Published in the Vancouver Observer | January 11, 2012 | Circulation 100,000 unique monthly visitors
In 1952, infamous U.S. anti-communist crusader Joseph McCarthy declared, “McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.”
Today, a Canadian national security expert warned that Conservativegovernment rhetoric against opponents of the Enbridge Northern Gatewaypipeline – with accusations of “radical groups” and “foreign” influence – bears some disturbing similarities to Cold War red-baiting.
“Basically, they are trying to undermine the anti-pipeline wing of the environmental movement by associating it … with radicalism,” said Gary Kinsman, a Laurentian University sociology professor and historian who has written extensively on national security. “The Conservative government and supporters seems to be taking a very hard line against aspects of ecological movement organizing.
“It has a very bad influence on democratic discourse, since it suggests that the anti-pipeline position is a risk to Canadian national security and is not really ‘Canadian’ – since it is defined by ‘foreign’ interests.”
Environmental and Indigenous groups cried foul this week after federal natural resources minister Joe Oliver released an open letter accusing pipeline opponents of being “radical groups… (with) funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”
But most worrying to some critics are the government’s threats to review the charitable status and funding sources of non-profit organizations critical of the pipeline. Sources told CBC News that the House of Commons finance committee may be targeting environmental groups when it meets in February, although that committee’s chair could not confirm that.
And such an inquiry – especially targeting groups critical of government policy – spells danger for civil liberties, Kinsman warned.
“This harkens back to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the U.S. which was central to the U.S. Cold War national security campaigns against dissent,” he told the Vancouver Observer. “If this is done it would be a considerable escalation of Canadian national security practices.
“The reference to undermining ‘Canada’s national economic interest’ has become standard in national security discourse. This implies there is some sort of unitary Canadian ‘national interest’ defined in opposition to the anti-pipeline movement. It tries to read this environmental organizing as being outside of, or in opposition to the ‘nation.’”
Last Friday, the Prime Minister chimed in, echoing the allegations: “Growing concern has been expressed to me about the use of foreign money to really overload the public consultation phase of regulatory hearings just for the purpose of slowing down the process,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters in Edmonton.
“Unfortunately, I think your role as minister of natural resources has been hijacked by the [Prime Minister’s Office] spin machine,” she wrote to Oliver. “The PMO is, in turn, hijacked by the foreign oil lobby.
“By characterizing this issue as environmental radicals versus Canada’s future prosperity you have done a grave disservice to the development of sensible public policy.”
Although Oliver and Harper’s comments appear to be a hardening of federal environmental policy — within months of Canada pulling out of the Kyoto climate change accord — Kinsman said that the Canadian government has actually used the “radical” label for decades to discredit social movements, and should come as no surprise now.
Last year, RCMP documents revealed that the federal government increased its surveillance of First Nations “hot spots” — including B.C. territories crossed by the pipeline — and exposed a Canada-wide project to monitor Indigenous activists.
“They have done (that) also with global justice, anarchist and anti-capitalist protesters over the last decade,” he said. “They are now extending this to the anti-pipeline environmental movement.
“In this context it is interesting that U.S. environmental groups now become the ‘foreign’ interest. In the past the ‘foreign’ interests were certainly not from the U.S.”
Since publishing his open letter on a government website, Oliver has maintained his allegations of foreign influence and “radical ideologies,” though he admitted that not all environmentalists are so-called radicals.
“We are not demonizing,” Oliver said Monday. “I have not called everybody radicals, nor do I think they are, nor do I think they’re trying to stop every kind of development. But there are some that do.
“I thought we’d just get the facts out without being politically correct about it.”
Kinsman said that the hard-line rhetoric seen this week around the pipeline is a worrying sign of things to come – particularly in the event of protests or civil disobedience against the project, when a tougher approach could escalate conflict. But in the face of growing public concern, confrontational government rhetoric could also help the anti-pipeline movement.
“It can backfire on the government,” he said. “But only if there is a major mobilization against it that cuts across this national security and anti-radical discourse.”
“They don’t tell us that ‘radical’ means getting to the ‘root’ of the problem,” he added.