Canadaland, or: four questions about an emerging petrostate

26 July 2013

My wife Rachelle tells me that I’m obsessed with Canada. I spent a few days up on Cortes Island last month at a conference on social change at Hollyhock (Dave Roberts from Grist was there too; here’s what he wrote about it) – and I pretty much haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

1. Canadaland

In 1967, my high school gym teacher took a bunch of us to Expo 67 in Montreal. How totally cool: me, a 15 year old, crossing an international border for the very first time – even if it was just north of Plattsburgh. The Canadians had a way better looking flag. The girls spoke English with a French accent. I think I ate poutine. Everything was scrubbed clean and shiny. The future looked great.


A couple of years later, I thought about Canada again, this time as a place of refuge, of sanctuary. I didn’t go – by the time I got my number, the Selective Service had suspended the draft – but I knew a couple of guys who did go, and the thought more than crossed my mind, aged 19, that yeah, I would do that, I would.

I’ve gone back across the border a few times since, backpacking in the Canadian Rockies, attending conferences mostly. The idea of Canada-as-refuge stayed with me, even after the war was over. I thought of it as America without the empire, without the racism, without the crazy politics. Beavers, and Loonies, and canoes, for chrissake. Michael Moore went looking for guns and locked doors and couldn’t find any. They already have a working single payer health care system, pretty much. Their National Film Board paid for Norman McClaren’s bebop films (for every $1 that goes to PBS and NPR, the CBC gets $10). And there’s an actual left wing political party.

This was a breathtakingly beautiful country, a simpler, easier and more open place whose language and gestures I could (pretty much, not including the French part) understood. There was room to breathe, and a social and political system that seemed to encourage that. Crossing the border felt, well, great. Hell, even the RCMP seemed like good guys. Hitchhiking across British Columbia and Alberta in the early 70s, sleeping overnight in the Kamloops BC baseball stadium with a bunch of other travelers, I was greeted, in the most friendly manner, by a Mountie inquiring as to our health and well being (and, of course, exactly how long we planned to remain in Kamloops).

Call it: Canadaland.

Of course, I was nostalgic for an imaginary country in a make believe time that ignored real people in a real place with a real history. But I was pretty happy there.

It’s as if there is a giant one way mirror along the border: the Canadians have a damned good picture of what’s going on down here; they have to. But if we see anything when we look north, it’s a very distorted view of things (e.g., mayors on crack) across the border. I was doing exactly that.

Which made this most recent trip all the more sobering.

2. Really-existing Canada

Today’s Canada is most definitely not a simpler and benign counter-example to the United States. Forget about that refuge/sanctuary thing. It’s also a lot more interesting than it used to be.

And one reason is that Canada is the front line in the battle over global energy strategy and our global response (or not) to climate change.

I won’t repeat all that’s been written about the climate impacts and local environmental consequences of Alberta tar sands development, except to say that we Americans have a pretty poorly formed understand of the immensity of this project – whether measured in terms of geographic impact on the landscape (a landscape, by the way, that is historic First Nation land), in terms of its climate impacts, or in terms of its significance in shaping domestic Canadian politics and the country’s position in the global market for energy. Here’s a quick but deep place to learn what it’s all about.

It’s a huge project, with huge consequences.

So I left Canada with 4 questions, and not a lot of answers

1. China

Is it true that Chinese demand for energy is the key to understanding Canada’s exploitation of the Alberta tar sands? Along with United States investors (among them, the Koch brothers), I understand that China is the largest foreign investor in the tar sands project. And the product itself is destined for Chinese consumption. Keystone XL is only one of three pipelines designed to move tar sands crude to tankers to Chinese industry; the other two – the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines – head west from Alberta, to ports in British Columbia. It may be that the Canadian pipelines are even more important for this export model than Keystone.

Sidebar: Is the Chinese interest in tar sands product (and other non-coal fuel sources, including, for example, domestic Chinese oil and gas obtained through fracking) an energy substitute for coal? In other words, are the Chinese looking to Canadian oil as a more efficient and less climate damaging product than their domestic coal supply? If that’s the case, then does Alberta – in an unhappy irony of history – become a regional sacrifice zone for the greater good of the Chinese people and, frankly, the globe? Or is this simply a matter of more: heaping this dirty crude product on top of the tons of coal already in use?

Either way, the core question is how far tar sands development goes in defining Canada’s position in global fossil fuel flows, and as a result, its position in a complicated and largely invisible foreign trade dance between China, Canada, and the United States (in our case, as much involving coal as oil). How important is the tar sands development in shaping North American trade relations with the rest of the globe at this moment?

2. The Canadian petrostate and the Harper government

Steven Harper’s conservative government may self-destruct before we get a chance to understand what its longer run significance might be (American politics may beat the Canadian version when it comes to scale, it turns out that Canadian politicians are just as venal as our guys). But the damage (if you agree with me that the Canadian system actually did work reasonably well and did not require the massive reductions in public funding the Harper regime has pushed through, not to mention the ideological attacks on his enemies and the use of old fashioned Canadian nationalism plus new fangled fear of terrorism to suppress dissent) may have been done no matter how long he’s in power.

