The Danger of Monologues

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog, and in an edited form in The Mark.

These days, Canada seems to be a country of monologues. On complex and multifaceted issues like the environment, or the economy, we are increasingly dividing ourselves along partisan lines, pushing our own agendas, and entirely dismissing any counterarguments, debate, discussion, or dialogue. This week’s federal budget is a dangerously subtle example of this trend.

On the subject of environmental reviews – notably the Northern Gateway Pipeline – when the government proposed dialogue and consultation, there was an expectation that it would have more than one side. The groan-worthy cliché applicable here is that it takes two to tango. Or, I suppose since this inevitably revolves around Alberta, it takes a whole room of folks to line dance. But if you lock your date out of the hall the night of the big dance, then why bother advertising the event in the first place?

The Canadian federal government seems to be a bit nervous about its dance partners. The 2012 budget is earmarking an additional $8 million for the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) for “education and compliance” with the goal of ensuring that charities “provide more information on their political activities, including the extent to which these are funded by foreign sources.” For those who have been living under a rock (or a pile of sticky, toxic, bitumen sludge) this is in response to allegations that certain Canadian charities are accepting foreign funds to finance their opposition to the oil sands.

To be clear, there is absolutely no law, policy, or regulation preventing non-profit groups from accepting foreign funding. But by even suggesting that there is some impropriety in accepting such funds, the government is stifling these groups.

The issue of how much charities can engage in political activities is a bit trickier. Under the existing regulations, whereby the CRA interprets the Income Tax Act, charities can utilize up to 10% of their human and financial resources engaging in non-partisan political activity. What exactly contributes to that 10% is not entirely clear to many, including myself, and that lack of clarity is likely to discourage charities from engaging in any public advocacy at all.

My own experienced contact tells me that with appropriate and accurate accounting and reporting, most charities will likely find that their allowable political activities account for far, far less than 10%. But that requires taking the time to understand the rules and document all activities; this is something many smaller, cash-strapped charities may not feel they’re in a position to do. To put things in perspective, the CRA page that defines political activities has 14 sections and 2 appendices, clocking in at just under 10,000 words.

Protesters in Bella Bella this week, making their voices heard
Protesters in Bella Bella this week, making their voices heard

The size of the charitable sector in Canada is likely grossly underestimated by many of us. According to the CRA’s own numbers, in 2007 there were a staggering 2.4 million Canadians employed by charities, accounting for about 7% of our GDP. This compares with the oil and gas industry, which employs about 800,000 Canadians and accounts for about 4.8% of our GDP. By hampering the ability of charitable organizations to do their work through forcing them to devote more resources to accounting, the government may very well be harming the Canadian economy. Given that this is the justification given for monitoring these organizations in the first place – to ensure the oil and gas industry can move forward reasonably unhindered for the sake of economic growth – forgive me for being a tad confused.

Again and again, we are told that advocacy against the oil sands is threatening the stability of the Canadian economy, but that’s only true if you subscribe to an absolutist definition of what our economy is based on. Just because my version of Canada differs from someone else’s, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily wrong, it just means that we’re approaching a word, and the notion of our nation, from a different perspective; that’s a wonderful thing, and it’s shameful that our government is trying to avoid it. Monologues on either side of the debate, whether they are by extremist back-to-nature environmentalists, or free-reign deregulation capitalists, are both dangerous and unproductive for our country.

I’ll leave you with a thought upon one more small part of the budget for your own moment of Zen reflection. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a government initiative meant to report on Canada’s efforts on greenhouse gas reduction, is being abandoned. According to the budget, this is because there is now a “mature and expanded community of environmental policy stakeholders” who are demonstrating “the capacity to provide analysis and policy advice for the Government of Canada.” And who might these stakeholders be? Those are the environmental charities, of course. Joseph Heller would be proud.

