In 2014, Canada Lost Its Reputation as a Environmentally Friendly Liberal Wonderland

Celebrities, activists, and even Bill Nye the Science Guy are calling out the Canadian government for being in the pocket of the oil industry.

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Dec 31 2014, 12:45pm

We're Harming Our Once Environmentally Friendly Reputation

Protesters march through the tar sands at a demonstration last summer. Photo by Michael Toledano

This article first appeared on VICE Canada

A recent column in the Canadian Press by Alexander Panetta examined the changing reputation of Canada to our lovely American friends. His central thesis is that Canada, once known as a liberal haven thanks to its free health care and dank BC bud, is now being regarded as a conservative stronghold where corporate tax breaks make running Burger King easier and where oil exports are on the rise. But for others, Canada's lefty image has taken a hit because of the way the government has taken to treating the environment and the indigenous populations.

The Keystone XL pipeline, as Panetta notes, has obviously opened up a major rift in the United States between environmentalists and business-friendly conservatives—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 this year.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Republicans are "likely to easily pass... legislation next year" that could get the Keystone pipeline flowing. (Here's where I should note that the Koch Brothers, who heavily finance Republican campaigns, 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—not that that will quench people's seemingly inexhaustible thirst for gooey black stuff.

American liberals who oppose the pipeline have begun noticing that Canada's attitude in all of this isn't exactly eco-friendly. In March, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled "Is Canada Tarring Itself?" with a striking illustration of a mountie whose face is covered in oil. Written by Jacques Leslie, the piece describes our government's relationship with the oil industry as a "headlong embrace of the oil industry's wishes." Regarding Canada's changing reputation, 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."

There's other evidence that Canada has gone oil-crazy. Though the US and China recently signed a deal to reduce their emissions, but Canada has so far stayed silent on making such a promise. On top of that, the government signed off on a deal with China that will allow the Chinese to sue Canada if one of their investments in the Canadian resource extraction industry goes sour—say, because of an aboriginal land claim.

Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio has been trekking around the tar sands, hard at work on a documentary about Canada's environmental impact. He even challenged Prime Minister 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 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. "The government in Canada is currently being influenced by the fossil-fuel industry," he told me. "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."

This year also gave us the media clusterfuck that was Neil Young's Honour the Treaties tour, where the singer called for a critical look at Canada's environmental impact alongside representatives of Fort Chipewyan and Aamjiwnaang—a First Nations reserve beside Sarnia's notorious Chemical Valley that we made a documentary on in 2013. Unsurprisingly, Young was attacked by conservative media across the country as well as with Ethical Oil, an advocacy group for the tar sands that launched a campaign called "Neil Young Lies."

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 environmentalists whose motives and lifestyles are easily skewered, have put the aboriginal conversation front and center. It's possible, through movements like Idle No More, and documentaries like DiCaprio's, that the plight of aboriginal communities in Canada will become a more internationally known issue. Especially with global attention being drawn towards our missing and murdered indigenous women.

In any case, the popular conception of Canada as a green space with highly breathable air is falling by the wayside. And as the international media pays more attention to 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.

Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter.

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