I wonder if the new contour of Canadian politics – call it the Americanization of Canadian politics – is permanent. And with that, will we see a long, long period of big money (and mainly fossil fuel) dominance over national politics that reminds us down here of our situation, with a left that so far hasn’t found the story that will call their fellow Canadians back to greatness (because – Canadaland! – the alternative future of Canada is as a true global leader toward a sustainable future, unburdened by an empire in decline like their neighbors to the south). Has Canada, in other words, become the newest petrostate? Or as Brenda Sayers of the Hupacasath First Nation, located on Vancouver Island, put it, is Canada on its way to becoming a “resource colony for China?”

3. First Nations: the main line of defense

The history of First Nations treatment in Canada is hardly much better than in the United States, but after many years of struggle, at least in formal legal terms, Canadian indigenous peoples seem to have far stronger constitutional and treaty-based power than native Americans do in the United States (I think the better American analogy is the status of native Hawaiians – never a tribe, but a kingdom, whose rule was overthrown by white settlers in what can only be described as a coup).

To move the oil from the Alberta tar sands fields to British Columbia’s ports, the pipelines need to go through First Nations territory. And even though the Harper administration is doing everything it can to suspend and override treaty-bound rights, the main line of defense against tar sands export to China – hence keeping the oil in the ground – also goes through the First Nations. Almost completely unreported in the United States is that fact that the Beaver Lake Cree Nation have entered into litigation to block tar sands expansion in Alberta – and that they have a strong case. Likewise unknown are efforts by the Athabasca Chipewyan nation’s fight to stop tar sands operations in Alberta and pipeline construction, the consequence of which would be to raise the cost of an already costly operation, hence making tar sands oil less competitive on the world market. And they’re not alone.

4. Progressive infrastructure and power in Vancouver and British Columbia

I mentioned up top that I spent a week or so last month at Hollyhock, an excellent retreat and conference center on Cortes Island in northern British Columbia that has all the usual 21st century new age-politico-social changey lifestyle elements you’d expect to see. But there’s much more going on with Hollyhock than meets the cynical eye (c.f. Dave Roberts again).

The meeting I attended was a gathering of mainly Canadian (and primarily Vancouver and Victoria-based) climate activists, communications pros, a couple of funders, and some elected officials, too. The underlying purpose of the get together, I think, was to use this great place to tighten social relationships and create unexpected opportunities for new lines of connection – in order to strengthen the social change work that so many of these folks are doing back home.

Hollyhock is part of a remarkable progressive infrastructure-in-creation – a cultural and social node that complements other strategic that have been put in place over the past few years in British Columbia. Leadership development. Policy development. Social enterprise. Coordinated progressive philanthropy.

At the same time, a home-grown British Columbia progressive electoral powerhouse has grown up, too. It’s fueled the election of a progressive mayor in Vancouver (Gregor Robertson), a majority on the Vancouver City Council, and the election of some promising, young legislative leaders, too. (And in the “you’re known by the enemies you keep” department: BC progressives are being watched very carefully by national rightwing interests – witness this 2010  story in the conservative National Post newspaper).

To American eyes, what’s going on in Vancouver and British Columbia when it comes to building progressive infrastructure on the one hand, and real political power on the other, is incredibly inspiring (a carbon tax in British Columbia? Who knew?). It’s by no means perfect, not even close, nor is it clear that it has long term staying power. But this is a story almost entirely unknown to American progressives, and especially in these dark and parlous times, we need to take inspiration and learn from successes elsewhere. Vancouver is one of those places. As importantly, the B.C. progressive community stands alongside and behind the First Nation litigants, as the other primary barrier to successful rollout of the tar sands export model that could lock in a Canadian petrostate for at least a generation.

As Americans we could use a clearer sense of what’s going on to our north. It would help us grab hold of what’s really at stake in our own, domestic arena when it comes to energy and climate policy. And we need it right now, while the outcome is still contingent and unresolved.

It’s a great country, Canada. And this may be the most important story in its (real) history.

2 Responses to “Canadaland, or: four questions about an emerging petrostate”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post, bang on in many respects. I really should go to Hollyhock one of these years 🙂

    In other words, are the Chinese looking to Canadian oil as a more efficient and less climate damaging product than their domestic coal supply

    This does not make sense to me. Oil is not regarded as a substitute for coal, since they fuel different parts of the energy infrastructure. Coal is for electricity, oil is for transport. Of course, there are diesel generators and such, but they are used in places where electric infrastructure is not feasible or reliable, and are much less efficient.

    Petroleum coke from tarsands refining is sometimes used as a fuel, but it is a very very greenhouse gas intensive fuel.

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