In response to the latest of Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver’s tragically comic farces much ink has already been spilled. Among the numerous outraged ‘open letters’ and indignant counter rants in response, I continue to see some key points missing from the debate. Overwhelmingly, the outcry from environmental groups and concerned citizens has gone something along the lines of, “We live here! We’re average tax paying moms and dads! We certainly aren’t ‘foreign’, or ‘ideological’, or ‘hijackers’ and concern for our environment can’t be called ‘radical’!” Unfortunately, I have to disagree with all of that.
Lets start off with some badly needed perspective and a deeply unpopular assertion: it is the First Nations communities, (as far as our minister is concerned, lumped in with “foreign funded special interest groups,” working to “undermine Canada’s national economic interest”) that are the original “local” population of Canada. It is Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver, and the vast majority of the rest of us, living here in North America on land that was forcibly taken from its original inhabitants, who have always been the real foreign special interests. I realize this argument has been reduced to a merely semantic or theoretical one, as far as the actions of Ottawa and Canadians in general seem to be concerned- which is a whole other can of worms and a much larger problem. In this particular case, the First Nations groups are not only the original inhabitants of the lands in question, but some of the current local populations immediately impacted by the project as well- the proposed pipeline cuts through tribal lands and the Great Bear rainforest. Mr. Oliver generously acknowledges that any regulatory system must “consider different viewpoints including those of Aboriginal communities.” Although as MP Elizabeth May rightly points out, First Nations groups are not merely ‘communities’, but a level of government constituting “a nation to nation relationship,” nations whose sovereignty the federal government has a constitutional responsibility to uphold; Not just benevolently “consider their viewpoints” when it is convenient.
Joe Oliver himself seems to have an especially hard time with this concept. This attitude of expedient condescension towards First Nations is unfortunately just more of the same from the man who, in a CBC interview last September discussing the Alberta tar sands lamented the unemployment and “culture of despair” among the resident native population of the region he incorrectly identified as “Inuit.” The minister then proceeded to explain that “no community is being disrupted” by tar sands activities because “oilsands land, which only represents one-thousandth of our boreal forest, is uninhabitable by human beings.”
In this latest tirade the systemically racist, colonialist attitudes on display in Ottawa show their ugly face in the disturbing theme of a legitimizing Canadian ‘nationality.’ As so many have already pointed out, the glaring hypocrisy of defining foreign money used to fund tar sands development as “critical investment” and foreign money used to oppose tar sands development as “radical ideological hijacking,” seems too large of an irony for even Joe Oliver to miss. However, the other thought processes on display here are far less amusing. Not only is the assertion that the main opposition the Northern Gateway project faces is from foreign lobbyists demonstrably false, the idea that a Minister would attempt to equate critique from abroad with a direct assault on Canadian families is incredibly telling, and should be downright worrying.
This sort of ultra nationalist rhetoric is the hallmark of a deeply imperialist mentality: you are either a ‘patriotic Canadian’ who agrees with Oliver and cares about “the financial security of Canadians and their families” or you are ‘foreign radical’ bent on ideological warfare “no matter what the cost to Canadian families.” In short: “You’re either with us or against us.” The language used to describe opposition to the government line is violent and militarized: radicals threaten to “hijack”, “kill good projects” and “stack public hearings with bodies.” Shouldn’t it concern us that a government minister is using such language to talk about dissidents in an open and democratic society?
If the tactic of attacking tar sands critics for their dubious ‘foreign funding’ and straw manning vocal American celebrities also sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve already heard it before from tar sands ‘activist’ group EthicalOil.org, the brainchild of former Conservative Party staffers Ezra Levant and Alykhan Velshi (more on their particularly interesting history here). Shouldn’t it concern us that the words coming out of the mouth of a federal minister (and subsequently, the mouths of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Allison Redford) are lifted verbatim from the rhetoric of the oil lobby?
As foreign ideological radical David Suzuki says, “how you imagine the world determines how you live in it.” So, for the sake of argument, let us attempt to imagine the world according to Joe Oliver; the world that has both lead him to the conclusions expressed in this news release, and lead him to hold the position of power he currently enjoys over those who would question those conclusions. This is a world where might makes right, ends justify means and the power of the almighty dollar reigns supreme. In this world, the actions of the Harper Conservatives have illustrated repeatedly that putting our environment, our civil liberties, our democratic processes, the health of our communities, or even the health of the communities of others a world away above toeing the Conservative party line in the ultimate quest for profit is indeed a radical position to take. This is business as usual. So yes, Mr. Oliver correctly identifies holding a predominant concern for the long term health of our environment over a concern for the short term gratification of immediate profits as exactly what it is: a radical position.
In this world, the world imagined through the eyes of Minister Joe Oliver, or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, we are indeed the radicals. We are also certainly ideological. The important point to grasp is that Joe Oliver, Stephen Harper, and everyone else in power, are every bit as ideological as their detractors.
Linguistics professor Robin Tolmach Lakoff discusses this as ‘the neutrality of the status quo’ in her book The Language War. She argues to be ‘unmarked’ in language is to be in the dominant position, a signifier of power that otherness is measured against (ie. In English the masculine has been unmarked while the feminine is frequently the ‘marked’: tiger/tigress, doctor/ ‘lady or female doctor’, the generic use of “man” to refer inclusively to all of humanity- both men and women.) Thus, because we have ceded them the rights to power, it is the prerogative of the likes of Mr. Oliver and Mr. Harper to determine what defines the ‘neutral’ status quo, and that means defining who the outliers (ie. ideologues/radicals/dissidents) are. They have the power, which means their ideology is more correct than yours, which makes you the ‘marked’ exception to the rule: the radical. If this all sounds like something very different than the democratic ideal you believed was being upheld in Canada, that’s because it is. But more on that next time.
Let us pretend for a moment that we are all naive. That we live in a world where we expect our Minister of Natural Resources to be a leader in advocating for the responsible stewardship of Canada’s resources and promoting their sustainable development for the future. Let us pretend that we are appalled when instead what we find his job description entails is hard selling the least environmentally friendly of our resources to our neighbours while lobbying to undermine the efforts of our other trading partners on meeting their clean energy targets. Let us pretend that we are just the slightest bit uneasy with the fact that Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver is yet another white-male-lawyer-who-began-his-career-as-an-investment-banker before presuming to represent us in government. Let us pretend that we are scandalized that our minister of Natural Resources cannot even conceive of a world where finite fossil fuel resources do not dominate his portfolio. Let us pretend that we are shocked that a Canadian minister would even release such a document, which reads more like an inflammatory op/ed in the Edmonton Sun or the transcript of a Bill O’Reilly interview than a press release from a government office. That these points have not seriously been raised, owes I think, to our collective cynicism when it comes to such actions by our esteemed leaders. We are not really shocked to realize any of this. This is how the government works. This is how Reality works. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got and nothing else has proved to work any better.