“Lies,” “Misinformation,” and “Brave Research”: The Dangers of Kenney’s “War Room”

Last Friday, in a press conference in which he provided very little by way of actual detail, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney made it clear that he intends to use taxpayer money to the whopping tune of $30 million in various activities including paying “consultants” to target environmental groups and individual activists that he charges with spreading “lies and misinformation” about the oil industry in Alberta. It all remained vague. But in the course of the press briefing the Premier revealed the “war room’s” clear dangers when he spread his own “lies and misinformation” with his claim that the “explicit goal” of the environmental activist Tzeporah Berman is to “shut down” Alberta’s oil industry “right now.” It is true that Berman calls for a swift transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable resources but she herself could not possibly have been clearer, consistently, in key venues in which she has addressed this matter, that she is not calling for a shutting down of Alberta’s oil industry overnight. (Listen, for example, to her speech to the Alberta Teachers’ Association last Fall — a speech she was only able to give after being met with numerous death threats.) Kenney’s “war room” would silence Berman, who is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, because she is urging a cause that is not consistent with his political agenda — a cause that is not, as he would have it, about “landlocking” Alberta’s oil but about saving the planet and humanity (small matters he did not see fit to mention).

At the same time, the Premier touted the work of Vivian Krause, standing on stage behind him, as “brave research.” Ms. Krause’s “research” on the funding of environmental groups in Canada elicits wildly divergent characterizations. The Calgary Herald declares it to be “impeccable,” while The Narwhal notes that most of her claims have been “debunked.” What is clear: the “research” is funded by the oil industry, including CAPP. And while Krause accuses Canadian environmentalists of being foreign-funded, Krause herself, it appears, is or has been funded by at least one foreign group, the D.C.-based Atlas Network.

That a democratic government will use taxpayer money to fund a propaganda campaign defending an industry — an industry that, as Laurie Adkin (Political Science) noted in her remarks on today’s CBC Alberta at Noon program, is fully capable of defending itself, and already does so on an “enormous” scale that no environmental organization can begin to match — should alarm us all. All democratic jurisdictions need to be able to count on their governments to act in their interests, not the interests of an industry, and as much as the Premier would have us believe that the interests of Alberta’s oil industry and the interests of Albertans are one and the same this, too, is untrue. Taxes should never be used to fund propaganda on behalf of corporations. They should not be used now, in our moment of ecological crisis, to defend an industry, that has, whether we like it or not, a relatively short life remaining. We cannot do without the industry yet. We have much work to do to transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable resources. But we will have to do without the oil industry in Alberta sooner rather than later, if we are to meet the challenges of ecological crisis, and we must not allow the defense of an industry that cannot, in the end, survive result in any form of action that is undemocratic.

To protect Alberta’s oil industry, Kenney would have his “war room” target views that threaten his agenda. And that agenda, as Professor Adkin suggested today, is not truly about the economy. If it were, the Kenney government would be making different policy choices — choices that would involve ensuring “jobs and secure livelihoods” in a new global economy, and would focus on crucial matters such as ensuring sustainable agriculture for Alberta and safeguarding our water supplies. Instead — to extend upon his unpleasant military metaphor — Kenney would have Albertans pay for rhetorical artillery designed to suppress the information that others are marshalling in their various appeals to us to act while we still can to save Alberta’s ecology. Kenney’s aggression against those dealing in ideas and information that don’t serve his agenda — including facts that Albertans need to come to grips with if Alberta is to remain, along with the planet, inhabitable across the rest of this century — involves a very real danger. It is likely to create an intellectual climate antithetical to the public good, and particular forms of research.

Truly “brave” research in this moment in Alberta’s history will not be research funded by corporations to serve corporate interests, or anyone’s short-term ideas of what political power is for, but research oriented to the devastation we are wreaking, and how to save ourselves and the planet from it. The overwhelming amount of that research will be research — in science, engineering, the social sciences, the humanities, and environmental science — funded by the public, for the public good. It will, in short, be academic research. Albertans should prepare now to protect that kind of research, along with full-throated dissemination of it, from the ill-judged “war” to which Kenney has committed. 


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