Canada and the Environmentalist/Extremist Equation


A blog post on the website of Greenpeace Canada last Tuesday, written by Keith Stewart, placed into context the equation between environmentalism and extremism which authorities in Canada have increasingly sought to make since Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party won a majority government in 2011.

On 9 February 2012, the Canadian government published what they described as ‘Canada’s first Counter-terrorism Strategy’, in a document entitled Building Resilience Against Terrorism. The document referred to the ‘extremism’ of environmental and animal rights activists, comparing them directly to white supremacists, and their capacity for violence to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 2011 Norway attacks. Indeed, Building Resilience Against Terrorism was notable for engaging with the concept of ‘environment’ only in a negative sense; the document scarcely mentioned the natural world, but repeatedly referred to a postulated ‘threat environment’ caused by extremism.

This is, of course, a rhetoric of scaremongering. In November, Environment Minister Peter Kent had condemned as ‘treacherous’ two opposition MPs who visited Washington to express their disapproval regarding the Keystone XL pipeline project. Then in January, Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver had stated that environmentalists ‘threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda’, often funded by ‘foreign special interest groups’. The notion that charitable environmental groups receive foreign funding was used by the Harper administration to threaten their tax status.

These methods have their counterparts in the United States. Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline continue to be characterised as ‘a bunch of left-fringe extremists and anarchists’. Last March, four hundred Keystone protesters were arrested in front of the White House. They were labelled a ‘fringe minority’, taking an ‘extreme position […] well outside the American mainstream’, by Matt Dempsey of Oil Sands Fact Check. The resource is an initiative of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association in the United States for the oil and natural gas industry; and is supported by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, whose members produce 90% of Canada’s natural gas and crude oil.

The American Petroleum Institute is one of the biggest lobbyists in the United States. By the summer of 2013, they had spent $22.03 million at the federal level lobbying on behalf of the Keystone pipeline. In both 2013 and 2014, they spent in excess of $9 million lobbying the government. TransCanada, the Calgary-based company primarily behind the Keystone project, is a member. The institute provides educational material to schools; and runs a website called ‘Classroom Energy’, which encourages eager children to ‘Check out our fun and informative games highlighting advanced drilling technologies’.

Continuing on the theme of the links between information and research and big oil, Saturday saw the revelation that an academic at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Willie Soon, who is a prominent denier of man-made climate change (he argues that climate change is instead caused by variations in the sun’s energy), has received $1.25 million from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade. This includes $230,000 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation; while Soon continues to receive much of his funding courtesy of DonorsTrust, a fund which allows conservatives to sponsor causes anonymously. Also interesting this past week, Edelman – the world’s largest public relations firm – ended its lucrative and longstanding relationship with API.

In the United Kingdom too environmentalists opposed to fracking have been derided for their ‘nonsensical’, ‘extremist’ views, described as approaching a ‘Trotskyite politics’. In the United States at least, ‘eco-terrorism’ has a longer history, and there is some justification for the concept. But in the world which has built up since the September 11 attacks of mass surveillance and secret courts, the facile yet murky extension of the concepts of extremism – and of the means by which supposed extremists would be handled – to environmental protesters is distinctly worrying.

The ‘War on Terrorism’ routinely sees language overburdened, with words shifted equally from their popular contexts and formal definitions to become more widely encompassing. There is a concerted effort to present a ‘threat environment’ which is at once continuous and ever-changing, something old requiring repetition and new and demanding extension. Given this state of affairs, it is right to ask, for instance, whether December’s events in Sydney constituted a terrorist attack. When the sense of extremist or terrorist activity is extended to include environmental protests, it can easily be manoeuvred once more to comprise anti-capitalist demonstrations and protests over racial discrimination and police brutality. One of the most significant political developments of the week saw Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, propose that judges be entrusted with overseeing grand juries in cases of homicide or assault which involve both civilians and the police.

Keith Stewart’s piece discusses a leaked assessment, made last month by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which expresses concern over what it terms the ‘anti-Canadian petroleum movement’ (never mind that the hyphen – perhaps unintentionally – indicates an unspecified petroleum movement which is anti-Canadian, rather than a general movement against petroleum or a movement against the exploitation of petroleum specifically within Canada). According to the assessment, which cites research carried out in the process of ‘ongoing RCMP criminal investigations’, some environmentalists are using social media and live streaming to ‘promote a one-sided version of the actual events’. Meanwhile, Stephen Harper is pressing ahead with his ‘Anti-terrorism Act’: the name for Bill C-51, which was given its first reading in the House of Commons at the end of January.

The bill’s full heading suggests something of its convoluted nature: replete with new acts and amendments to previous legislation, the bill is entitled ‘An Act to enact the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts’. Among its many proposals, it will allow Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) to share information with Canada’s intelligence and security agencies without legal restraint; lower the threshold according to which terror suspects may be detained; and will make promoting terrorism a criminal offence subject to five years in prison, with websites perceived to be promoting terrorism able to be shut down by the courts and publications perceived to be promoting terrorism liable to be seized.

These proposals have been criticised as an affront to free speech. As Stewart notes, while the RCMP’s report was classed as a ‘Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment’, Bill C-51’s broad definition of activity which ‘undermines the security of Canada’ incorporates ‘interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to […] the economic or financial stability of Canada’ and ‘interference with critical infrastructure’. Thus the ground appears to have been laid for the ‘Anti-terrorism Act’ to target environmentalists hand-in-hand with conventional criminal terrorists. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, the extension of powers which Bill C-51 afford to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been depicted as the surreptitious creation of a secret police.

Stewart quotes at length the analysis of legal scholars Craig Forcese and Ken Roach:

‘The government proposes radically restructuring CSIS and turning it into a ‘kinetic’ service taking physical action well beyond intelligence collection — and competent to act beyond the law and even the constitution. We doubt the legality of this proposal. Moreover, it is a rupture from the entire philosophy that animated the CSIS Act when it was introduced 30 years ago. The bill amounts to an open-ended authorization of clandestine powers whose proper and reasonable application will depend on perfect government judgment, tempered (in some cases) by superb judicial judgment in a problematic, secret proceeding. It violates, therefore, a cardinal principle we believe should be embedded in national security law: any law that grants powers (especially secret, difficult to review power) should be designed to limit poor judgment, not be a law whose reasonable application depends on excellent judgment.’

The ‘Anti-terrorism Act’ and the careless virulence of Stephen Harper’s rhetoric clearly intend to set the agenda for this year’s general election, scheduled for 19 October. Harper continues to embrace divisive controversy, with his support for a ban on the niqab when taking the Canadian oath of citizenship criticised for stoking fear of Muslims. This is playing into his party’s hands, at least for the time being.

It is important whenever a government proposes extending its powers in the name of terrorism to remember that in Sydney, Paris, Copenhagen and beyond, the perpetrators of violence were already known to police and intelligence services: the pertinent issue being less one of identification and a lack of intelligence, more one of interpreting information more deeply and accurately.

A Kickstarter project worthy of support is aiming towards greater transparency regarding the relationship between Canadian politics and big oil. A team of journalists from the The Vancouver Observer, who were responsible for last year’s successful Tar Sands Reporting Project, are coming together to form The National Observer: a year-long undertaking which will allow in-depth daily reporting upon Canada’s energy sector and the environment. The Reports from the Energy Battlegrounds/National Observer project has been backed by Grimes.

Photograph by Sarah MacDonald, courtesy of her Vice News article ‘This Pipeline Project Will Transport More Oil From Canada’s Tar Sands Than Keystone XL’.

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