Canada's Environmental Impact Damaged Our Reputation in 2014

A recent editorial from Canadian Press examined Canada's reputation among Americans, but overlooked the damage we did this year with our environmental recklessness.

by Patrick McGuire
Dec 30 2014, 5:53pm

We're Harming Our Once Environmentally Friendly Reputation

Protesters march through the tar sands at last summer's final healing walk. Photo by Michael Toledano

A recent editorial from the Canadian Press penned by Alexander Panetta examined the changing reputation of Canada to our lovely American friends. The central thesis of the piece is that Canada, once known as a liberal haven for free health care and dank BC bud, is now being regarded as a conservative stronghold where corporate tax breaks make running Burger King easier, whereas our oil export industry has provided us with the leverage of being a global economic player. While this is certainly an accurate depiction of how our reputation stands to corporate-friendly conservatives, for many other onlookers, Canada's reputation has also slipped into a place of environmental recklessness and aboriginal disrespect.

Panetta's editorial does overlook the damage that's been done to Canada's popular reputation by our increasingly all-in approach to resource extraction. The Keystone XL pipeline, as Panetta notes, has obviously opened up a major rift in the United States. Panetta cites a Montreal-based firm called Influence Communication that found the Keystone pipeline was the most talked about Canadian story in the American news media with over 9,400 items published and broadcasted.

Given November's shift in the United States Senate to be even more Republican-heavy, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that Republicans are "likely to easily pass... legislation next year" that could get Keystone XL flowing. It can't hurt that the Koch Brothers, who heavily finance Republicans, are the biggest foreign leaseholder in the tar sands. Given that oil prices are likely to remain low "for the indefinite future," some experts suggest the price of extracting oil from the tar sands isn't going to be overly profitable for Canada.

With a diminished economic incentive, the Harper government's resource extraction-heavy strategy is starting to seem a little thin. And while I can already hear the comments section of this article exploding with armchair commentators pointing out that I must have taken a gas-filled car to work (I didn't) to type on my computer that was made with oil and gas products (you got me there)—we're beginning to look a bit reckless as a nation to many of our friends in the United States for going balls to the wall with tearing up the earth and pulling out the sweet gooey black stuff that lays below.

In March, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Is Canada Tarring Itself?" with a striking illustration of a mountie whose face is covered in oil, right above the fold. Written by Jacques Leslie, he describes our government's relationship with the oil industry as a "headlong embrace of the oil industry's wishes." Regarding Canada's changing reputation itself, Leslie writes: "Forget the idea of Canada as dull, responsible and environmentally minded: That is so 20th century. Now it's a desperado, placing all its chips on a world-be-damned, climate-altering tar sands bet."

Alongside press like this, which illuminates Canada's changing reputation as environmentally destructive, Leonardo DiCaprio has been gallivanting in the tar sands, hard at work on a documentary about Canada's environmental impact. He even challenged Stephen Harper to an ice bucket challenge while standing alongside the people of Fort Chipewyan, the closest First Nations reserve to the tar sands, whose population's rare cancers have been linked to oil sands pollution.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Bill Nye the Science Guy this year, and we discussed the tar sands and the Canadian government's relentless support of resource extraction. In his words: "The government in Canada is currently being influenced by the fossil-fuel industry... The thing that's gone badly is that the people who want to maintain the status quo of fossil-fuel burning have managed to introduce the idea that scientific uncertainty [on climate change] is the same as doubt about the whole thing. And that [trend has] justified in many legislators' minds, both in the US and especially in Canada, particularly Western Canada, that It's OK, the science of climate change isn't proven, and let's just carry on. And that's just not in anybody's best interest."

Bill Nye's no-holds-barred opinions on Canada aside, 2014 also gave us the media clusterfuck that was Neil Young's Honour the Treaties tour, where Young, alongside representatives of Fort Chipewyan and Aamjiwnaang—a First Nations reserve beside the Chemical Valley in Sarnia that we made a documentary on in 2013, where 40 percent of Canada's petrochemical industry resides—Young called for a critical look at Canada's environmental impact. Unsurprisingly, Young was attacked by conservative media across the country, along with Ethical Oil, an advocacy group for the tar sands that launched a campaign called "Neil Young Lies" and pointed out that his excessive rock star lifestyle makes him a hypocritical candidate to defend the environment.

While the Honour the Treaties tour did turn into a bit of a mess in the Canadian media, it did gain traction in the US and the UK, with coverage popping up in CNN, the Guardian, Salon, and Al-Jazeera America.

Intrinsic to this issue of environmental impact is the Canadian government's relationship with our aboriginal peoples. Both DiCaprio and Young, Hollywood defenders whose modi operandi are easily skewered, have put the aboriginal conversation front and centre in their campaigns of awareness about the Canadian environment. It's possible, through movements like Idle No More, and, like it or not, with documentaries like DiCaprio's, that the plight of aboriginal communities in Canada will become a more internationally known dilemma. Especially with global attention being drawn towards our missing and murdered indigenous women.

So, while Canada is certainly gaining brownie points from American conservatives for our tough-on-environment but lax-on-Burger-King strategy, the popular conception of Canada as a green space with highly breathable air is falling by the wayside. As the price of oil drops and the hunger to appease the oil industry rises, responsible resource extraction is not likely to be part of the big picture formula going forward.

2014 saw the US and China signing off on a deal to lower their emissions, but Canada has so far stayed silent on making such a promise. On top of that, we signed off on a deal with China that will allow them to sue us secretly if one of their investments in our resource extraction industry goes sour, say, for reasons due to an aboriginal land claim.

With all this in mind, and given that 2015 is right around the corner, it's obvious we're not going to be putting the right foot forward to improve our country's growing reputation as an environmentally irresponsible nation. As more international media attention comes onto the tar sands, and with the Keystone XL pipeline sure to cause a lot of noise among environmental activists in 2015, it seems as if this reputation can only get worse from here.

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