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With assault rifles and legal hijinks, Harper’s government takes on the Canadian environment

They came at dawn. Police officers in riot gear wielding assault rifles and flanked by attack dogs took aim at protesters in the camp. Their targets, the police had been told, were dangerous and possibly armed.

The protesters were there to stop an American company exploring for fracking opportunities near the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. It was October 2013. They’d been there for months — chanting, banging drums, camping out, blocking trucks — before the government ordered the raid. The company, SWN Resources, was losing tens of thousands of dollars a day. Stephen Harper, the prime minister since 2006, was losing an opportunity to put Canada on the path to energy superpowerdom.

Protestors demonstrate against a company exploring for fracking opportunities near the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick in 2013. Photo credit: Flora Levi.

“It was very shocking and sad,” Susan Levi-Peters, a former Elsipogtog chief, told mongabay.com. “Nobody expected it. They had us labeled as terrorists and that’s exactly how we were treated.”

The day ended with police cars on fire, protesters injured and 40 arrested, but the way was clear for fracking exploration to continue. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) say the protesters were armed with guns and were violent, charges the protestors deny.

Three months later the RCMP produced a classified report, released under freedom of information requests, that revealed that the government was concerned the protest would lead to a nationwide environmental movement. It called the protest a “violent criminal response” to “enforcement actions” and “the most violent anti-petroleum actions experienced thus far in Canada.”

The people who had protested fracking in New Brunswick were not alone, the report said. “The Canadian law-enforcement and security intelligence communities have noted a growing pan-national — fringe — violent extremist faction that is ideologically opposed to the Canadian petroleum industry,” it read.

“They made criminals out of us because we wanted to protect our land and water,” said Levi-Peters. “That’s exactly what their role was — to make criminals out of my people. And put them through an ordeal of punishment.”

Protestors demonstrate against a company exploring for fracking opportunities near the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. Police raided the protest camp in October 2013, arresting 40. Photo credit: Belinda Levi.

Several Elsipogtog protestors remained in prison for months afterward, reportedly confined in solitary for 23 hours a day for weeks at a time; two young men, ages 20 and 21, were eventually sentenced to more than a year in prison on charges related to possessing firearms and assaulting police at the protest.

A year later, the New Brunswick government issued a moratorium on fracking in the province. An executive from SWN Resources warned in a letter obtained by Global News that the moratorium would prevent his company from even doing the exploratory work needed to frack in the future. The provincial government stood firm. In March, SWN announced it was pulling out for the foreseeable future.

So in the end, the protesters could claim a kind of victory. But the incident laid down a marker, a notice for environmentalists across the nation, that showed whose side the Harper administration was on and the lengths it was willing to go to ease the way for extractive industries projects across Canada. 

 

Harper’s mission

 

Canada is a country of unparalleled natural beauty. Its forests stretch almost endlessly; in spring, out west, emerald rivers tumble and twist through the mountains to impossibly blue lakes. Elk and caribou roam. Grizzlies snuffle in the grass next to highways.

Atop and beneath these epic landscapes lies incredible natural wealth: copper, gold, fish, oil, gas, lumber. Much more, more than anyone even knows.

The current government of Canada sees this natural wealth and appreciates its value. To Prime Minister Stephen Harper and like-minded members of parliament and officials in provincial governments, Canada’s bounty is there for exploitation. And why not? There’s so much out there, they say, an inexhaustible amount. Resource companies are only too happy to agree.

During Harper’s nine years in power, regulation of natural resource exploitation has plummeted. The bureaucracies charged with protecting the wilderness and its riches have been eviscerated. Funding for environmental research, especially on climate change, has dropped almost to zero. And arrests and prosecutions of people opposed to industrial development have mounted.

So has resistance to these policies.

“Harper is always talking about Canada becoming an energy superpower,” David Schindler, a retired ecologist who helped found the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned research site in Ontario, told mongabay.com. “Well, that’s absurd. It’s kind of a strange megalomania that’s driven him. He seems to understand or care about very little except the economy, and I’m not sure he really understands even that.”

The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

 

Protesting difficulties

 

One of the most striking things about Harper’s pro-extractive industries, pro-fossil fuel agenda is how difficult it has become to resist. In particular, protesting against environmental degradation has become risky.

According to the RCMP report produced after the New Brunswick raid, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and “violent aboriginal extremists,” among others, use social media to promote a message the petroleum industry considers dangerous, “drawing public attention to … the perceived environmental threat from the continued use of fossil fuels.”

