When it comes to criticism of their environmental record, Canada’s federal Conservatives have a standard operating procedure: silence it. So when visual essayist and activist Franke James was invited to Croatia, they quietly torpedoed the trip.
If anyone is surprised that a democratic country would censor one of its artists, take a look at Annie Urban’s post from last April: “Canadian Conservatives Ignore, Censor, Bully and Threaten Critics”. In January 2012, I wrote about the “Harper Government’s War on Environmentalists” after Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wrote in an open letter that “environmental and other radical groups” were trying “to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.”
That kind of petty sniping by a cabinet minister is common in the right-leaning world of the Conservatives. So the Harper government will likely wish Franke James were an organization or employee they could muzzle when they read her newest essay: “What is Harper Afraid Of?”
Digging Beneath the Fear
A lot of Canadians are also wondering what their Prime Minister is afraid of. After all, differences of opinion are essential to the kind of vigorous investigation of various perspectives that makes democracy a challenging ideal.
So Franke James sets out to investigate what is behind the fear. She asks Stephen Harper if he is afraid of “Rivers that turn black and run into the sea? Birds falling from the sky? People fleeing a toxic land?”
Then she turns her attention on Joe Oliver. Instead of just speculating, she and her husband take the democratic approach of actually interviewing the Natural Resources Minister. James asks him the same question asks herself on a regular basis: “What bothers your green conscience?”
His answer is a longer version of “not much.”
Stifling Opposition and Calling It Science
Oliver slides around the question by saying, “I am influenced by what objective scientists say, and you know government policy has to be grounded in facts.” That will be news to the scientists the Harper government is muzzling and to the environmental groups Joe Oliver brands as radicals and ideologues.
James does have to agree when he says: “My impact as the Minister of Natural Resources is much bigger than as an individual.” She points out his impact is so big he is making changes like these:
- Gutting the Fisheries Act
- Trashing the Environmental Assessment Act
- Barring environmental groups from hearings
- Barring Canadian citizens from hearings (unless they live or work in the area)
She lists more of the minister’s impacts, but what Oliver has in mind is likely none of those and also not an answer to another question she poses: whether he would let his family eat fish from the Athabasca River.
Natural Resources Minister Denies Knowledge of Tar Sands Pollution
The minister does not tell James if he would eat the fish. In fact, he pleads ignorance of whether or not the river has been polluted. When she asks him about a “secret” Environment Canada report on oil sands pollution in the Athabasca, he passes it off as before his time, not from his ministry and, well, secret.
Excuse me while I sputter. James obtained the report after a Freedom of Information request, but the federal Minister of Natural Resources is not familiar with a damning presentation that contains such red flags as:
- Elevated levels of pollutants near mining sites
- Concerns about effects on the health of wildlife and downstream communities
- Damage to fish habitat because of excessive water withdrawals
- 242% increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2008
- Pressure on vulnerable species
Those are just a few of the main points from what appears to be a PowerPoint presentation. The full report would be considerably more damning.
Shouldn’t the Federal Minister in charge of the oil sands be held accountable for oil sands mining that is polluting our air, land and water? Does this mean that poisoning downstream communities and wildlife, is just the ‘cost of doing business’ in Canada? Why is the government looking the other way? Is this ‘environmental racism’ as the First Nations contend?
The Time to Act Is Today
This new visual essay is particularly timely, given the Conservative steamroller that is quashing questions about the mammoth and offensive Bill C-38. More than a budget bill, Bill C-38 is a redesign of Canadian culture and values, a fair number of them environmental.
Among the draconian measures scattered through its 420 pages, Andrew Coyne points out:
The environmental chapters are the most extraordinary. Along with the new Act, they give cabinet broader power to override decisions of the National Energy Board, shorten the list of protected species, and abolish the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act — among “other measures.”
With that kind of anti-environmental bludgeon packed into a “budget bill,” only swift and vocal action on the part of an informed citizenry has any hope of slowing the Conservative steamroller.
That is exactly what Franke James is calling for. She has made it easy. At the end of the visual essay, she provides an interactive e-mail letter. Enter a postal code, and the name of your area’s member of parliament appears, along with cc’s to Prime Minister Harper and other party leaders. She even provides a sample letter that can be sent as is or personalized.
On Monday, June 4th, thousands of Web sites across Canada will go dark or display banners in solidarity against Bill C-38. Before the Black Out Speak Out day begins, make your voice heard.
Sign the petition below, read “What Is Harper Afraid Of?” and send a letter to your MP to register your opposition to the destruction of the Canadian environment.
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All graphics courtesy of Franke James