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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Stelmach's dinner with Pelosi: much ado about nothing?

| September 18, 2010
Nancy Pelosi

It's not every day an Alberta politician gets to attend a three-hour business dinner with one of the most powerful women in the world.

In such circumstances, of course, even a mere photo opportunity might have been helpful to a beleaguered politician like Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

But to be invited to such an event must have seemed to our premier more like manna from heaven than the rubber chicken that was doubtless served because the powerful woman in question -- Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives -- was actually in a position to help him with something important to his increasingly truculent voters back home.

That something, of course, is the unpleasant and only partly misleading international reputation for environmental villainy that is sticking to Alberta's massive and economically important bitumen-sand mining operations along the Athabasca River, known to their supporters as the oilsands and to doubters as the tarsands.

So one can hardly blame the Alberta government's huge corps of Conservative spin doctors for doing its utmost to make the best of Premier Stelmach's opportunity to state his case about the security and environmental friendliness of our bitumen resources to Pelosi at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Ottawa last week.

But amid all this jubilance and hoopla by the PR specialists, and the positive media coverage it generated, it was easy for the rest of us to miss the obvious.

To wit: that this genuinely powerful American politician the very next day extended exactly the same courtesy to Stelmach's rivals, a group of environmentalists and First Nations leaders determined to express what the premier recently called "anti-Alberta" opinions. And let's face it, we're talking here about a group of people who would have had trouble getting a firm handshake and a warm cup of coffee from influential members of Stelmach's government.

In other words, stripped of all the hullabaloo and spin, our premier didn't seem to carry much more weight with the current U.S. government than any other group of foreign mendicants.

While Stelmach got fed, and the environmentalists apparently just got coffee, it sounds as if his invitation came mainly thanks to the efforts of federal officials who leaned on U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson to have Pelosi meet some local politicians from energy producing provinces. (Stelmach was accompanied by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Quebec premier ministre Jean Charest.)

Indeed, you could argue that the environmentalists got more respect from Pelosi and Rep. Ed Markey, the chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming who accompanied her to Canada, since they didn't seem to need the assistance of the Ottawa mandarinate to wrangle an invite.

One could even make a persuasive case that Pelosi was sending a message to the Canadian premiers by meeting so quickly afterward with less powerful folks who hold contrary views.

Even if this is overstating things, these circumstances hardly add up to the ringing endorsement of the Alberta government's position on the oilsands that the premier's PR machine has been making them out to be.

In fact, if you were paying attention, you will have noticed that the environmental and First Nations leaders emerged from their meeting with Pelosi just as star-struck and optimistic as her official Canadian visitors.

Said Stelmach: "I was quite buoyed leaving the meeting. All parties agreed the best solution to the environmental challenges is to work collectively across the border."

Said Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defence: "We're very confident they're going to be taking our message back to the U.S."

Few ordinary Canadians like us are likely ever to find out what was really said behind the closed doors of the U.S. Ambassador's residence. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling Premier Stelmach's communications team should hold off pealing the church bells with joy until we see what Pelosi actually does when she gets back to Washington, D.C.

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga's column in Friday’s edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta. It is also posted on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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