Following comments sent along to me, this post has been edited to reflect the distinction between public advocacy and political activity; my confusion over that distinction, at least as far as it applies to the CRA regulations, is undoubtedly shared by many others – CG

(Feature photo courtesy of Financial Post, Bella Bella photo courtesy of Janet Sawatsky)

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline: What We Don’t Know

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog

Debate over the approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is continuing to polarize Canadians. However the list of unresolved issues and conflicting information means that I’m not even sure what to believe. Will this project benefit the economy as Enbridge and the Federal Government suggest? Will First Nations groups ever approve the plan? Are oil tankers even legally allowed to sail off the BC coast? The more I read, the more I realize what we don’t know about the pipeline far outweighs what we do.

In a January 2012 poll by Abacus Data, Canadians almost equally supported or opposed the project at 38% and 29% respectively. Quebec led the charge in lack of support at only 23%, while BC is the province most opposed to the project at 36%. Unsurprisingly, the project has clear support from residents of Alberta.

Canadian support and opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline

In sifting through the details of the poll, we can see that those who support the pipeline do so for the potential economic benefits, while those who oppose it do so on environmental grounds. But for me, it’s the grey area in between that betrays this issue – what about those people who simply have no opinion at all?

It is this not-insignificant proportion of Canadians who are undecided that define the pipeline project. With so much conflicting information, how can I know whether to support, oppose, or even care?

For her own part, Canadian economist, and former Executive Director of VanCity Community Foundation, Robyn Allan has argued that the economic assumptions underlying support for the pipeline are fatally flawed. In her January 2012 report “An Economic Assessment of the Northern Gateway”, Allan states that “Northern Gateway represents an inflationary price shock which will have a negative and prolonged impact on the Canadian economy …” Essentially, she says that what economic benefit that will be seen will be limited to the oil companies themselves. The following graph, prepared by Natural Resources Canada, clearly show that oil prices have a direct effect on gasoline – and that affects all of us, regardless of whether we drive a car or not.

Comparison of crude oil and gasoline prices 2001-2009
Comparison of crude oil and gasoline prices 2001-2009

Ms. Allan’s views were presumably unwelcome in the energy sector; I can only assume it affected the National Energy Board’s refusal to grant her status to intervene at a hearing on Enbridge’s application. But then who to believe? Will the pipeline be an economic boom for Canada, or only benefit oil companies?

Then there’s the continuing issue of First Nation land rights. The fact is, virtually none of the 50 First Nations groups who have been offered equity in the project have agreed – though a deal was made between Gitxsan Chief Elmer Derrick and Enbridge, the decision seems to have been made unilaterally, and opposition among his community is incredibly strong. Though nobody can say with certainty what will happen in the coming year, it seems likely to me at least that negotiations will reach a stalemate. While some First Nations will perhaps yield to pressure and financial rewards, others will not. At the end of the day, there are only so many routes the pipeline can take, and avoiding traditional lands may be simply impossible. What are the realistic chances of ever reaching an agreement with all parties?

BC tanker routes
BC tanker routes

A final issue that is causing confusion among Canadians is the status of a moratorium on oil tanker traffic off British Columbia’s coast. For almost forty years, some Canadians believe there has been a de facto ban on tanker traffic sailing through Dixon Entrance, the Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound. Yet in December 2009, the Canadian government stated their positionsupported by the BC Chamber of Commerce, that “there is presently no moratorium on tanker traffic in the coast waters of British Columbia.” While the Prime Minister has compared coastal BC to Newfoundland where tanker traffic is allowed, Elizabeth May of the Green Party strongly disagrees, describing the BC coastline as “extremely sensitive to oil spills because of its physical features.” Again, who to believe? Do we have a moratorium, based on provincial-federal agreement, or do we not, due to lack of legislation? Is it safe for tankers to transit the BC coast?

With so much uncertainty over such a large scale project, perhaps it’s best to shift our focus elsewhere. Reducing energy usage, retrofitting our buildings, expanding public transportation, and stimulating a green economy – these are things that are already underway, things we can overwhelmingly agree upon. The oil can wait, until we know where everybody stands.

(Pipeline photo courtesy Bill & Vicky Tracey/Flickr, polling data courtesy of Abacus Data, oil and gas prices courtesy of Natural Resources Canada, tanker map courtesy of Living Ocean Society)