That is what the police and the petroleum industry, the report concluded, “must be prepared to confront as the development of Canada’s petroleum resources continues and expands.”

Scene from a protest against a company exploring for fracking opportunities near the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick in 2013. Photo credit: Belinda Levi.

The report emerged at a time when the government was beginning to equate environmentalists with domestic terrorists bent on a destructive, threatening ideological agenda. In 2012, Joe Oliver, then the minister of natural resources and now the minister of finance, attacked environmentalists in an interview with CBC News, referring to them as “people who don’t take into account the facts,” who are funded by “foreign special interest groups,” and who are pursuing a “radical ideological agenda.”

Researchers from Queen’s University in Ontario and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, drawing on government documents they obtained under freedom of information laws, found that in recent years Canada’s security services have shifted focus from al-Qaeda-inspired terror groups to a new threat category called Multi-Issue Extremism (MIE). MIE groups include Greenpeace and PETA and in government documents are “described as activist groups, indigenous groups, environmentalists and others who are publicly critical of government policy,” the researchers reported in a 2011 paper.

Government policy and national security, it seems, were becoming one and the same, especially when it came to Canada’s natural resources. Object to one and you threaten the other.

“Intelligence agencies,” the researchers wrote, “have blurred the categories of terrorism, extremism and activism into an aggregate threat matrix … CSIS [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service] increasingly blurs categories of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, by which ‘extremism’ becomes a catch-all for a host of groups associated with civil disobedience and direct action.”

The result is a climate of fear and mistrust. Over the past nine years the Harper government has made it harder to advocate for or implement an environmental agenda. Environmental groups have come under surveillance by the police and been labeled radical and dangerous threats to national security.

As the Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde told the House of Commons public safety committee in May, “We don’t want to be labeled as terrorists in our own territories, our own homelands, for standing up to protect the land and waters.”

 

“C-51 is not an anti-terrorism bill”

 

Bellegarde was voicing his opposition to Bill C-51, Harper’s anti-terrorism legislation, which passed the Senate on June 9, 2015. Bill C-51 appears at first to be the kind of legislation that expands the power of the police and intelligence agencies to fight terrorist attacks on Canadian soil, like the killings of two Canadian soldiers last year, which ISIS later claimed were inspired by its calls for international jihad.

Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, speaks at the 2012 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Monika Flueckiger.

But it’s more than that, critics say. “C-51 is not an anti-terrorism bill,” reads a Feb. 5 editorial in The Globe and Mail. “Fighting terrorism is its pretext … CSIS will be able to disrupt anything its political masters believe might be a threat. As the bill is currently written, that includes a lot more than terrorism.”

C-51 identifies “interference with critical infrastructure” and “interference with … the economic or financial stability of Canada” as activities that undermine Canada’s sovereignty and security. Environmentalists and human rights groups worry that the new laws criminalize peaceful protests against industrial development, especially against what the government calls “critical infrastructure.” It also extends the reach of CSIS and other police and surveillance forces to monitor and share information about Canadians who are deemed threatening. In the past, this often included entirely peaceful environmentalists and indigenous rights activists.

Activists have spoken out. One indigenous environmental advocate called the bill “open season on First Nations who are speaking out”; other observers have charged that Harper is turning Canada into a “police state.”

Even before C-51 the government prosecuted a 61-year old man from Montreal who cut out letters from a magazine and pasted them onto a piece of paper that he sent to a local newspaper. He appeared to be angry that the government hadn’t imposed a moratorium on fracking, writing, “We don’t have the choice, we will impose our own moratorium and we’ll take the necessary measures to have it respected,” according to the CBC. The government took this threat so seriously that it charged him under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

 

“This is what’s happening in Canada right now”

 

Harper’s government has more subtle ways to discourage environmentalists; it doesn’t always need to throw around the “terrorist” label.

Consider the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, which was passed at the end of June 2012. Ostensibly, this was a budget bill, introduced by the minister of finance, but just as C-51 is more than an anti-terror law, C-38, as it is known, is much more than a budget.

“Most Canadians have no idea how seriously Bill C-38 will affect their lives,” Elizabeth May, the head of the Green Party, wrote in an opinion piece as Conservatives hurriedly got the bill through initial hearings.

