Over the past three decades, waves of activists and groups have attacked Canada’s natural resource sectors, first forestry and mining and then energy. Much of it has been over-the-top – excessive because the core approach is fundamentalist in nature, disdaining compromise and recognition of the reality that forest products, oil and natural gas are needed worldwide. Now, many of these same attackers wave away concerns over the effects of their efforts: fleeing investment, vaporized jobs, and gutted tax revenues.
Their latter-day response is akin to that of actor Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun. In front of a catastrophic accident scene, Nielsen sonorously tells the gathering crowd to “Move on. Nothing to see here. Please disperse!” For Canada, however, the results have been anything but fictitious comedy.
Two recent examples came from the Globe and Mail and Amnesty International.
First, a Globe editorial criticized the Alberta government’s formal public inquiry into foreign funding of anti-energy activism and the province’s coming energy “war room” being set up to combat disinformation about Alberta’s energy sector. The Globe sideswiped Vancouver researcher Vivian Krause, who had exposed foreign funding of anti-fish-farm campaigns in British Columbia in the early 2000s, and later found the same was going on vis-à-vis Canada’s energy sector.
Krause has presented voluminous evidence to advance her case. Yet the Globe relied on a single link referencing a part-time journalist to bolster its claim that “there is a good deal of doubt about Krause’s conclusions.” The Globe’s dismissal of Krause also glided over other possible foreign funding, from Russia, with a glib “As if”. It labelled Alberta’s inquiry “McCarthyesque”.
Earlier this month, Amnesty also attacked the inquiry and the war room. In an open letter to Alberta premier Jason Kenney, Amnesty’s Canadian director, Alex Neve, argued that the “Fight Back Strategy undermines and violates a range of Alberta’s human rights obligations, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law.”
Foreign-funded attacks on Canada’s resource sector go way back
Foreign-funded anti-resource activism in Canada began with attacks on British Columbia’s forest industry in the late 1980s. This was detailed in 2000 by the late William Stanbury, then a business professor at the University of British Columbia. Stanbury’s academic book chronicled how B.C. environmental groups over the previous decade had sought allies and funding in the United States for their fights against forestry companies. Some of these organizations later moved on to target Canada’s oil and natural gas sector, and once again sought American funding.
Over the past decade, Krause has done for the energy sector what Stanbury did for forestry. Her research revealed that anti-resource groups in Canada had received money from American foundations and wealthy individuals to attack Canada’s energy sector. The American influencers included the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Oak Foundation, the Sea Change Foundation, the Tides Foundation and the anti “Tar Sands” campaign from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
There was serious cash in the pipeline for anti-pipeline (and other anti-energy) work. These foundations wield endowments valued in the billions of dollars. They and other charitable foundations provided at least $75 million for campaigns to stymie Canadian pipelines and lock in the oil sands. Of note, Krause also found that one group, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, gave $200 million to activist groups in British Columbia alone between 2003 and 2018 for a variety of initiatives.
Krause’s most famous discovery was the anti-oil-sands campaign, initiated in 2008 care of a $7 million Rockefeller Brothers Fund. One of the several fund-related documents that later came to light listed five goals, including to fund legal challenges and to “stop or limit the expansion of up-graders, refineries, and pipelines.” Another document listed the Calgary-based Pembina Institute as a key player. In one document, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund highlighted the Pembina Institute’s role and listed a Pembina staffer as a key Canadian contact.
Anti-forestry and anti-energy activist Tzeporah Berman’s group, then named Forest Ethics, was another recipient and also heavily involved, just as it was in the 1990s anti-forestry campaigns. (Berman became among the most vocal if not vicious critics of the oil sands and its workers, yet was appointed co-chair of Alberta’s Oil Sands Advisory Group by the province’s NDP government in 2016, later returning to full-time anti-energy-sector activism.) And it continues: just this month it was revealed that Berman received $2 million plus “expert resources” from an unidentified American group to continue battling oil and natural gas development.
All that foreign money sloshing around in Canada had a severe impact. Anyone who has ever worked in the non-profit sector knows firsthand how much can be done with extra donations. I’ve worked at advocacy groups and think-tanks where I was often the only person handling multiple issues, be it Alberta budgets, property rights or corporate welfare, plus about a half-dozen others. Working full-time on just one issue or priority was never possible. An extra body or ten can enable an organization to pursue much more focused, intense and sustained advocacy or research.
The flood of foreign cash for anti-oil sands and anti-pipeline activity did exactly what was intended: make it difficult to start and finish new oil and natural gas projects in Canada. Capital investment declined dramatically even as it rose significantly in the United States.
In some cases, the foreign money also interfered in Canada’s political process. In its own post-election 2015 report, entitled Defeating Harper, the activist group Leadnow (partly foreign-funded by Tides USA) gloated over the effectiveness of its campaign: “The Conservatives were defeated in 25 out of 29 ridings, and…in the seats the Conservatives lost, our recommended candidate was the winner 96 per cent of the time.” Perhaps Alberta’s public inquiry will uncover other foreign-funded groups that have interfered in elections.
