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Regardless of Jason Kenney's tweets, the Corporate Mapping Project is uncovering data of value to citizens

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Premier Jason Kenney cutting red tape. Photo: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has a well-known propensity to blame Justin Trudeau for things that were done by Stephen Harper, as the debate over who is responsible for the time it's taken to complete the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project nicely illustrates.

So condemning Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau for the $2.5-million federal grant for an academic study of concentrated power and influence in Canada's fossil fuel industry was obviously too tempting to resist for Kenney or whoever does his tweeting for him, even though they ought to have known the grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada was approved on Conservative PM Harper's watch.

Quietly deleting the tweet -- "why did the Trudeau Liberals give $2.5 million to a left wing special interest group to attack our energy industry?" -- without acknowledging the error or apologizing when it prompted a flurry of corrections on social media is pretty much standard operating procedure for Kenney's party.

Kenney's tweet included a link to an op-ed in a Postmedia newspaper written by a couple of Canadian Taxpayers Federation operatives, Franco Terrazzano and Kris Sims. The CTF and the Fraser Institute apparently nowadays comprise a significant part of the Kenney government's research department. The record of the CTF indicates the mysteriously funded anti-tax lobby group has long had a bee in its bonnet about the SSHRC.

In reality, given the way the federal social sciences and humanities research-funding agency has operated since the government of Pierre Trudeau created it in 1977, SSHRC grant recipients are chosen by panels of their academic peers, who volunteer their time. There is no political oversight, nor should there be. This has been true under all prime ministers, Liberal and Conservative, for the past 42 years.

In 2015, when the Corporate Mapping Project received the now controversial six-year grant, it was one of the top-rated proposals for research projects involving groups outside the academy among more than 100 applications for that kind of support from Canadian scholars, CMP director Bill Carroll told me last week.

The outside groups involved in the project was the CTF's objection, and apparently the basis of Kenney's accusation, since one of them was the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive think tank partly funded by union donations. The CTF also has many anti-union links.

By the time more-detailed proposals were submitted by short-listed research groups that year, the CMP had moved up to No. 1, recalled Carroll, a professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, the project's sponsoring institution.

A key intention of the proposal and a key reason he believes it succeeded with the peer-review panel, Carroll noted, was that part of its concept was to dig out "knowledge of value to citizens in the democratic process" and then get "that analysis into the public sphere."

That is why the proposal included research into key influencers in the fossil fuel industrial ecosystem, its intricately interlocked corporate directorships, and its international connections, he explained.

The CTF broadside will likely not be the last, or the most intemperate, attack on the CMP now that it has appeared on the radar of the political right. A response by the CMP reflects the views expressed by Carroll in our conversation.

Jack Mintz, the conservative University of Calgary economist who was vice-president and chair of the SSHRC's governing council at the time the CMP grant was awarded, defends that approach to selecting grant recipients.

"It was never politically reviewed," Mintz told me last week, arguing that SSHRC grants cannot be described as being approved by either Harper's or Trudeau's government, since the process is scrupulously independent. "I didn’t know anything about it until it did become public."

That said, Mintz indicated he had reservations about the CMP project when he learned of it -- "I have to admit, my eyebrow went up" -- and wasn't particularly pleased to be identified in a CMP database as one of the key influencers behind the fossil fuel industry.

"If I was so influential, I could have stopped the grant," he said, adding quickly that he never raised the issue in council. "I didn't think that would be appropriate."

Still, Mintz worries the grant to this project sets a bad priority, and warns that "a grant like this could happen on the right."

Well, perhaps. Many scholars believe the SSHRC program under which the CMP application was made was set up to encourage partnerships between universities and industry. In other words, you might argue, more to grease the wheels of capital accumulation than to benefit ordinary Canadians.

Nevertheless, it was open to more than one kind of non-academic partner, allowing SSHRC to fund at least one project that was intended to help encourage a more robust democracy.

The SSHRC says on its website it "remains committed to engaging its stakeholder communities and demonstrating that the research it supports leads to benefits for Canadians."

The work it supports, it says, "spurs innovative researchers to learn from each other's disciplines, delve into multiparty collaborations, and achieve common goals for the betterment of Canadian society. Research is shared with communities, businesses and governments, who use the new knowledge to innovate and improve people's lives."

By that definition, the CMP is not a bad precedent at all. Do you think we should give Harper some of the credit for it?

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 Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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