C-38 canceled almost 3,000 environmental assessments nearly overnight, including one of a pipeline that crossed 16 waterways. The Navigable Waters Protection Act, one of the country’s oldest laws that said no one could disrupt navigation on any body of water that was deep enough to float a canoe on — basically every body of water in the country — was changed to protect just a handful of lakes and rivers, plus the three oceans. Funding for science research was drastically cut. The Fisheries Act, which protected Canada’s fish and their ecosystems, was gutted. Environmental review periods of major infrastructure projects were shortened.

“This is what’s happening in Canada right now,” Lynne Quarmby, a microbiologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, just outside Vancouver, told mongabay.com. Quarmby helped lead protests against a pipeline last year after the company building it cut down a bunch of trees in a locally protected conservation area during exploration work. “These companies say they have federal authority and that trumps any local authorities.”

Lynne Quarmby, a microbiologist at Simon Fraser University, talks to media at a protest against a pipeline at the Burnaby Conservation Area in 2014. Photo credit: Mychaylo Prystupa.

Federal authority over environmental policy is what Harper seeks. His government made specific efforts to centralize important environmental decisions, especially when it comes to large projects like major pipelines and the exploitation of oil sands in Alberta, and at the same time to weaken the required review and regulation measures.

C-38 lifted many restrictions that had been in place to ensure industrial development was as environmentally conscious as possible. The National Energy Board (NEB), for example, no longer required companies seeking an oil and gas export license to consult with Canadian citizens.

“Public hearings, with respect to gas export and import licenses, are no longer mandatory,” reads an NEB memo from July 2012. “Information respecting the potential environmental effects of the proposed exportation and any social effects that would be directly related” no longer needed to be submitted.

“Exports have no physical effects,” read a letter sent from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to the environment minister a few months earlier, in March 2012, before C-38 became law. “They are a commercial transaction … and have no environmental or First Nations impacts.”

It would be better, CAPP wrote, if future oil and gas export projects were not “delayed because the NEB elected to address environmental and First Nations consultation issues.”

NEB appears to have granted CAPP’s wishes. In fact, in 2013 Greenpeace researchers revealed that many of the changes to environmental legislation and regulation under C-38 had been proposed by the oil and gas industry.

Writing to the environment and natural resources ministers in December 2011, the heads of four major fossil fuel industry associations complained that existing legislation was “out-dated” and overly “focused on preventing bad things from happening.” The letter outlined ways to weaken and “create a more modern, integrated, efficient framework” for the Species-At-Risk Act and the National Energy Board Act, among other pieces of legislation.

“They got the changes that they wanted,” Keith Stewart of Greenpeace told the CBC.

Not only was protesting energy projects that were detrimental to the environment becoming extremely difficult, but under C-38 companies were now no longer required to offer the public a chance to challenge some of the biggest ones before they broke ground.

 

“It’s going to take at least a decade to unravel all of the damage”

 

Some environmentalists think that C-38 and other legal hijinks have done so much damage to the people and laws that protect the environment and its resources that it will be years before Canada can recover, if ever.

“It’s going to take at least a decade to unravel all of the damage to legislation and government organizations and so forth,” said Schindler, the ecologist. “We’ve never seen this sort of thing before. It’s kind of shocking.”

Government-funded scientific research has been particularly hard hit, several former government researchers told mongabay.com. “It does not appear to be a science friendly government,” said Steve Campana, a scientist who worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for over three decades before leaving after Harper’s changes took hold. “The atmosphere was so toxic I just got fed up.”

“The government is not consulting science and scientists when it does its work,” Campana said. “There were policies in place to discourage science from getting done.”

Campana described a climate were scientists’ communication with the media became nearly impossible on even trivial matters; where invaluable scientists would be let go and not replaced; and where the research budget “dropped pretty close to zero.”

“I remember an international freshwater conference held in Winnipeg in 1974,” recalled Schindler. “And there were statements of amazement from the Swedes and the Germans and almost everyone else at how powerful Canada was in the field of freshwater science. That has run down, down, down. And then under Harper they’ve all but finished it off.”

Campana said the Harper government even made it onerous for scientists to accept funding from outside sources for non-threatening research. He was forced to wait a year to get the green light to accept funding for a project on lake trout, one of the most common fishes in Canada.

“I’m not talking about controversial science here,” he said. “A lot of our science dealt with non-controversial issues, things that would be a huge bonus not only to the people of Canada and the businesses of Canada, but also to the government of Canada. It’s really hard to rationalize why research like that would be blocked.”

