For the last decade, oil and gas industry supporters in media, civil society and government have honed a populist narrative revolving around two core arguments:
1) Fossil fuel development is vital to the national economic interest.
2) Environmentalists are elites who hypocritically threaten that national interest; wealthy celebrities, radical ideologues or paid protesters funded by foreign foundations are, we’re told, sabotaging the well-being of Canadian workers and taxpayers.
Whether promoted by politicians like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney or industry-backed campaigns like Oil Respect (tagline: “Standing Up for Canadian Oil and Gas Families”), this right-wing populist story impliesthat “average” Canadians benefit from fossil fuel development more or less equally. In reality, thebenefits and risks of development are distributed in highly inequitable ways—a fact recognized by ecological populist narratives emerging from some pipeline opponents.
At the forefront of this countermovement have been organizations active in the Indigenous-led movement against new pipeline and tanker projects. Enbridge’s now defunct Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline (the latter bought by the federal government for $4.5 billion in an effort to save the faltering project) both generated massive grassroots resistance, especially in B.C. where many First Nations, communities, environmental groups and local governments have mobilized against them.
Through this resistance, prominent opponents like the environmental citizens’ group Dogwood Initiativeor the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs’Coast Protectors have developed their own anti-pipeline populist narrative (see the articles by Shane Gunster and Paul Saurette in this issue). The core of that narrative is that local ecosystems—and the communities that depend on them—are under attack by industry-supporting elites who have rigged the system.
This ecological populist narrative demolishes the claim that pipelines benefit everyone, and that only radical elites who don’t care about everyday people could possibly oppose them. Repeatedly, opponents point out the fundamental inequities baked into these projects.
Most of the economic benefits from the Trans Mountain expansion or southbound Keystone XL pipeline, both designed to increase upstream bitumen production in Alberta, would go to Albertan and international oil companies, the banks that finance them, and the Alberta government, which is currently in the mood to spend increased tax revenues on corporate tax cuts. Communities along the project routes, however, receive few long-term jobs while absorbing significant risks from a pipeline or tanker spill. Such a spill could devastate the traditional lands and waters of many First Nations, wiping outsalmon runs or poisoning water supplies. It could also destroy local economies dependent on fisheries or ecotourism, while leaving taxpayers liable for cleanup costs.
This emergent ecological populist narrative attacks inequities along both socioeconomic and regional lines, noting these pipelines would benefit powerful elites and particular regions at the expense of less powerful actors and other regions. This account inverts the “foreign-funded radical” storyline of pipeline supporters, with traditional Tsleil-Waututh territories, British Columbian fisheries, and coastal residents under attack by an alliance of Ottawa politicians, Albertan and international oil companies, and Bay Street banks.
Another core claim of this anti-pipeline narrative is that elites have rigged the regulatory system to impose projects without appropriate consent. The proposed routes for both Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pass through swaths of unceded Indigenous territory in B.C.. According to many opponents, the federal reviews lack the authority to make decisions about that territory. Further, opponents claim these panels’ superficial consultations don’t meet the government’s constitutional responsibilities to First Peoples (an argument repeatedly validated in court).
More broadly, the reviews are criticized for being captured by industry, with the National Energy Board—an industry-funded body mostly staffed with corporate insiders—in the driver’s seat. They are also critiqued for having no regional democratic accountability. Not only did the Harper government pass legislation to limit public participation in reviews, but the previous B.C. government agreed to waive the province’s right to hold its own assessment. Little wonder that Coast Protectors has attacked the federal Liberals for “helping a Texas company override local democratic control of our lands.”
Hence another key claim in this populist narrative: that pipeline-supporting elites are corrupt and dishonest, and therefore can’t be trusted with the well-being of our environment and communities. After the federal buyout of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, Dogwood denounced giving “Canadian taxpayer dollar[s]” to a company run by “former Enron executives”—evoking the notoriously corrupt U.S. energy company whose dishonesty led to the fleecing of its investors. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna were mocked for being “the heroes Texas oil billionaires have been waiting for,” shamefully “stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.”
This corruption framing helps mobilize people who feel betrayed by a government that promised to pursue Indigenous reconciliation, respect local communities and fightclimate change, but which has instead decided to bailout an American oil giant. As Coast Protectors noted, that money could be used to provide “clean water for all Indigenous peoples.” Or fight climate change. Or create green jobs. That’s a powerful, popular argument.
