Oh wow has the debate around the tar sands changed over the past years. Every so often, politicians change pro-tar sands rhetoric to confuse and contort the issue—and reframe the dialogue with their opposition. The new theme of the political moment is: “ethical oil.” This is based on comparing Canada (as a country) to the other oil producing/exporting countries.
Newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Kent told the Calgary Herald last week that “it’s a secure oil in a world where many of the free world’s oil sources are somewhat less secure.”
A recent Globe and Mail article thanks author and tar sands-advocate Ezra Levant for his recent contribution to this public relations stint:
Mr. Levant has helped popularize the argument that oil-sands petroleum is ethically superior to petroleum produced by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and other regimes with dubious environmental and human rights records. By comparison, he argues, Canada is environmentally responsible, peaceful, offers its workers fair wages and respects human rights.
We now see that the Harper government has adopted Levant’s argument which is based on the entire question “whether we should use oil from the oil sands or oil from the other places in the world that pump it.” –p.7. In Levant’s book Ethical Oil he claims it is THE question. In reality…it is HIS question. And it is not an appropriate question given that it discounts the human rights violations and environmental devastation caused by tar sands operations.
Pointing the finger at violations to human rights and environmental regulation abroad does not mean that Canada is doing okay. Let’s take some of Levant’s key arguments cited above.
Canada is environmentally responsible: Ezra, if Canada was environmentally responsible, please tell me why the Harper government did not pass Bill C-300, a bill that would have regulated Canada’s mining operations abroad. Could you also explain the undemocratic defeat of Bill C-311, the only piece of climate legislation in parliament? And while you are trying to explain why an “environmentally responsible” country would reject environmental policies, could you also guide me to the full impact assessment of the tar sands that has been avoided for so long?
Canada is peaceful: Ezra, what is your definition of peaceful? Does it explain Canada’s involvement in military occupations abroad? Does it include the Conservative government’s investment in fighter jets? Does it include the increased funding to the prison system when crime rates are in decline? Does it include increases to military operations and domestic policing in a country where there are also cuts to the shelter system, affordable housing, childcare, public transit, and other social services? What does your definition of peaceful include?
Offers its workers fair wages: The tar sand employs a significant amount of migrant workers from all over the world—Mexico, China, Guatemala, Indonesia—you name it. Now Ezra, can you tell me the migrant workers in the tar sands are not subject to the same exploitation as the workers in other sectors such as agriculture and live-in caregiver programs? Can you prove that migrant workers are not forced to live in small housing conditions with many others, work precarious jobs without proper safety equipment, nor are denied access to health care? Can you prove to me that migrant workers in the tar sands are not threatened with deportation (or are deported) when they speak out about these workers’ rights violations?
Respects Human Rights: Now Ezra, I do not even think I am going to ASK about this one, but instead I am going to say “HELLO! One of the main reasons people are opposed to Canada’s tar sands projects is because they violate human rights!” The tar sands have destroyed people’s water sources, food sources, and increased asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases in many communities. It is contributing to global warming pollution, causing increases in extreme weather events, droughts, and floods. First Nations communities in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC have sued both provincial and federal governments because they are approving projects that violate their constitutional rights as Aboriginal people. Well done to a country that respects human rights! (insert eye-rolling here)
Now, moving past the silliness of Ezra Levant and his arguments, I am still concerned that there is an environment minister who fails to see the environmental pitfalls of a water- and energy-intensive project like the tar sands. A project that has caused the deforestation of large swaths of the Canadian boreal forest, and a project that requires chemical inputs while also releasing them back into the environment. I think that Harper is faced with the same problem he has every time he needs to shuffle around his cabinet, a problem that Rick Mercer says simply as just not having enough qualified applicants.