For decades, the world has thought of Canada as America’s friendly northern neighbor — a responsible, earnest, if somewhat boring, land of hockey fans and single-payer health care. On the big issues, it has long played the global Boy Scout, reliably providing moral leadership on everything from ozone protection to land-mine eradication to gay rights. The late novelist Douglas Adams once quipped that if the United States often behaved like a belligerent teenage boy, Canada was an intelligent woman in her mid-30s. Basically, Canada has been the United States — not as it is, but as it should be.
But a dark secret lurks in the northern forests. Over the last decade, Canada has not so quietly become an international mining center and a rogue petrostate. It’s no longer America’s better half, but a dystopian vision of the continent’s energy-soaked future.
That’s right: The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction — oil. Flush with visions of becoming a global energy superpower, Canada’s government has taken up with pipeline evangelists, petroleum bullies, and climate change skeptics. Turns out the Boy Scout’s not just hooked on junk crude — he’s become a pusher. And that’s not even the worst of it.
With oil and gas now accounting for approximately a quarter of its export revenue, Canada has lost its famous politeness. Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country’s most significant long-cherished environmental laws.
The author of this transformation is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a right-wing policy wonk and evangelical Christian with a power base in Alberta, ground zero of Canada’s oil boom. Just as Margaret Thatcher funded her political makeover of Britain on revenue from North Sea oil, Harper intends to methodically rewire the entire Canadian experience with petrodollars sucked from the ground. In the process he has concentrated power in the prime minister’s office and reoriented Canada’s foreign priorities. Harper, who took office in 2006, increased defense spending by nearly $1 billion annually in his first four years, and he has committed $2 billion to prison expansion with a “tough on crime” policy that ignores the country’s falling crime rate. Meanwhile, Canada has amassed a huge federal debt — its highest in history at some $600 billion and counting.
Liberal critics like to say that Harper’s political revolution caught many Canadians, generally a fat and apathetic people, by surprise — a combination of self-delusion and strategic deception. That may be true, but though Canadians live in high latitudes, they’re not above baser human instincts — like greed. Harper is aggressively pushing an economic gamble on oil, the world’s most volatile resource, and promising a new national wealth based on untapped riches far from where most Canadians live that will fill their pocketbooks, and those of their children, for generations. With nearly three-quarters of Canadians supporting oil sands development in a recent poll, Harper seems to be selling them on the idea.
It gets better
THE SINGLE-MINDED PURSUIT of this petroproject has stunned global analysts. The Economist, no left-wing shill, characterized Harper, the son of an Imperial Oil senior accountant, as a bully “intolerant of criticism and dissent” with a determined habit of rule-breaking. Lawrence Martin, one of Canada’s most influential political commentators, says that Harper’s “billy-club governance” has broken “new ground in the subverting of the democratic process.” Conservative pollster Allan Gregg has described Harper’s agenda as an ideological assault on evidence, facts, and reason.
To be fair, Harper’s government does have a plan for climate change — pumping the problem to the United States and/or China. Oil sands crude transported to the United States by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, for example, could over a 50-year period increase carbon emissions by as much as 935 million metric tons relative to other crudes. And the planned $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean would result in up to 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, from extraction and production in Canada to combustion in China — more than British Columbia’s total emissions in 2009. The 2012 National Inventory Report by Environment Canada, the country’s environmental department, actually boasts that Canada has partly reduced overall emission intensity in the oil sands “by exporting more crude bitumen.”
All this underscores Canada’s new reality: Just about any kind of rational evidence has now come under assault by a government that believes that markets — and only markets — hold the answers. Any act that industry regards as an obstacle to rapid mineral extraction or pipeline building has been rewritten with a Saudi-like flourish. One massive omnibus budget bill alone changed 70 pieces of legislation, gutting, for example, the Fisheries Act, which directly prohibited the destruction of aquatic-life habitats but stood in the way of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which must cross 1,000 waterways en route to the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, funding for Canada’s iconic park system has been cut by 20 percent in what critics have called a “lobotomy.” The CBC, the respected state broadcaster long scorned by Harper as an independent check on power, has suffered a series of cutbacks. The Health Council of Canada, which once ensured national health standards and innovation across Canada’s 13 provinces and territories, also got the ax. Furthermore, with the élan of a Middle Eastern petroprince, Harper appointed the head of his security detail to be ambassador to Jordan. And he did it all with nary a peep from your average Canadian.
More than a decade ago, American political scientist Terry Lynn Karl crudely summed up the dysfunction of petrostates: Countries that become too dependent on oil and gas riches behave like plantation economies that rely on “an unsustainable development trajectory fueled by an exhaustible resource” whose revenue streams form “an implacable barrier to change.” And that’s what happened to Canada while you weren’t looking. Shackled to the hubris of a leader who dreams of building a new global energy superpower, the Boy Scout is now slave to his own greed.
I would argue some of these points. Canadian’s have risen up through Idle No More and we have protested much of what is going on. The issue seems to be that neither oppositon party seems to be able to get any traction on these issues and articulate them in a way where it hurts the Conservatives until recently.