While the extractivist populism sold by fossil fuel boosters like Kenney often invokes an implicitly unified “Canadian people,” anti-pipeline populists don’t describe their constituents as part of a homogenous society. That would be a tough sell for an Indigenous-led movement that has helped mobilize thousands of settler Canadians living on unceded territory. Instead, these groups describe a popular but diverse social movement made up of everyday people whose dependence on local ecosystems compels them to band together and “defend their coast.”
For instance, during the Northern Gateway campaign, Dogwood’s Will Horter positioned their “broad grassroots movement of working families, First Nations governments, municipalities, and fishermen” against a powerful elite cabal that included “Enbridge—the largest pipeline company in Canada, a consortium of international oil companies, and a pro-oil sands federal government.”
If pipeline-pushing elites were seen as all-powerful, this storyline would be demoralizing. But in populist narratives the people always have the power to win, which inspires them to keep fighting in tough situations. Pipeline opponents always assure supporters that, if united, they can stop these projects, whether through mass protests or fundraising for Indigenous legal challenges. Even the Kinder Morgan bailout was framed as a kind of victory, forced on a desperate government after opponents had, as Indigenous activist Melina Labaocan-Massimo put it, sent the “biggest oil company in the world [packing] back to Texas.”
I think there are serious strengths to this populist narrative of place-based resistance. It disassembles the “national interest” claims of extractivist populism, directly targeting those who benefit from others’ harm. It also champions diverse actors whose solidarity comes from their mutual dependence on fragile ecosystems. And this narrative seems to have helped inspire sustained mass mobilizations that we don’t see often in Canadian environmental organizing.
That said, there may be limitations to this populist narrative. For one, it implies diverse communities are allied in defence of local places and regional democracy, even though settler opponents’ concerns with both are arguably rooted in an ongoing colonial project. The appeal of this narrative might be undermined if settler opponents don’t make longer-term commitments to Indigenous reconciliation. Just think about the current B.C. government, considered an ally in the Kinder Morgan fight, being criticized for violating Indigenous rights in support of the Site C megadam, or Trans Canada’s Coastal Gas Link.
Also, this new populist narrative has been used almost exclusively to fight against specific noxious projects. This is understandable given opponents’ immediate need to protect their homes, families and territories. But to date, we’ve seen fewer attempts by the broader environmental movement to use similar narratives to fight for a concrete vision of the policies that should replace today’s extractivism.
With extractivist populism already posing a clear threat to even moderate federal climate policy, it seems clear that any bold climate initiatives will require the same type of militant, people-powered movement anti-pipeline activists have built. This type of strategy could be low-hanging fruit.
The problems with fossil fuel development go beyond pipelines. The oil and gas industry in this country more broadly is purposefully structured to make corporations huge profits, with small shares of revenue going to workers or taxpayers—even during boom times. And let’s be clear: the boom times are likely over.
Furthermore, mass investments in clean energy, public transportation or high-speed rail aren’t just environmentally necessary; they have huge populist appeal. Why use government to prop up a dying oil industry that disproportionately enriches big corporations when we could be investing in clean jobs? Why should communities in Northern B.C., many of them Indigenous, depend on U.S. bus companies to travel safely to work or visit family, only to be stranded when these companies abandon them in the name of corporate profit?
Looking around the country we can see the immediate danger extractivist populism poses—not just to the environment, but to working people and vulnerable groups from coast-to-coast. But we can also see the political traction being gained by populist climate politics around the world. Alaxandria-Orcasio Cortez’ Green New Deal is winning advocates inside and beyond the United States; in Canada it is pumping new life into the 2015 Leap Manifesto and campaign.
These campaigns don’t just champion climate friendly policies; they directly target the elites that profit from climate chaos, while offering benefits to working people. Now seems the perfect moment for the environmental left in Canada to pursue similarly bold policies. But to do so, we will need to explicitly target climate-killing elites while offering the people a future they will want to fight for.
Robert Neubauer is a lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He researches the political economy of energy development, resource industry–funded civil society networks, and the media strategies of environmentalist and pro-oil advocacy groups.
This article was jointly commissioned by the Monitor and the Corporate Mapping Project. The Corporate Mapping Project is a research and public engagement initiative jointly led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute. The research is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSCHRC).