EDMONTON — Environmental groups targeted by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney are shrugging off the new government’s promised $30-million “war room” to fight criticisms of the province’s energy industry.
“The war room makes for good theatre, but the people who follow this closely are going to look at this as amateur hour,” said Keith Stewart of Greenpeace.
“Chasing environmentalists might play well politically, but it’s not actually relevant to the discussion that Alberta and Canada need to be having,” added Simon Dyer of the clean-energy think tank Pembina Institute.
Both groups have been singled out by Kenney as examples of ones distorting the truth about the impact of the oilsands. The premier has said government staff will be tasked with responding quickly to what he calls myths and lies.
Kenney has also promised to fund lawsuits against offending environmentalists and to call a public inquiry into the role of money from U.S. foundations.
“Stay tuned,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Tuesday. “We’ll have something to talk about next week.”
Environmental groups have already been discussing informally what the United Conservative government might have in mind and how they should react.
“We’ve been contacted,” said Devon Page of Ecojustice, an environmental law firm. “We’ve been saying to the groups, ‘We’re here. We’ll respond and represent you as we have in the past.’
“What we’re trying hard not to do is to do what I think the Kenney government wants, which is to get distracted.”
Dyer and Stewart said their groups are about 85 per cent funded by Canadians. The Pembina Institute was founded in Drayton Valley, Alta., and its headquarters remain in Calgary.
Both called the war room political posturing aimed at the party’s base.
“A lot of the rhetoric around our work and our contribution to Alberta has been based on complete misinformation,” said Dyer, who pointed out Pembina has worked with virtually every major energy company in the province.
Stewart called the threats a rerun of the 2012 campaign against environmental groups fuelled by the right-wing The Rebel media group and led by Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives.
“We learned to play rope-a-dope,” said Stewart. “Stephen Harper was our best recruiter.
“We had people contacting us saying, ‘How do I lie down in front of a bulldozer?’ We don’t usually get a lot of those calls but we were getting a lot of those calls.”
Each group is confident in the accuracy of the facts it cites. Dyer said Pembina research has been used by investors, academics and governments.
Stewart said the issue isn’t facts, but how they are understood.
“Often what it is is a disagreement over which fact is important. Industry will say, ‘We’re reducing emissions per barrel.’ We’ll say, ‘Emissions are going up.’ Both statements are true and it depends which you think is more important.”
Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the Kenney government must tread carefully. It’s OK to defend your position, but not to threaten, she said.
“If we’re talking about initiating lawsuits against individuals or organizations on the basis of speaking out on issues of public importance, then that raises serious problems,” she said. “Then we have a much more obvious impact and potential violation on freedom of expression.”
The province could possibly expose itself to legal action if its statements harm a group or individual — say, by putting them at the centre of a Twitter firestorm, said an Edmonton lawyer.
“There’s certainly some kind of moral responsibility in terms of understanding that kind of highly charged rhetoric,” said Sean Ward, who practises media law. “You have to understand the consequences that are likely to follow.”
Ward said any cases the government funds would also be tough to win.
“There are a lot of available defences. It’s difficult to see that this sort of general debate they’re going to be able to shut down with defamation law.”
Environmentalists say their response will be to avoid distraction and carry on.
“The vast majority active in this place don’t want to go back to a high conflict, polarizing environment,” Dyer said. “We’re not interested in polarizing this debate.”
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
Politicians say elections law restricting partisan ads is ‘absurd,’ ‘lunacy’
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
Environment groups warned saying climate change is real could be partisan
OTTAWA — A pre-election chill has descended over some environment charities after Elections Canada warned them that discussing the dangers of climate change during the upcoming federal campaign could be deemed partisan activity.
An Elections Canada official warned groups in a training session earlier this summer that because Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has expressed doubts about the legitimacy of climate change, any group that promotes it as real or an emergency could be considered partisan, said Tim Gray, executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defence.
The Canada Elections Act dictates that advertising by third parties, like environment groups, can be considered partisan if it promotes or disputes an issue raised by any party or candidate during the campaign period, even without mentioning that party or candidate by name. If the ad campaign on that issue costs at least $500, the third party has to register as such with Elections Canada.
Gray says registering as a third party is not only onerous, it could also draw unwanted attention from the Canada Revenue Agency, which prevents charities who want charitable tax status from engaging in partisan activity of any kind.
It is “discouraging” that Environmental Defence and other charities may have to zip their lips about climate change being real during the campaign period “because one party has chosen to deny the existence of this basic fact,” he added.
“Obviously climate change is real,” said Gray. “Almost every credible institution on the planet is telling us to get our act together and do something about it.”
Last fall, the United Nations climate change panel, made up of hundreds of scientists from around the world, said if the world doesn’t act faster to cut global emissions the planet will face irreversible and catastrophic consequences.
Five of the six political parties expected to have any chance of winning a seat in the upcoming campaign agree that climate change is real and caused by humans. Bernier, however, is the one outlier: he believes that if climate change is real, it is a natural cycle of the earth and not an emergency.
“There is no climate change urgency in this country,” Bernier said in a speech in June speech. He also disagrees that carbon dioxide, which experts say is responsible for three-quarters of greenhouse emissions globally, is bad.
“CO2 is not ‘pollution,'” he tweeted. “It’s what comes out of your mouth when you breathe and what nourishes plants.”
Because of that, Elections Canada is warning that any third party that advertises information about carbon dioxide as a pollutant or climate change as an emergency could be considered to be indirectly advocating against Bernier and his party. Advertising can be considered partisan by Elections Canada even if it doesn’t mention a candidate or party by name, the agency’s rules say.
An Elections Canada spokesman confirmed “such a recommendation would be something we would give.”
Gray says the impact is stifling the conversation about climate change at a critical time.
“At this point, unless I can get greater clarification, after the writ is dropped we would stop doing anything online that talks about climate change, which is our entire mandate,” he said. “You feel you’re being drawn into this space where you’re being characterized as being a partisan entity for putting up Facebook ads that say climate change is real, which seems ridiculous to me.”
Environment groups in Canada are still on edge after spending much of the last five years fighting against the Canada Revenue Agency accusations and worry that if Elections Canada accuses them of being partisan, it will attract another round of audits for partisan activity. Gray said the two may have different definitions of partisan, but the fear is still having a chilling effect.
“We need to ensure that we’re not saying things that are going to be considered to be illegal by Elections Canada.”
It doesn’t mean Gray is forbidden from giving interviews about climate change during the campaign, he said. Rather, it would affect any kind of activity the group undertakes that costs more than $500, such as a Facebook ad campaign.
In 2012, the former Conservative government unveiled a $13-million audit program to seek out charities the Conservatives alleged were abusing their tax status with partisan activities. The probes went after two dozen environment, human rights, anti-poverty and religious groups — none of them considered partisan — for going beyond a rule that limited their spending to no more than 10 per cent of their funding on political advocacy work.
The program was launched as the Conservatives called many environment groups “radical” and a “threat” to Canada.
The Liberals promised to end what they called a “witch hunt” against any civil society groups that opposed the government’s policies. It took more than three years, but eventually legislation was changed last year to lift the 10 per cent limitation. The non-partisan rule, however, remains.
Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network Canada, called the Elections Canada warning “shocking.”
“Climate change is a scientific fact,” she said. “It’s not an opinion.”
The situation is “contributing to ongoing confusion” about what environment charities can and cannot do, and will give fuel to pro-oil groups that want to silence their opponents, Abreu added.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version included surveys as an example of possibly partisan activities.
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