Photo: flickr/Tar Sands Blockade

Whenever I travel abroad these days, I’m button-holed by anxious foreigners asking the same question: What happened to the civil, generous and globally engaged Canada?

My answer is blunt: An old mining republic with the reputation of a Dr. Jekyll has now banked its economic future on dirty oil. In the process, gentle Canada has become a bullying Mr. Hyde.

Over the last two years the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the son of an Imperial Oil accountant, has forcefully assaulted the nation’s democratic traditions, attacked environmental organizations and clashed with Canada’s one million Aboriginals. The country’s security forces even reclassified Greenpeace, a civil organization first started by Canadians and funded by three million ordinary people, as a “multi-issue extremist” threat.

At the same time Canada’s Hyde-like government has muzzled climate change scientists and trashed most of the country’s environmental legislation. In short, Stephen Harper has used Canada’s oil revenues to incrementally construct a right-wing petro state with a penchant for defense spending, electoral fraud, science bashing, Senate corruption and prison building. 

The commodity responsible for the new Canadian Hyde is none other than ugly bitumen. This low-grade crude has been so badly dissembled by bacteria that it must be mined in open pits or steamed out of the ground.

In the last decade, the world’s largest oil companies have invested more than $100 billion to dig up, upgrade and refine deposits of “difficult oil” under Alberta’s northern boreal forest. An area the size of the state of Rhode Island will eventually be excavated. But bitumen’s messy extraction has made Canada the U.S.’s number one oil supplier for more than a decade.

Federal greed has set an unsustainable growth agenda. The Harper government supports a tripling of tar sands production by 2035 for one reason: it currently stands to collect the largest share of oil rent or 41 per cent of $126 billion in bitumen revenues by 2020.

But securing this oil loot won’t be easy. Unfettered tar sands development has already glutted the U.S. marketplace. In fact U.S. demand for oil has declined by 4 million barrels a day due to new fuel standards, the recession and increased domestic production. Without piping landlocked bitumen to tidewater ports in the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Coast, Canada can’t transform itself into an “energy superpower.”

As a consequence the Harper government has bullied or axed any group or legislation standing in the way of bitumen exports. 

Environmental science was the first to go. More than 40 programs have been cut and some 2,000 scientists lost their jobs.

Ever since Harper assumed power in 2006 federal scientists have been repeatedly muzzled. Most can’t talk to the press without consulting “Media Relations Headquarters” or appear in public with government chaperones.

In 2013 the Victoria-based Environmental Law Clinic filed a formal complaint with the Information Commissioner of Canada on federal policies “to obstruct the right of the public and the media to speak to government scientists.”

Harper’s assault on scientific funding and monitoring has often defied reason. While a multi-million dollar government ad campaign champions more pipelines and supertanker traffic as “responsible development,” Harper has irresponsibly removed most environmental seat-belts. In 2012 it axed the nation’s ocean contaminants research program as well as the job of its lead research scientist Peter Ross.

It also killed the Experimental Lakes Area, a world famous freshwater research institute just as it was about to study bitumen contamination of rivers. At the same time the government cut the budget for the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER).

Democratic participation in national energy hearings have now been restricted. After 4300 citizens registered to participate in public hearings over the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline two years ago, the federal government changed the rules.

Now citizens must fill out a nine page form to determine who or who isn’t “directly affected” by the project. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver explained that changes were necessary because “Certain groups wanted to take advantage of the process to create delays and difficulties for the economic viability of the project.” The draconian measure has sparked a major lawsuit.

Next came the rewriting of the nation’s environmental laws. At the behest of pipeline companies and the Canadian Association of Pipeline Producers (CAPP), the Harper government trashed the Fisheries Act, the nation’s oldest and most effective environmental legislation.

In particular, Enbridge, one of the continent’s largest bitumen transporters, regarded the Act as “onerous” to pipeline river crossings and demanded changes. In an unprecedented 2012 omnibus bill that changed 70 laws without public consultation, Ottawa pointedly removed the whole idea of protecting fish habitat with no real scientific consultation.

The same omnibus bill also neutered the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. As a result, cumulative impact studies are no longer required for many resource projects in Canada. After Harper revised the act, 2,970 development projects immediately got a free pass from Ottawa. Not surprisingly, one third involved energy or pipeline proposals.

After first exempting pipelines and transmission lines from the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the government then rewrote the venerable piece of legislation. It once championed the rights of ordinary Canadians and aboriginals to canoe the nation’s waterways.

The new changes effectively eliminated federal protection for 32,000 major rivers and some two million lakes. First Nations found the revisions so offensive that they launched a grassroots movement, Idle No More, to defend Canada’s water and environmental heritage.

Meanwhile the exploits of Harper’s associates have given Canada’s oil obsessed politics an unfamiliar brand: criminality. Bruce Carson, a convicted thief and disbarred lawyer, served as Harper’s top senior adviser, from 2006 to 2008. With government funds, he later ran a university energy think-tank that mysteriously spent most of its time on how to cleanup the dirty image of the tar sands.

After Thomas Flanagan, a key Harper adviser, recently argued that watching child pornography was the not as grievous as making it, the media condemned him. Three Harper appointed Senators are now being investigated by federal police for defrauding taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Arthur Porter was recently arrested in Panama on fraud charges. He formerly served as the former head of Canada’s spy agency watchdog, the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

The government’s unfettered support of pipelines and rapid bitumen development has also made Canada a climate change laggard.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now estimates that bitumen comes with a 17 per cent larger carbon footprint than conventional oil due to its energy intensity. The project, Canada’s largest growing source of climate-changing pollution, now represents about seven per cent of Canada’s total emissions. (By 2020 the project will account for 14 percent of national emissions and exceed carbon pollution from all passenger vehicles and electricity generation in Canada.)

Instead of addressing these liabilities — Canada was a leader on climate change prior to becoming an oil exporter — the government has largely denied them. Canadian officials have actively obstructed international climate talks and lobbied against the European fuel quality standard as well as California’s low-carbon fuel standard. Moreover, Harper, who once called Kyoto Protocol a socialist plot, officially withdrew Canada from the agreement without a replacement plan in 2012.

Harper’s assault on Canada’s reputation has not gone unnoticed at home or abroad. Even his own party members have challenged his authoritarian ruling style.

Calgary-based journalist Chris Turner argues that the pursuit of bitumen exports has diminished the country. “Stephen Harper’s Canada is a country where a malicious and transparent agenda has been pursued to reduce the government’s ability to gather data about the natural world,” and “to eliminate the organizations charged with producing and interpreting that data wherever possible — all of it to rush the country headlong into an age of willful blindness.”

And that’s a fitting description of Canada today where a civil Dr. Jekyll, drunk on dirty oil revenue, has become a ghastly Mr. Hyde. 

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, and contributing editor to The Tyee. A version of this essay originally appeared in the German journal Internationale Politikanalyse.