Attack on 'radicals' sign of tougher federal strategy

If the federal government's salvo at environmentalists opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline this week came as a surprise to some, it was a welcome defence of an important economic project to others.

Government expected to get more aggressive in defending major economic projects

Pipeline debate heats up

11 years ago
Duration 10:51
Sierra Club executive director John Bennett and Ethical Oil spokesperson Kathryn Marshall discuss the public hearings for the Northern Gateway pipeline and whether opponents are acting on behalf of foreign interests

If the federal government's salvo at environmentalists opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline this week came as a surprise to some, it was a welcome defence of an important economic project to others.

The branding of opponents as "radicals" is part of a strategy to make sure the pipeline gets built, argues Tom Flanagan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff and an expert on aboriginal issues.

Flanagan said there is a concerted world-wide attack against the oil industry. Neither the government nor the industry paid much attention for a long time. But Flanagan said postponement of the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States was a wake-up call.

"Shrugging it off, I don't think, is good enough anymore. It's a battle and you have to start pushing back," said Flanagan, who is also a frequent contributor to CBC-TV's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.

But name-calling is only one part of the strategy. Pointing out uncomfortable facts is another.

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
In an open letter to the media Monday, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver pointed to a link between Canadian environmental groups and foreign donors.

Oliver said this connection meant foreigners were trying to negatively influence Canadian decisions about our economy.

"There are some radical groups and they're being financed by other radical groups in the United States who are trying to impose their particular agenda on what is a very important project," Oliver told CBC News.

Oliver told reporters Wednesday he was not branding all environmentalists as radicals, but he defended his letter.

"I thought we'd just get the facts out without being politically correct about it," Oliver said.

Environmental groups fear attack on funding

But environmental groups worry this is just the beginning of a campaign to discredit their work and possibly rob them of their charitable status. The federal Finance committee begins hearings into charities when Parliament resumes sitting at the end of January.

Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, believes environmental groups with charitable status are right to worry.

"One way to try to limit or shut down debate is really to have a strong and concerted attack back. And in particular to threaten on issues such as charitable status," said Robinson. This has a chilling effect on what organizations will say, according to Robinson, who said that's not good for public debate.

But some see the government's strategy as about more than just removing environmental groups from the debate.

"For quite some time it has been clear that the federal government is not very interested in environmental assessment and they have been looking for various ways to not just streamline but to minimize the application of assessment," argues Bob Gibson, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and an expert on the Canadian environmental assessment process.

He points to recent Environment committee hearings looking into the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act as an example.

Gibson believes there are plenty of ways to make the process more effective and efficient but he doubts that is what the government is interested in doing.

"The argument for efficiency here is not accompanied by any serious examination of how you get greater efficiencies while retaining the effectiveness that is necessary in these things."

 In the end, Gibson believes this is about money.

"I think they would want to have very quick approvals for any undertaking that looks like it is going to be economically attractive," he said.

Oliver has his own thoughts related to that point.

"We need to diversify our marketplace. We need to move to Asia to sell our natural resources. There is the potential of trillions of dollars of economic development, this is nation building," he said.

For Flanagan's part, he is happy the government has adopted a scrappier tone.

"The toughness is needed right now. You've got to signal that you're serious about this."

with files from Margo McDiarmid