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Open Letter in response to Joe Oliver

By John Bennett, Sierra Club Canada Executive Director

January 9, 2012 (6pm EST)

The Federal Government is engaged in an unprecedented campaign to damage the credibility of the environmental movement. In the latest move, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (apparently replacing Environment Minister Peter Kent as the chief anti-environmentalist government spokesperson) submitted an “open letter” to the media. In it, he links “radicals and environmental groups” and charges they are against everything. 

As a father of three grown daughters and grandfather of one beautiful baby boy, I struggle with being called a radical. It’s true I work for a conservation organization. Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and has a long track record of drawing public attention to environmental issues and, perhaps more importantly, helping governments develop laws and policies to protect Canada’s magnificent natural heritage. Nearly every day I’m am contacted by individuals or groups asking for help with an environmental issue in their neighbourhoods.

I believe the public has adopted some of my “radical” suggestions over the years – that is if the rows of blue boxes and green bins, huge sales of energy-efficient cars and all those big companies touting their green records are any indication.  I thought these things were pretty mainstream, but following Mr. Oliver’s logic General Motors and just about every Canadian home owner is a radical!

Why has the Minister resorted to name calling? Apparently he’s upset that 4,300 people have asked to participate in the Northern Gateway environmental assessment joining with 100 First Nations who strongly object to the scheme.

An oil spill in the 1970s resulted in a moratorium on oil tankers off the BC coast. Successive Liberal, NDP, Conservative and even Social Credit governments have kept it in place because the people in BC support it.  Building pipelines over mountains to ship Tar Sands oil to China will not only require a lifting the moratorium – it will put some of our most pristine forests, lakes and salmon rivers at risk (not to mention the impact of climate change when the oil is burned).

Risks this big have naturally raised a lot of valid questions and thoughtful objections. People are just exercising their democratic right to be heard on an issue that will impact all Canadians, present and future. The purpose of an environmental assessment is to ask tough questions and hear the answers. Why does Mr. Oliver so strongly object to this? Do we no longer live in a democracy? Do our citizens no longer have the right to ask tough questions and express their opinions?

Mr. Oliver says “environmentalists and radicals” just want to delay the scheme until it becomes economically unviable - an interesting charge. But is that really what’s happening – is that really what we do? Is asking government to make sure development is economically and environmentally sustainable and in the best interest of local residents and Canadians just a delay tactic? Of course not.

Haven’t we already learned the hard way that NOT asking tough questions can lead to devastating unintended environmental consequences? Last week I saw a news report on the reestablishment of eagles in New Jersey. They had dwindled to one pair by 1980. Back then there was no environmental assessment of DDT - just assurances from industry and government that it was safe and good for the economy. The eagles, falcons and other birds of prey are thankfully recovering because of “environmentalists and radicals” like Rachel Carson who used their democratic right raise the alarm and ask tough questions. Thankfully the government listened to, rather than attack, environmentalists and acted before it was too late.

Mr. Oliver’s other point is that foreign foundations are influencing Canadian public dialogue. We are preached to every day that we are in a global market where goods and ideas no longer have borders. Soliciting foreign investment, we are told in the sermons of CEOs and government ministers, is keyto our future. The oil industry certainly seeks foreign investment ($100 billion and counting), including from the government of China through its state-owned oil companies.

It’s interesting how Mr. Oliver failed to raise concerns over revelations that Alberta secretly worked with the oil industry to develop a PR campaign and joint messaging to counter Canadians’ well-justified concerns about fracking. Further, recent press reports indicate that oil executives and their lobbyists have had the greatest number of meetings with ministers and government officials (including Mr. Oliver).

I guess that’s why we don’t see any feigned indignation from Mr. Oliver about big oil influencing Canadian policy.

My first interaction with a US foundation resulted in a campaign calling for California emission regulations (the gold standard) for all of North America. They heard Sierra Club Canada was campaigning for better fuel-economy regulations in Canada and asked if they could help. The plan was to pressure Washington and Ottawa to adopt North American standards based on the excellent California regulations. Was helping Canadians get access to more fuel-efficient cars and trucks a bad thing? We think not.

The reality is we share a continent with the United States which includes numerous eco-systems and migratory routes. We also share a largely harmonized regulatory system. We cannot protect our common environment without working together. Just as Canadian businesses work with US and global companies to further their interests, we work US and global organizations (including foundations) to further ours – protecting the planet!

The critical point to make -- and for Mr. Oliver to understand -- is the fact that Sierra Club Canada and other environmental organizations decide on policy and programs and then look for ways to finance them. It’s not the other way around as Mr. Oliver suggests. There is no tail-wagging-the-dog here, although Mr. Oliver would certainly like that to be the case for his misinformation and propaganda purposes.

I guess Sierra Club Canada and other environmental groups are doing a really good job to have gained the attention of the government. The responsible thing for the government to do would be sit down with all stakeholders (including environmentalists and First Nations) and work-out sustainable solutions. This is not a radical approach in my mind.

Unfortunately, bullies rarely compromise even when it’s in their own best interest.

John Bennett, Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada


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