Analysis

Why Kinder Morgan and Russian interference in elections are more closely related than you think

Jason Kenney isn't saying the Russian government is influencing the debate over the Kinder Morgan pipeline by indirectly funding environmental groups opposed to it. He's just asking the question.

The fear that mysterious outside forces are corrupting debates is strong. That doesn't mean it's accurate

Protesters demonstrate outside the hotel where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting with California Lt.-Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday, February 9, 2018, in San Francisco. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Jason Kenney isn't saying the Russian government is influencing the conversation over the Kinder Morgan pipeline by indirectly funding environmental groups opposed to it. 

He's just asking the question.

"In whose interest is it that Canadian oil and gas does not get to global markets? Well obviously, it's in the interest of Russia, with the fourth largest reserves on earth," said Kenney, the leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party. 

He was in Vancouver Monday to discuss how he'd handle the dispute over Kinder Morgan with the B.C. government, should he becomes premier following Alberta's provincial election in 2019.

But he was happy to discuss an argument that has been gaining steam with pipeline supporters in recent weeks — the idea that opposition is being fomented by professional protesters whose funding is reliant on sources outside Canada. 

It's not a new argument, and it's not the central question in the pipeline debate. But it is certainly indicative of the times we live in.  

"I think we have legitimate questions to ask about the ultimate source of some of the funds that are being spent in Canadian politics to bottleneck our resources," he said.

"If the Russian government decided to deploy an organized social media campaign to attack U.S. energy, so there's less American energy exports, it's entirely reasonable to assume they might  have tried to do the same thing in Canada. I have no evidence of that, but it's a reasonable question."

Some protesters are more equal than others

Some might ask how the discourse over a proposed pipeline — one that has constantly been in the news for the last five years — could be subject to international manipulation, in a province well-versed in environmental movements.

For Vivian Krause though, this moment couldn't come soon enough.  

"Having spent my entire life savings and 10 years trying to bring this issue to the fore, yes, I am pleased. It's been an enormous amount of hard work," said Krause, whose blog Fair Questions has documented — either diligently or obsessively, depending who you talk to — where environmental groups and environmentally-focused politicians have gotten their money from.

Her work is receiving a new look by some, after the B.C. Liberals released a memo written by an environmental campaigner who works for 350.org, an American environmental organization with campaigns in Vancouver. The memo lists how the group could help organize large protests against Kinder Morgan and trains others to do the same. 

Which, to someone like former Dragons' Den panellist Brett Wilson, is tantamount to treason. 

"That was simply not happening in the days of the War of the Woods. Activism isn't what it used to be," said Krause. 

"The individual Canadians who sign online petitions or show up at protest, they're as Canadian as anybody ... but we cannot allow activism to be hijacked, as part of political interference from outside interests."

Conspiracies everywhere

The debate around environmental groups getting money from outside Canada isn't new. But the political culture is different than when Krause first started her work.

"It taps into a broader anger over globalization and anxiety about international trade," said Kai Nagata, a spokesperson for the Dogwood Initiative, which is campaigning against the pipeline.

"It's a simple story to say people from far away want to hurt you and your economic chances, so let's kill them."

Dogwood is fully based in B.C., but Nagata admits about 20 per cent of its funding comes from American foundations, and individual donors are not disclosed. 

"If it would increase public trust to have more intervenors subject to the same kind of rules as political parties in disclosure, we should have that debate," he said. "But in the meantime, we go above and beyond what's required of any non-profit."

And two can play the international game: in our interview, Nagata made reference to the fact that Kinder Morgan is ultimately a Texas-based company, and that Kenney began his public career with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which doesn't disclose its donors. 

That shows why the rhetorical attack is so potent: it's easy and emotionally effective to attack the motivations in a policy argument, rather than debate the policy itself.

Which is why Nagata prefers to focus on the merits of the pipeline — and is betting it's what will ultimately matter to those who live here. 

"The reality is there are thousands and thousands of British Columbians, who independent of any environmental campaign, feel strongly about the place where they live and are going to speak up and put pressure on their lawmakers," he said. 

"You could cut off all sources of out-of-province funding for environmental campaigns, and that wouldn't change the scale of public opposition to Kinder Morgan." 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.

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