Even as government policies and bureaucratic dysfunction hampered the work of scientists, legislation took aim at the ecosystems they studied and supported with scientific research. A vital provision in the Fisheries Act that prevented “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat” was replaced with the far more ambiguous, “serious harm to fish.” Damaging but nonlethal development of fish habitat was now fine, Harper’s government was saying. Plus, as Schindler wrote in a scathing blog post in May, fish that weren’t of any commercial, recreational, or Aboriginal importance were abandoned completely.

The new law “rejects the biological connection between the persistence of fish and the persistence of their habitats, as well as the interconnectedness of many waterbodies,” a professor at the University of British Columbia wrote in a blog post.

A Conservative former minister of fisheries and oceans called the changes “a mistake.” His successor called them “appalling.”

 

No Parks banner

 

Parks Canada has been especially hard hit under Harper. Just before C-38 was signed into law, Parks employees started getting word that their jobs were “surplus.” Harper’s budget slashed the agency’s funding and nearly 700 workers lost their jobs. A few weeks later, Parks workers were told in an official letter that it was their “duty” to support the Harper administration. They were warned not to speak publicly about the cuts and reminded they should be loyal to Harper.

The government wanted complete control over the narrative of budget slashes and job cuts; it also wanted credit for any successes Parks achieved. In 2011, Parks planned a news conference to celebrate the creation of a protected reserve on Sable Island, a remote spit off the coast of Nova Scotia. By the day before the news conference Parks officials still had not gotten clearance on the agenda and news releases from the Privy Council Office, which is under the Prime Minister’s control, according to a CBC report.

When the office finally responded, almost all mentions of Parks Canada in the press releases and event agenda had been removed. “I have never seen our name completely eliminated in this manner before,” one Parks official wrote, according to documents released under access to information laws almost two years later. Even a banner that celebrated the Parks centennial wasn’t to be displayed.

“No Parks Canada banner — the brown and yellow is ugly. Please stop using this,” an unnamed official requested.

 

“You’re not even allowed to pick flowers there”

 

The true impact of Harper’s environmental strategy is difficult to measure. Police don’t release statistics on arrests for environmental issues. But the two biggest clashes between the government and environmentalists — the New Brunswick raid and the more recent protests in Burnaby — snagged national headlines and shocked many Canadians. To many people, it seems Harper and his allies are successfully pushing a slow and steady revolution where those that seek to protect the environment are, inch by inch, losing ground to resource companies eager for opportunities to exploit Canada’s vast natural wealth.

Quarmby, the microbiologist at Simon Fraser University, was sitting in her office in October of last year when she caught word that energy-infrastructure company Kinder Morgan was in the forest down the road, cutting trees.

A view from Burnaby Mountain, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Plans for an oil pipeline and expanded oil tank facility on the mountain, a protected park, sparked protests and opposition. Photo credit: jan zeschky.

Kinder Morgan plans to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from the tar sands in Alberta to the British Columbia coast, where oil will be stored in an enlarged tank farm, loaded on ships, and exported. The pipeline will go under Burnaby Mountain, a protected forest in Burnaby. Quarmby’s university sits at the top of the mountain.

The news that Kinder Morgan was doing exploratory work on the mountain came out of the blue. “You’re not even allowed to pick flowers there,” Quarmby said recently. And yet, when she went down there, there was the drilling equipment, the workers, the trucks, the cut trees.

Kinder Morgan, it turned out, had authority directly from the Harper government to conduct exploratory work for its proposed pipeline. It didn’t matter that the land they wanted to drill through was a protected conservation area.

Quarmby and others led protests against Kinder Morgan, blocking access to the company’s boreholes for days. As awareness grew and more and more people began to show up, the company was forced to stop working. Just like in New Brunswick, the company, losing money, called on the court and the police to enforce the Harper administration’s laws.

Quarmby recalled: “In the wee hours of the morning they came in and just started arresting people. It was kind of a rough day.”

Days later, there was a commotion outside Quarmby’s office at SFU. “I walked out and somebody handed me this,” she said, holding up a hefty bound book. It was stamped with the seal of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and it had Quarmby’s name on it, along with one of her colleagues from SFU and a couple other people. “A little intimidating to see a piece of paper that says you’re a defendant in a Supreme Court case,” she said.

Police meet protesters at a rally against a pipeline on Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia, in November, 2014. Photo credit: Mark Klotz.

