Tar czar: Ignatieff panders to Alberta's Big Oil

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Near the end of Michael Ignatieff’s True Patriot Love -- an exploration of the men in his mother’s family rushed to publication in an effort to assert his Canadian bona fides -- we are treated to a play-by-play of the road trip he and his wife took in 2000, retracing the pioneering sea-to-sea journey of his great-grandfather.

George Monro Grant used his 1872 expedition as the basis for his book Ocean to Ocean, essentially a propaganda tract for the railway barons of the CPR. Ignatieff might hope that the reminiscences of his summer vacation spent slumming it out West -- he and his wife took the back roads, searched for homemade pie and “stayed in small motels where we shared hot tubs or pools with truckers with sunburnt arms and faces” -- will help his electability.

But whatever populist points the travel diary might have scored are nullified once they reach Edmonton. Ignatieff writes, “We headed straight for West Edmonton Mall. My children had joined us by then and they had been told the mall was the largest in the world.” By the year 2000, everyone knew about this Edmonton claim to fame. I mean you would have to have been out of the country for, like, twenty-odd years not to have known that Edmonton had the world’s biggest mall. Ignatieff, indeed, was living abroad during the mall’s entire 23-year reign as the world’s largest, 1981-2004. I half expected Ignatieff to mention a statue of ‘some guy named Gretzky,’ especially knowing his past disparaging of Ukrainians. (The Great One’s father Walter is part Ukrainian, and speaks the language.)

And so today, lacking anything resembling a populist touch, Ignatieff’s western strategy seems to put a premium on full-scale pandering to the powerful oil industry.

In last year’s federal election, Stephane Dion and the Liberals were shut out of Alberta, and all but shut out of the West. The new leader desperately wants to turn this around. He’s so keen to win seats in Alberta, in fact, that he’s willing to trash the planet and sabotage the fight against climate change in the process. At least that’s what his recent tar sands boosterism would seem to indicate.

Earlier this year, at a Young Liberals event in Vancouver, Ignatieff gave this response -- substituting the industry-friendly term ‘oil sands’ -- to an earnest question about what he planned to do about the tar sands:

“This is where a chill falls over the room because everybody expects me to say that they’re terrible and we’ve got to shut them down. Absolutely not… and for once the word ‘awesome,’ that we overuse all the time, is truly what you feel when you’re there. It is awe-inspiring. The capital investment, the sheer size of this thing, the fact that there are 100 years of deposits…”

Ignatieff was positively gushing, exhorting his young audience to understand “how powerful the oilsands make us.”

This sort of indulging in grandiose rhetoric about Alberta’s tar sands is becoming par for the course with Ignatieff. In July, during the Stampede, he flattered a Calgary audience, “We have to be a party that understands that the beating heart of the Canadian economy, the beating heart of the future of our country, is in Alberta." Before that, he told the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, “The West is where the destiny of our country's economy will be played out.”

As for those who have pointed out that the destiny of the world’s climate crisis will be played out in no small part in northeastern Alberta, Ignatieff has no time for them. When National Geographic did a feature story on ‘The Canadian Oil Boom’ that included a shocking photo essay of the moonscapes and toxic ‘tailings ponds’ it leaves in its wake, the Liberal leader declared, “I don’t take lessons from National Geographic.” A more noxious sound bite emission would be hard to imagine.

Whether any of this will translate into Alberta seats for Ignatieff remains to be seen. His eroding support in Quebec may not be unrelated to his bombast about Canada’s ‘economic destiny’ out West. And we should always remember that there are Albertans who oppose the reckless development of the tar sands; the only non-Conservative MP in the province, the NDP’s Linda Duncan, founded the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton. She and NDP leader Jack Layton used their campaign plane to take the media on a fly-over of the tar sands on the first day of the 2008 campaign.

During the 2008 campaign, a big effort was made by some to call for strategic voting -- essentially an ‘anybody but Harper’ campaign, urging a vote for the Liberal, NDP or Bloc candidate (or Green leader Elizabeth May) deemed most likely to defeat the Tory -- through the popular voteforenvironment.ca website. Despite the Liberals’ atrocious record on greenhouse gas emissions while in power, this call had a certain appeal, given the fact that Stephane Dion had made the so-called ‘Green Shift’ the centerpiece of his platform.

This next time to the polls, coming soon, will be different. As on the war in Afghanistan and many other matters, Ignatieff and Harper appear to be in perfect agreement on the tar sands.

This time, if you are at all concerned about global warming and the environment, a vote for Ignatieff’s Liberals is anything but strategic.


Derrick O'Keefe is editor of rabble.ca and the author of the forthcoming Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? (Verso Books, Spring 2010).

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