Another day near Syncrude's oilsands site -- the kind of picture Alberta Inquiry Commissioner Steve Allan hates to see illustrating news stories. Pembina Instititute, Creative Commons/Flickr.com

The United Conservative Party and its allies are not being truthful when they say, “the public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns has confirmed that foreign donors gave $1.3 billion to Canadian environmentalists to harm Alberta’s energy sector.”

It confirms no such thing. 

I pulled that particular quote from a tweet published on the Twitter account of the UCP caucus in the Alberta Legislature, but anyone who is following news coverage of the report of the “Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns” will have seen many statements of this nature

Likewise, headlines that followed the release of the report saying things like “Foreign donors gave $1.3 billion to Canadian environmentalists to ‘hurt’ Alberta energy sector: Report,” were inaccurate. 

This is more likely attributable to journalistic laziness and haste, however, because that is precisely the impression UCP politicians strove to give, apparently with some success, even though the report itself says something quite different. 

That particular headline appeared in numerous Postmedia newspapers, and was later amended to read, “Foreign donors opened wallets to ‘hurt’ Alberta energy sector: Report.” One could argue the second headline is still misleading spin, but it is slightly more accurate. 

But the outright falsehood quoted above, and still visible in the URL of the edited National Post headline, is bound to appear over and over again on social media. Two or three years from now, we will likely still be seeing it from time to time. 

This will have the effect, as intended by many of the people who will continue to spread it, of reducing a dispute over facts to a mere he-said/she-said argument over opinions

Moreover, since Allan’s report is often impenetrable and at times incoherent, no one is going to take Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s risible advice to read all 657 often unintelligible pages before commenting. 

Therefore, in the interests of peacefully settling future family disputes over holiday dinners — should family get-togethers ever seem safe again, I have cobbled together the following chart to explain the various numbers from Allan’s report that you well see bandied about in the days ahead.

The $1.28-billion dollar figure in the first row of the chart is the total calculated by Deloitte Forensic Inc., the international forensic accounting firm engaged by Allan to assist him with preparing his report. It is Deloitte’s calculation of all funds from foreign sources received by Canadian and non-Canadian environmental charities for initiatives related to Canada between 2003 and 2019.

So, this number includes everything but the kitchen sink, including many projects that had nothing to do with Alberta or the oilsands. And the money came in over 16 years.

Numbers like this are habitually rounded upward by journalists, so it became the source of the $1.3 billion mentioned in the headlines. 

Allan is a forensic accountant. Why he didn’t do his own forensic accounting is a mystery to laypeople like me. Perhaps that’s a question someone could ask him if he ever appears again in public in Alberta. 

He was asked to pull this together because Alberta Premier Jason Kenney hoped to prove the conspiracy theory he repeated many times with great success on the campaign trail in 2019, that “foreign-funded special interests” had been “leading a campaign of economic sabotage against this great province.”

Kenney made that statement in April 2019, just after he’d been elected but before he was sworn in as premier. He went on: “To the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, Lead Now, the David Suzuki Foundation and all of the others — your days of pushing around Albertans with impunity just ended.”

There would be “a public inquiry into the foreign source of funds behind the campaign to landlock Alberta energy,” he vowed. “We will use every means at our disposal to hold you to account.”

Actually holding an inquiry turns out to have been another of Kenney’s bad bets. He would have been smarter to strike an “expert panel,” as he did to justify other policy choices. A panel could have said anything he wanted, without the legal constraints of a formal inquiry to stick to the facts. 

Deloitte’s accountants found from public sources that foreign funders, mostly in the United States, granted $925 million to Canadian environmental organizations for a variety of projects. This is the number in the second row of the chart. These projects included many initiatives that had nothing to do with Alberta or the oilsands. 

Indeed, a big one — the sum is redacted in the report but said to be $429 million by several journalists — went to Ducks Unlimited, now headed by Kenney’s former principal secretary, Larry Kaumeyer. Was that money used for an “anti-Alberta energy campaign”? Presumably not. 

The third row shows the $353 million Deloitte Forensic calculated was granted by U.S. charities to non-Canadian environmental groups to conduct initiatives related to Canada. 

Adding the $925 million and $353 million together gives the $1.3-billion estimate — so it is really nothing but a lie to suggest, as is repeatedly stated as fact by UCP supporters, that this money was all sent to somehow treasonous Canadian groups to harm Alberta’s fossil fuel industry. 

The next row shows Deloitte’s estimate of how much of that large pool of money was used over the 16 years to finance activities that actually opposed resource development in Alberta — which UCP supporters imply or state outright was the purpose of the entire $1.3-billion pool of funds. 

Finally, the $2.2 million to $3.5 million in the final row is an annual average of what the spending on what the government tendentiously calls “anti-Alberta energy campaigns” actually amounted to. 

And remember, this activity was entirely legal, only a matter of Canadians exercising their free speech rights. That was also the conclusion of Commissioner Allan. 

That annual $3.5 million is considerably less than the $30-million a year budgeted for the Alberta Energy War Room, also known as the Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., which was set up by the Kenney government in 2019. (That budget was reduced for 2020 owing to the effects of the pandemic.) 

Likely it is considerably smaller than the annual budget of the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the most prominent industry lobby group. Of course, we can’t know for sure, because CAPP doesn’t publish its budget.

An honest headline, then, would have been this: “The public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns has confirmed that foreign donors gave up to $3.5 million a year over 16 years to Canadian environmentalists.”

In other words: Pfffft! 

Legislature’s back to work this afternoon as UCP sinks in polls

The Alberta Legislature resumes sitting this afternoon with an ambitious legislative agenda, details of which will be announced to media this morning, and a serious problem with public support.

Numerous recent polls show the Opposition NDP leading the governing UCP by comfortable margins. One startling poll by Viewpoint Alberta shows NDP support province-wide at 50 per cent, 23 points ahead of the UCP, at 27! 

Some of the UCP’s new bills are expected to be unconstitutional, and are bound to be highly controversial. If so, while the UCP will have the votes it needs to ram its agenda through the legislature, it’s a bit of a stretch to say they still have a mandate to do it.

David J. Climenhaga

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...