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Environment

Alberta energy war room must avoid online morass, preaching to choir: experts

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CALGARY — Tzeporah Berman only learned of her cameo appearance at an Alberta government news conference about its so-called energy war room after a flood of nasty messages.

Industry advocate Robbie Picard held a poster calling the prominent environmentalist an “enemy of the oilsands” as he introduced Premier Jason Kenney at the Calgary event.

Berman says dozens of violent, sexist social media messages and a few frightening voicemails followed.

“The idea of putting someone’s face on a poster and holding it up at a government press conference — I’ve never seen that before,” says the longtime opponent of oilsands expansion and international program director at Stand.Earth, a grassroots environmental group.

The Kenney government aims to get its $30-million Calgary-based war room running this summer. The goal, Kenney has said, is to fight against what he calls a foreign-funded “campaign of lies and defamation” that he says has caused economic hardship by landlocking Alberta crude.

Kenney has said one measure of the war room’s success would be improved public opinion about pipelines and resource development. Political observers say that requires crafting messages that resonate outside Alberta while avoiding social media mudslinging or preaching to the choir.

Kenney spokeswoman Christine Myatt says personal threats and abuse are never acceptable and urges those who disagree with Berman to do so respectfully.

Picard, who runs the Oilsands Strong Facebook page, says unleashing abuse was not the intention of singling out Berman, but he added “professional protesters” like her should be held to account at a time when Alberta is struggling.

“There’s people in Alberta who are losing everything.”

Aside from the potential for online vitriol, the war room is problematic because the focus should be on tackling climate change, Berman says. 

“He’s wasting precious time,” she says of Kenney.

Many details, including who will lead the war room, remain to be fleshed out. Kenney has said it’s to use a mixture of advertising, publicity and social media and that staff will be able to fire volleys without having to wait hours or days for approval.

The premier feels the soft-power approach of the past has not worked.

“There’s been this notion, amongst many in the Canadian energy industry, that if we just keep our heads down and try not to be noticed and be low-profile and defensive, that somehow those organizations will walk away and focus maybe on Saudi Arabia or Russia or Venezuela,” Kenney said at the news conference.

“The weakness has been an invitation for an increasingly aggressive and increasingly dishonest campaign.”

Mount Royal University political scientist David Taras says the war room, by its very nature, is set up for conflict and that creates pitfalls.

“Give someone a hammer and they’re going to find something to hammer. Sometimes the best policy is not to respond. Sometimes the best policy is to allow someone else to respond. Sometimes the best policy is just to listen to others and watch the debate unfold,” he says.

“You can’t be drawn into the morass of the internet. You have to be able to speak on behalf of Albertans in a way that Albertans can be proud of.”

Pollster Janet Brown says she hopes the war room will do some public opinion research early and tailor its message accordingly.

The focus should be on those not firmly entrenched in either the pro- or anti-oil camps, she says.

“If they take messages that make perfect sense to Albertans and just assume they’re going to make sense to other Canadians … that could be problematic.”

Brown says the war room would be wise to avoid Twitter, where few minds can be changed, and focus its social media resources elsewhere — such as paid YouTube ads.

“If the war room is just spending their time on Twitter being outrageous, it will probably work in the favour of Greenpeace,” Brown says.

Berman says her group has seen more people wanting to donate in recent days, and she and her colleagues are looking to incorporate more compassion into their climate change messaging.

“We have, to a certain extent, been too simplistic or careless about the changes that need to happen. They are going to be hard and it’s not easy,” she says. 

“I understand when Albertans don’t want outsiders telling them what to do.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press


Environment

Three confirmed dead in fiery Alberta crash with semi trucks, passenger vehicles

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oyen highway crash

CEREAL, Alta. — A Saskatchewan man says a well-timed pit stop may have helped him avoid getting caught in a fiery 10-vehicle crash in southeastern Alberta that killed three people.

Dore Germo and his wife left Kelowna, B.C., on Monday after a holiday visiting friends and, after a night in Calgary, were on their way home to Warman, Sask., on Tuesday.

They stopped for gas and a break in Hanna, Alta., about 80 kilometres from where seven passenger vehicles and three semi trucks collided on Highway 9.

The couple could see smoke as they continued east, but they thought it was just a grass fire.

Then they saw flashing lights and heard sirens and a police officer was running down the middle of the road yelling, “Get out!”

Germo says they were directed to a rural side road to get around the crash, and from there they could make out a tanker truck and burned vehicles amid the smoke.

“It was quite a sickening kind of empty feeling once you realized that — yes — those are people just going about their day and travelling somewhere,” Germo said in an interview Wednesday.

“It kind of looked like a bomb had gone off because there were these burnt out vehicles and it was very eerie.”

He said he’s praying for those involved.

“The first thing you think of is those poor families.”

RCMP confirmed Wednesday that three people were found dead at the scene of the crash between the small communities of Chinook and Cereal, about 300 kilometres east of Calgary. Ten people were injured, two critically.

One of the semi trucks that was carrying fuel ignited, causing several vehicles to catch fire, and another truck was carrying butane.