As for – pace the Globe editorial – dismissing potential Russian funding, such denial is naïve. Russia is a corrupt autocracy and its leaders, regime and companies pursue their own interests. Russia has interfered in dozens of countries over a period of centuries. One of the most infamous episodes of the Cold War – the Gouzenko Affair – took place in Canada. With such a record, there’s no reason to think Russia would view anti-energy advocacy or elections in Canada as sacrosanct. In May, the New York Times reported European Union concerns that Russia was targeting EU elections. I have no idea if Russia funded anti-energy activism in North America (a U.S. congressional committee argued that Russia has) but the question is surely worth investigating.
Foreign funding and free expression: the hysteria
If the Globe editorial was off-base, Amnesty International’s response was from another planet. Amnesty often does serious work in exposing genuine human rights violations around the world. But not in this instance. Instead, Amnesty’s Neve lectured Kenney and the people of Alberta using straw-man arguments based on imaginary or at least highly exaggerated concerns. He demanded respect and observance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that the province promote and protect free expression and that it “retract any inflammatory statements”. Rather than going after its critics, Neve said, the province should police the energy sector on just such matters.
In particular, Neve claimed, without citing evidence, that the province’s purportedly inflammatory rhetoric could trigger “threats and violence” and had exposed “environmental women human rights defenders to heightened risk.” He demanded the province refer such alleged threats to “the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or municipal police forces for investigation.” For good measure, Amnesty accused the premier and province of failing to recognize “the rights of indigenous peoples.”
The various demands seemed not to recognize that in a free and open society, it’s not against the law to be angry, nor to use what some perceive as “inflammatory rhetoric.” There are already laws against incitement and issuing threats that aggrieved individuals and organizations that feel threatened can avail themselves of. Free expression ranging from environmentalists criticizing energy companies to an Alberta premier criticizing what he thinks is misleading rhetoric is no threat to anyone’s freedom, no matter how heated the rhetoric becomes.
In keeping with the Alberta government’s new policy of pushback, Kenney slammed Neve in an open letter published in the National Post. Noting how he joined Amnesty in high school to “defend the rights of political dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and to oppose totalitarian regimes like those currently in charge in most major oil-producing countries,” Kenny accused today’s Amnesty of scattershot criticism all too typical of energy critics.
Of particular embarrassment to Amnesty, Kenney pointed out that he had received its letter just as he was meeting with leaders of northern Alberta First Nations “whose people have enjoyed prosperity precisely because of their partnerships with Alberta oil sands producers” – and who, pointedly, support the fight-back strategy. He also noted that after his swearing-in, he had hosted the first Alberta Government-First Nations gathering in years – attended by “46 of the 48 Alberta First Nations Chiefs.”
Moreover, other countries manage to illuminate foreign influences without impairing freedom of expression or association. In the U.S., the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 aims to ensure that foreign attempts to influence American policy and politicians are disclosed. Except for elections, it does not ban foreign donations or foreign influence but only makes them transparent. There is no reason Alberta shouldn’t pursue similar objectives using the policy and legal tools available to a Canadian province.
Actual threats to a free and prosperous society
Pace the hysterical claims: Might I suggest that the Globe and Mail’s editors and Alex Neve re-read (or read for the first time) John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty? Following that education, Amnesty should concentrate on actual injuries to a rules-based society and free expression. One worthy focus of Amnesty’s attention should be deep greens when they break the law and physically stop construction workers from building pipelines. Such activities are actual threats to a rules-based society. Another should be federal and provincial gag laws that severely restrict the ability of citizens and groups to advertise and lobby during election campaigns.
Given that hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into Canada from foreign sources for anti-forestry and anti-energy advocacy over the last three decades – even including interference in elections – it is long overdue that a Canadian government formally investigate and catalogue the phenomenon. The federal government should have done just that after the 2015 election. That is what Alberta is now doing.
Promoting prosperity and free expression in Canada
I was Jason Kenney’s principal policy advisor before the April 2019 election and also the chief architect of his party’s campaign platform. My view then and now is that foreign funding of think-tanks and advocacy groups in Canada should not be restricted. If energy companies don’t like what is said, they should raise and spend the money required to counter the misinformation. Instead, too many of them – including Alberta’s biggest energy corporations – not only refused to fight, they long funded anti-energy radicals such as Berman, as discussed in the C2C Journal article, Canada’s Stockholm Syndrome. They have been part of the problem.
Along such lines, all gag laws on free expression by Canadians during elections should be removed. Robust and unfettered debate during elections is core to a liberal democracy. The only exception should be continued restrictions on foreign-funded advocacy during election writ periods, because as the Leadnow example demonstrated, not everyone observed them in 2015.
Here’s what’s not a threat to a civil society and freedom: for the provincial government in Canada’s premiere energy province to fight back against radical demands that Canada commit economic suicide by destroying its energy sector. Neither Alberta’s inquiry into foreign funding nor its planned energy “war room” infringes on free expression. Exposure of foreign funding and pushback against fallacious arguments vis-à-vis Canadian energy are just that: a robust response, long overdue.
Mark Milke is an independent policy analyst and author. His newest book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations