In the era of holy-shit-Donald-Trump-might-actually-become-Commander-in-Chief, it's really easy for Canadians to get a bit smug about the state of our political discourse. On Friday, New York Times writer Josh Barro even jumped on the maple leaf bandwagon, concluding that the Canadian federal leader's debate (hosted the same night as the inaugural standoff between Republican nominees) showcased "nuanced disagreements" and "adults who could civilly but sharply discuss their country's direction."
If only the Times had watched the evening's edition of CBC's Power & Politics before awarding such high grades.
On the show, Linda McQuaig (a former journalist and federal NDP candidate in the hotly contested riding of Toronto Centre) suggested "a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we're going to meet our climate change targets." Exactly seven months prior, a study published in Nature, the highly esteemed science journal, argued that 85 percent of Alberta's tar sands would have to remain untouched to avoid climate change of the catastrophic variety. Such findings were by no means universally accepted. But there was a very recent precedent for the comment. In high school debate club, that's niftily known as "citing evidence."
Let's just say that many of Canada's most prominent politicians didn't respond to the comment with much nuance or civility.
Michelle Rempel (the Conservative candidate in Calgary Nose Hill and#BoycottTims enthusiast who also appeared on the panel) blew a goddamn gasket, muttering "See, look at this," and "I can't believe this," before proclaiming, "What you've heard here today is the ideological aversion to the development of one of Canada's most prosperous resources by the left." (Since then, Rempel has tweeted or retweeted references to the exchange at least 17 times.) Stephen Harper stated the comments represented "the NDP's not-so-hidden agenda on development" and Justin Trudeau quipped that it represents "extreme views."
"It's interesting," Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, told VICE. "I sort of wonder why one would be surprised by saying not being able to burn all the oil in the ground [of] the second largest reserve after Saudi Arabia might be necessary to stop the planet from being turned into a burned husk. It's a bit odd."
Indeed. Douglas Macdonald, senior lecturer in the University of Toronto's School of the Environment, notes the McQuaig debacle serves as excellent analogy for the "huge dividing line" in Canada on the climate policy front that's been cementing since the early 2000s and the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. On one end, he says, there are provinces like British Columbia and Ontario that have implemented meaningful regulations (an economy-wide carbon tax and the phasing out of coal-fired power plants, respectively). Then there are the oil-producing provinces—Alberta and Saskatchewan, most notably—that have fiercely abstained from meeting climate goals. It's reasonable that the latter have chosen that route, Macdonald says. He calls it a basic fairness issue. Yet the most recent federal government didn't even attempt to bridge the aforementioned divide, skipping climate change summits and ignoring premiers' meetings.
"The norm in Canada, going back for 150 years, has been federal-provincial consultation and dialogue around national issues," Macdonald says. "It's not just that the government doesn't believe in climate change; they don't believe in federal-provincial dialogue or participation."
Unfortunately for Harper, he committed to two major climate agreements this year: a national pledge to cut emissions from 2005 levels by 30 percent within a decade-and-a-half, and a G7 agreement to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2100. Derrick O'Keefe—political writer and co-founder of Ricochet—notes such vows reflect the government's implicit acknowledgment that "most of that oil's going to be left in the soil." He calls the response a question of language and political warfare. Which would be fine, perhaps, if it was the premise of a throwaway episode of Parks & Recreation. Instead, Ezra Levant (who, of course, chimed in many times on the issue) inspired messaging that may sabotage any hope of a grown-up discussion about our favourite industry (which will only contribute a mere three percent of national GDP by 2020). Such sentiments have effectively turned us into the global equivalent of the 9/11 Truther at the house party—the one who everyone is on the verge of drowning in the punch bowl.
O'Keefe suggests part of the reason the rhetoric on the issue has become so humiliatingly infantile is because of the meteoric rise of the NDP in recent years. Even in the early years of Jack Layton's leadership, there were clear calls from party members for a moratorium on tar sands developments. That's changed as the NDP have drifted to the centre: today, there's no major party advocate for a Peter Lougheed-inspired approach. "In a way, Elizabeth May is playing a role the NDP used to play as a third, left-wing party," O'Keefe says. The closest Tom Mulcair has come to commenting on the issue has been reiterating his commitment to "sustainable development," a vague phrase that every politician is likely to mumble at some point in their career.
At the very least, O'Keefe suggests we should encourage people like McQuaig to speak their mind for the simple fact that it makes politics more interesting.
"If we're going to start to play gotcha politics…. we're going to end up with a situation where only the most boring, uninteresting, shallow people end up running for politics," he says.
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