A stretch of Highway 9 was expected to remain closed until about mid-day, while crews clear the collision area and recover dangerous goods in one of the trucks.

The RCMP’s victim services unit is providing support to people involved in the crash.

“The investigation into this collision remains a lengthy process given the nature of the crash scene,” RCMP said in Wednesday’s release. “It is anticipated that it will take several weeks for the collision analyst to complete the investigation.”

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

The Canadian Press

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Environment

Politicians say elections law restricting partisan ads is ‘absurd,’ ‘lunacy’

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OTTAWA — The man whose position on climate change is at the centre of a controversy over partisan campaign rhetoric weighed in Monday, saying Elections Canada is stifling free speech if environmental groups can’t produce ads that describe global warming as a real crisis borne of human behaviour.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the nascent People’s Party of Canada and an outspoken climate-change denier, was responding on Twitter to the agency’s warning that ads that discuss the legitimacy of the phenomenon — including paid social media placements — could be considered partisan simply because of the position of the People’s Party.

In a word, Bernier summed up Elections Canada’s position as “absurd.”

“The law should only regulate real partisan advertising, which is when there is mention of a candidate or party by name,” he said.

The Canada Elections Act does indeed restrict any third-party advertising that either mentions a party or candidate by name, or promotes or disputes an issue or position taken by a party or candidate. Once the costs of such ads hit $500, the third party must register with Elections Canada, produce records and financial reports and limit the amount of advertising it undertakes.

“There are hundreds of potentially contentious issues that could be considered partisan if this rule were to be applied consistently,” Bernier said.

Natasha Gauthier, a spokeswoman for Elections Canada, said the climate-change warning was just an example of an ad that could be deemed partisan, and that any decision about specific activities would be decided on a case-by-case basis and only if there is a complaint. That decision also will be made by the commissioner of Canada elections.

Elections Canada does not know in advance what issues might come up during the campaign, Gauthier added, but said if a party or candidate takes a position on something, any organization that advertises or does work on that issue will need to make sure they comply with the law. For example, an association promoting the benefits of forestry jobs could find its ads offside if a party suddenly makes forestry jobs a campaign issue, she warned.

Third parties should “be careful, because it depends on the situation,” Gauthier said, adding that the rules around advertising are not new.

Even so, the agency’s decision to cite climate change as a specific example has left environment groups feeling muzzled, and others wondering how far partisan labels will go.

“This is lunacy,” said Green party Leader Elizabeth May. “Elections Canada is not a lunatic organization so I trust they will clarify and eliminate this ruling.”

If Bernier were to suddenly say he believes smoking is good for people, May wondered aloud, would any organization that promotes the health dangers of smoking suddenly be deemed partisan? Others on Twitter questioned whether the earth being round could suddenly become a partisan statement if a candidate were to publicly insist the earth is flat.

“It’s not partisan to discuss the single greatest threat faced by humanity,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said of climate change.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will look very closely at what Elections Canada has said, but added that he trusts them to make independent decisions about the Canada Elections Act.

“We will always respect Elections Canada’s role and responsibility to independently apply electoral law,” Trudeau said.

“But I think the whole question highlights the fact that it is so frustrating that there are still conservative politicians in this country who don’t think climate change is real and certainly don’t think we should be doing anything to fight it.”

Several organizations say they now are planning to withdraw any advertising during the writ period that may discuss the scope of climate change, even though it doesn’t mention any party or politician by name.

“We’re screening everything we post or boost online,” said Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada. “Greenpeace Canada will continue to talk about climate change but we won’t be paying to boost that online or take out ads in newspapers.”

Stewart said Greenpeace registered last time, but described the process as onerous and time consuming — not worth it in 2019 for the roughly $2,500 worth of ads they did in 2015.

Greenpeace is not a charity, but there is added pressure on environmental groups that are who fear a Canada Revenue Agency audit should Elections Canada suddenly deem their activities to be partisan, Stewart said. The CRA has rules on partisan behaviour, and even if charities believe they are in compliance, the cost and time associated with an audit could cause them to rethink their campaign activities, he said.

New rules in legislation passed by Parliament last year also created new limitations on third-party activities that are not related to advertising. Restrictions on partisan activities could prevent organizations from assessing party policies or platforms, for example, something that was often done in the past.

While the rules don’t bar such activities entirely, they do require an organization to decide when the cost exceeds $500, and trying to determine the staff costs and overhead associated with responding to a platform is difficult enough that many organizations simply might avoid it entirely.

Trevor Melanson, a communications manager at Clean Energy Canada, said under the new rules, his organization resisted issuing a statement when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he was going to get rid of the clean fuel standard being introduced by the Liberal government. Melanson said the standard is an issue his organization has spent years studying, and felt restrained from speaking out about it.

“It has a very real chilling effect on us,” he said.

Stewart said he has some sympathy for Elections Canada “trying to deal with growing concerns with third parties trying to manipulate elections.”

But turning facts into partisan fodder isn’t something the agency should tolerate, he added: “The aggravating thing here for me is science is not partisan.”

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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