. interests, subjected them to onerous Revenue Canada reporting requirements to bog them down, and even accused them of "laundering money."

Meanwhile Harper has gutted environmental protection measures including rescinding Canada's Kyoto commitment, writing an entirely new and weaker environmental review law, removing protection for fish and the rivers they live in, making environmental review of projects discretionary, cutting Environment Canada's research and enforcement budget, and eliminating most citizen's legal standing to testify against tar sands pipeline projects. The list could go on.

"Black Out, Speak Out" is a warning that the Harper Government has gone too far. It has abused its social license by attacking civil society. This protest has brought together a diverse array of Canadians to defend their democracy and right to have an open debate about the future of their country. If civil society is suppressed, then who in Canada will conduct research that debunks their government's false claims, or publicizes its misdeeds, or exposes its too cozy relationship with industry, or sues it to require enforcement of existing laws? If the media is the Fourth Estate in a democracy, civil society is the indispensible Fifth Estate. To attack it in the interest of an oil industry that threatens our economic, social, and environmental future is unethical government and a threat to democracy itself.

Let us not forget that what's happening in Canada is exactly what is starting to happen in the U.S. as deep pocket oil industry giants like the Koch Brothers, Exxon, Conoco Philips, and Valero, spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect their candidates, like Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin. This is a small investment to insure they keep their billions in subsidies, slow the expansion of competitive clean technology, and guarantee more pipelines, more deep water drilling, more oil fracking, and high gas prices. This is an industry that will run us off the climate cliff to protect it enormous profits.

Hopefully Black Out, Speak Out will mobilize thousands of Canadians and Harper will learn that it's one thing to attack environmentalists and quite another to attack freedom of speech. If the Harper government pursues this repressive policy, it should expect the backlash to spread in Canada, the U.S. and in Europe. Radical opposition by government is an essential ingredient for building a movement.

(Photo: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute)

-- Michael Marx, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil Campaign

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