In Attacks on Environmental Advocates in Canada, a Disturbing Echo of Extremist


A week after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, the provincial government in Alberta, home to Canada’s oil industry, published a series of reports laced with climate change denial and conspiracy theories and targeting environmental advocates.  

The reports were part of a public inquiry, now in its final stages, launched by Premier Jason Kenney in 2019 to probe what he called a foreign-funded “anti-Alberta energy campaign.” The effort drew sharp criticism from the start as a veiled attempt to intimidate activists who opposed the rapid expansion of Canada’s oil sands. Some advocates said they received death threats after its launch and had their social media feeds inundated with hateful screeds.

But opposition boiled over after the reports were published last month. One claimed that environmental advocates were part of a “transnational progressive movement” that was using climate change as a pretext to stage a “voluntary” overthrow of the global capitalist system. Another, which holds that foreign interests are targeting Canada’s oil sector, was written by an American oil industry group.

The reports “would make even a skeptic blush in terms of how incredibly bad they are,” said Martin Olszynski, an associate law professor at the University of Calgary who submitted comments on the reports to the government. 

But he and others warned that the inquiry bears a disturbing similarity to the lies that culminated in the storming of the Capitol last month, and is a symptom of a dangerous strain of politics that has spread across both the United States and Canada, where it is feeding off the struggles of the nation’s oil industry.

Canada’s oil sands, also known as tar sands, are an especially dirty and relatively expensive source of crude. As a result, growing global pressure to transition away from oil has been felt acutely in Alberta, where the economy has long revolved around fossil fuels.

Investment in Canada’s oil industry has fallen steadily since 2014. A decade of campaigns against major pipelines scored a significant victory when President Biden canceled the Keystone XL in January. Now, activists on both sides of the border are pressing Biden to halt a separate tar sands pipeline that is under construction in Minnesota.

The pressure and falling fortunes have bred resentment in Alberta that Kenney seized on as a candidate in 2019, when his party won control of provincial government. He called environmental advocates “anti-Alberta” and accused them of “economic sabotage.”

“The premier stoked up a fever pitch against these groups,” Olszynski said. “People had to resign from public service because he had targeted them as being part of these sort of foreign funded special interest groups.”

Alan Boras, a spokesman for the inquiry, said he could not comment on accusations that it was politically motivated, but he defended the reports it commissioned, saying the inquiry wanted to get a “broad perspective.” He said the central question before the inquiry is, “is it deemed proper by Albertans and Canadians that money from outside the country play an influential or strongly influential role in determining public policy and economic development of the resources.”

A spokeswoman for Kenney did not respond to requests for comment.

The commissioned reports were the most substantive materials to emerge from the inquiry, which has operated largely in secret since its launch. The timing of their publication, one week after the attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, should serve as a warning, Olszynski said.

“Maybe that’s a moment,” he said, “for people to take stock and pause, in Canada and the U.S., and think, where is this narrative taking us? Is this really the quality of information and discussion that we want to be having, or is it time to move past that?”

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