Kinder Morgan claimed that Quarmby and the other protesters’ presence at their exploration site was causing the company to lose money, and the police were needed to come in and put a stop to it. It claimed the protesters were costing it $5.6 million in lost expenses, an amount it sought to recoup from the defendants.

“5.6 million dollars!” Quarmby exclaimed. “They’re not going to get it, first of all. You can’t get blood from a stone. It was all about silencing me.”

“I feel outraged politically that this could happen in a democracy,” Quarmby’s colleague and fellow protestor, English professor Stephen Collis, said at the time, “that a foreign massive company can accuse you of trespassing on a park.”

In November, a judge threw out the charges against the 100-plus arrested protestors, including Quarmby and Collis, in part because Kinder Morgan had gotten the coordinates of the area protesters were supposed to keep out of wrong; all the arrests had taken place in the wrong spot.

But the pipeline’s route under Burnaby Mountain is still a go. Additionally, the company plans to more than double the number of oil storage tanks in the city of Burnaby, something the city and environmentalists say is a crazy idea.

The plan woefully underestimates the dangers of an accident, according to the city’s fire chief. Uncontrollable fires, toxic gas, and exploding tanks are just some of the risks of expanding the facility, Burnaby’s fire chief wrote in a scathing report in May 2015. An earthquake or a welding mistake, for example, could set off an industrial disaster like nothing the Vancouver area has ever seen.

Oil storage tanks on Burnaby Mountain, just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. The installation is slated for expansion, over the objections of Burnaby’s mayor, fire chief, and many residents. Photo credit: judy_and_ed.

There is only one road down Burnaby Mountain from Simon Fraser University. A fire could trap thousands of students and staff. Forest Grove Elementary School, at the bottom of the hill, shelters almost 300 young students. It is “in immediate danger of exposure to hazardous event exposures,” according to the report.

“The terminal in Burnaby has been operating safely for 60 years,” an executive told the local paper in response to the report. “We are confident in our ability to prevent and respond to all kinds of incidents,” he said, adding “the risk of a fire at the terminal is low.”

Derek Corrigan, the mayor of Burnaby, disagrees. “We’re a very important port. We’re a tourism mecca. We’re a city that prides itself on its physical beauty. And here we are looking at potentially having all of that threatened on a regular basis in order for multinational corporations make a lot of money,” he told mongabay.com.

He figured the Harper government ought to have some plan to protect the lives and livelihoods of Canadian citizens as it developed projects like the pipeline and oil terminal expansion in Burnaby.

“When they [Kinder Morgan] approached and I began to understand that this was going to go before the National Energy Board, my immediate reaction was to call the NEB and ask them about their policies and about what kind of national strategy there was for these pipelines,” he told mongabay.com. “What I found out was that the NEB is simply a facilitator for these companies and there was absolutely no national strategy, no national policy and no national plan. The very things that we do to look after our cities were nonexistent at a national level.”

“In essence,” he concluded, “we have had a national government that simply works on the basis of a corporate agenda and answers to the lobbyists that are consistently camped out in Ottawa.”

Derek Corrigan, mayor of Burnaby, British Columbia, addresses a crowd protesting a pipeline planned to run under the Burnaby Mountain protected area, in September, 2014. Photo credit: Mark Klotz.

 

October elections

 

At the Burnaby Conservation Area recently, the forest was quiet and calm. The morning sun shone through a thick forest of bigleaf maple, redcedar, hemlock and fir trees, some of them hundreds of years old. A chorus of bird calls rang through the trees. Yellow buttercups and raspberry bushes taller than a man grew next to the footpath. On that day it felt alive, thriving, at peace.

Around Christmastime last year, two weeks after Harper said it would be “crazy” for Canada to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, a poll came out finding that Canadians’ support for his environmental agenda was, in fact, growing. Forty-one percent of those polled agreed that the government was doing a good job protecting the environment, an increase of four percentage points since the year before.

A national election is scheduled for October. The most recent polls say Harper’s conservatives hold a strong and growing advantage. But their policies, especially on the environment, have stirred ire across the nation, in disparate communities. Quarmby, whose activism in Burnaby caught the eye of Green Party leader Elizabeth May, is now running for parliament. Others like her are resisting what they consider the reckless development of Canada’s natural resources and the destruction of the environment. The question is, can they build the popular will and political power to fight against Harper’s agenda before it’s too late?