This piece is cross-posted from the Toronto Star’s Op-Ed Page.
This week the “ethical oil” argument adopted by the federal government took an interesting twist. While billions from China pour into Canada to develop the oilsands and fund the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, on Monday the government announced its desire to revise the rules so that Canadians will have less time to share their concerns and properly review these massive projects.
Why the change? Because environmental organizations, “other radical groups” and, ironically, foreign money, are allegedly corrupting the process. Is this the future of ethical oil — a world where the Canadian government limits its citizens’ ability to talk over an issue so that China, a country the Prime Minister’s communications director calls a dictatorship, can be allowed to own and exploit Canada’s natural resources?
It’s a curious twist. Many Canadians — me included — agree with one part of Ezra Levant’s ethical oil argument: oil should be evaluated by its environmental impact as well as its effect on the respect for human rights and international stability.
But where does it leave the government’s case for ethical oil if Canadians are sidelined in the decision-making process to please a country both Levant and the Prime Minister have accused of human rights violations? Indeed, on his show The Source, Levant is often critical of China, hosting discussions on how “the freedoms of its people are still on the decline” and labelling the country a “dictatorship.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had equally strong words about China. He once said of the country: “I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values — our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”
So why start now? Especially when Canadians share the Prime Minister’s former concern. A recent poll of British Columbians showed that 73 per cent were worried or very worried about China investing in or owning Canada’s natural resources. Given the environmental implications, the broader ethical concerns raised by Levant, as well as the government’s promise to be more transparent and more engaged with Canadians, this is precisely the wrong time to limit discussion.
There is also a great deal to discuss with regard to foreign influence. Although the word “China” only appears once on the Northern Gateway pipeline website, Sinopec, China’s second largest energy company, was part of a group that recently invested $100 million in the pipeline, the terms of which also enable it to buy an ownership stake in the future. It also spent $4.65 billion (U.S.) to buy 9 per cent of Syncrude Canada. Another company affiliated with the Chinese government just paid $673 million (U.S.) for the remaining 40 per cent of the MacKay River oilsands development, completing its takeover of the project.
If the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, the influence of foreign money in Canada — especially from China — will increase, not decrease. Doesn’t the ethical oil argument demand that Canadians be given a comprehensive opportunity to discuss the pipeline and its impact?
Ultimately, this is why Canadians should be cautious about changing the rules for reviewing projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. As more money flows in, the numerous decisions risk becoming less and less about Canada and more and more about China. This is something that deserves more conversation, not less.
Finally, I don’t know if the pipeline should be built, and suspect most Canadians don’t either. But this is probably the most important reason Canada needs a process that allows for a far-reaching consultation, so that a broad set of perspectives and issues may be heard. Maybe the new rules would be sensible. But proposing to change the rules on the fly, decrying the trickle of foreign money from the United States while ignoring billions from China and labelling those who would question or criticize the oilsands as “radicals” doesn’t inspire confidence as an opening move.
As leader of the opposition, a younger Stephen Harper once correctly asserted: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.” The Prime Minister tapped into a powerful truth in that moment — a truth that Canadians still hold dear today. If the government’s approach to the pipeline amounts to nothing more than disempowering Canadians — and in particular the project’s critics — then its cancelling and avoidance of dissent will inspire confidence in neither the ethical oil brand nor the government itself.