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Labeling critics of the oil sands 'enemies' is downright dangerous

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Recent polls suggest that public opinion of Canada's oil sands is becoming increasingly polarized. You are either for the wholesale exploitation of the resource at any cost, or a cold turkey shutdown, at any cost.

However, many Canadians are still on the fence.

In the public debate, all of the usual suspects have blood on their hands, myself included. I've done my share of fighting as a communications strategist for environmental groups over the years. It's a job that has paid my bills, and because I've always believed in free speech, I never had concerns about the work.

Enemy of the state

All of that changed last week, when I decided to swear an affidavit and write an open letter to Canadians, detailing a disturbing story that ultimately cost me my job.

In my affidavit, I cited several senior sources at Tides Canada (an environmental charity), alleging that the Prime Minister's Office labelled ForestEthics Canada (a Canadian environmental group) an "Enemy of the Government of Canada," and "An Enemy of the People of Canada."

I'll leave it to Canadians to judge the morality of a government that would label its own citizens "Enemies of the State," but needless to say, this experience touched a nerve shared by tens of thousands of fellow Canadians. My open letter has been shared and read online more than 65,000 times since I posted it. I've received hundreds of emails and phone calls of support from Canadians from all walks of life and political persuasions. The consensus has been that the government went too far, and this was a wake up call about just how uncivil the public debate over Canada's oil sands has become.

This story is not about politics and polarization, it is about citizenship, and so too should be the development of Canada's oil sands. The middle way I am proposing here will not be loved by the hyper partisans, but it will be supported, I think, by a majority of Canadians.

First things first: the oil sands exist, production is underway, the Canadian economy is now joined with them at the hip. An amputation is not possible, but intensive care based on the following four key ideas will benefit Canadians:

1. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline should not be built. It is a bad project that would entrench Chinese ownership of Canada's oil sands and pose an unnecessary risk to British Columbia's wild salmon fisheries. The Skeena river fishery alone is valued at $110 million per year. Building the pipeline would violate First Nations rights, making responsible resource development in Northern B.C., including natural gas and mining, much more difficult.

2. Regulation needs to catch up with production. In 2010, the Royal Society of Canada's expert panel warned about this. We know very little about the toxins and acid rain flowing into the Athabasca watershed and crossing the border into Saskatchewan. What we do know is that First Nations downstream are experiencing higher than normal rates of rare cancers. This shouldn't be happening in Canada.

3. Oil sands production should match a rate that climate change scientists say is safe. In the era of climate change, when scientists say we could reach summer temperatures as high as 52 degrees Celsius in cities like New York, as soon as 2035, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to develop this resource safely and responsibly. Unsustainable oil sands development would contribute to a future scientists say could include a 40 per cent reduction in rice and maize production, at a time when the world's population is heading towards nine billion. Don't tell me the Chinese will accept a peaceful slowdown in oil extraction when their people are starving.

4. Slow down production to extract the maximum value and develop a royalties system that will look after Canadians long after the oil sands are gone. Norway accumulated more than $510 billion dollars in its state pension plan when its oil fields were producing. The Norwegians are laughing at us. Why would we sell our best and most accessible oil as quickly as possible to the Chinese? Why ship it like raw logs when we could be making Cadillac prices? The price of oil is only going up. The longer we extend this resource, the richer we will be.

Polarization is not helpful

There are other arguments I could make for the middle way in oil sands development, including the fact that many experts believe we have enough existing pipeline capacity to meet any reasonable growth in production, and the U.S. will buy our product 'til the cows come home, but I'll save that for another column.

The thing I want to impress upon Canadians, is that we are citizens and we have responsibilities to one another and to the global community that we are currently failing to meet.

Polarization is not helpful. Labelling critics "enemies" is downright dangerous.

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