Category Archives: Canada

Levant, Harper and “Ethical Oil”’s campaign against Saudi Arabian oil with a message that is very simple: Muslims bad, Alberta good. This ad began appearing last week. 

Frye in “The Present Condition of the World” (1943) observes that North America is “a happy-hunting-ground of all forms of advertisement, propaganda, and suggestions. Advertising and ‘publicity’ are based on the fact that sense experience is involuntary and on the assumption that the mind does not possess enough selective power to resist a large number of repeated impressions.” (CW 10, 212)

As an illustration of the continuing relevance of this principle, Stephen Harper has taken to referring to Alberta’s tar sands as “ethical oil,” which also happens to be the title of a book by Ezra Levant, as well as the name of the oil advocacy group responsible for the television ad above.

Ezra Levant is a well-known right-wing activist with a connection to Harper dating back twenty years. Levant has been the subject of a number of lawsuits for libel. Most recently, he repeated in a column in the Toronto Sun a long-disproven slur against Holocaust survivor and wealthy liberal advocate George Soros. Sun Media was made to retract and apologize when confronted with the possibility of yet another Levant-centred libel suit. Levant is, moreover, a protege of Koch Industries, an oil production conglomerate which, among many other things, bankrolls global warming denialism.

His book, Ethical Oil, is morally idiotic. In it he makes the argument that the tar sands produce “ethical” oil because it comes from a nice place like Alberta, rather than from a nasty and unethical place like Saudi Arabia. The promotion of the idea of ethical oil is demagoguery that trades on resentment and ignorance while conveniently leaving out every other consideration, including a noxiously hypocritical self-interest, as well as the fact that, whatever else happens, we’re still going to be doing business with the dirty Arabs the ad above demonizes. Even so, the term has been adopted by Stephen Harper personally, and at just the time that the Keystone XL pipeline is awaiting American approval.

You can read David Suzuki’s review of Levant’s book here. A sample:

If this is the most “ethical” source of oil we can find, we need to ask other questions about the moral purity of our intensively processed bitumen. For example, if we sell the oil to countries with poor human-rights records, like China, does that affect the product’s “ethical” nature? And how “ethical” are the companies operating in the oilsands: for example, Exxon Mobil, well-known sponsor of climate-change disinformation campaigns; BP, responsible for last year’s massive oily disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or PetroChina? There’s also the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on our children and grandchildren, which to me is an intergenerational crime.

It is distressing to see this dangerous notion being intravenously introduced into the public discourse by what seems to be a carefully-timed, co-ordinated effort. That Harper would use his office to shill so openly for it makes it that much more alarming.

Frye Quote of the Day: “Free speech is the one thing a mob can’t stand”

The Harper government does not like the press (Sun Media excepted), does not like its political opposition, does not like critics, does not even, it appears, like free speech that extends to any of these. As we’ve seen, the Conservatives are willing to go to great trouble to suppress videos of Stephen Harper in order to keep them away from a wider audience that might not be as sympathetic to the contents.

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

I don’t see how the study of language and literature can be separated from the question of free speech, which we all know is fundamental to our society. The area of ordinary speech, as I see it, is a battleground between two forms of social speech: the speech of a mob and the speech of a free society. One stands for cliche, ready-made ideas, and automatic babble, and it leads us inevitably from illusion into hysteria. There can be no free speech in a mob: free speech is one thing a mob can’t stand. You notice that the people who allow their fear of Communism to become hysterical eventually get to screaming that every sane man is a Communist. (CW 21, 490-1)

Harper’s Suppressed “Hat Trick” Video, Cont’d


Well, that didn’t take long. We’d barely got the video up in the post below and it was scrubbed from the YouTube account hosting it. Thanks to the people who posted comments to provide more information and alternative sites still carrying the video.

It’s a small issue, but that’s what makes it all that much more telling. Look at the trouble the Conservatives are taking to make this video disappear. The effort says much much more than the video itself. This is control for the sake of control. And we’re just a few weeks into this new majority government.

More nonsense is on the way — the tar sands are being rebranded as “ethical oil” (I’ll have more on that shortly), and then there’s that massive crime bill which seems intended to replicate the Americans’ failed correctional policies, as well as mimic their unwarranted surveillance of citizens. The television ad campaigns have begun again. That, we’ve learned, is always an ominous sign.

We’ll make a point of following the fortunes of this video for the next little while. I’ve reposted it by way of another YouTube account. If that account is scrubbed, we’ll find another, and post that too.

Harper’s Suppressed “Hat Trick” Video


At just the time the Conservatives are looking to impose unwarranted internet surveillance upon Canadian citizens, they are evidently also trying to suppress YouTube videos that embarrass them, like the one above. This kind of political double-standard is now pretty much standard issue. Conservatives it seems only talk to one another and are only to be heard by other conservatives. It’s the kind of cowardice that can usually be found lurking behind much guffawing bluster.

God knows what Harper means by his reference to “cleaning up the left wing mess.” His government pissed away the surplus left to them by the Liberals and have run up record deficits ever since. (Like the Republicans, Harper’s Conservatives are vaunted in the business press as “the party of fiscal responsibility” despite astounding feats of fiscal irresponsibility.) There is a smugly triumphal, vanquish-all-enemies taint to Conservative partisanship which is always just one open microphone away, and it appears to be exactly the kind of thing they don’t want the 61% of Canadians who don’t vote Conservative to be reminded of. There seems to be a concerted effort to create a memory hole into which all this trash talk can be dumped. It may just be a coincidence, but try, for example, to find the video we’ve posted here before of Harper at an anti-gay marriage rally on Parliament Hill where he gave full-throated praise to “real Canadian values.” It’s gone (although a couple of tantalizing snippets of it survive embedded in other video compilations). I’ve noticed that other video of Harper we’ve posted in the past has also gone dark. Given that the Conservatives are now dispatching lawyers to force the take down of video they don’t want seen, maybe that’s a trend that will only intensify. It’s a familiar enough authoritarian trait: they want more access to our private lives, while also restricting our public access to them. It is, as Lawrence Martin puts it, the politics of control.

The good news is that the Conservatives are not likely to get their wished-for “hat trick” with the upcoming Ontario provincial election. Rob Ford in Toronto and Stephen Harper in Ottawa are probably more than enough for Ontario voters at this point.

In any event, see the video above while you can. If this one comes down, we’ll try to find other sources for it.

Frye Quote of the Day: “We are the grave robbers of our own resources”

The Keystone XL pipeline, where the Harper government meets Koch Industries. At this point, only Obama stands between them. From Rolling Stone:

Is it in our national interest to overheat the planet? That’s the question Obama faces in deciding whether to approve Keystone XL, a 2,000-mile-long pipeline that will bring 500,000 barrels of tar-sand oil from Canada to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Greenlighting the $7 billion pipeline would help feed America’s addiction to oil – but it would also send a clear signal that Obama ranks cheap gas as a higher priority than a stable climate. Activist and writer Bill McKibben, who organized protests at the White House to stop the pipeline, calls the decision “a defining moment of the Obama years.”

There are two big problems with Keystone XL. First, mining and refining the tar sands of Alberta – the second-largest repository of carbon on the planet – requires huge amounts of energy. That’s why carbon pollution from tar-sand oil is up to 20 percent higher than from conventional crude. If we burn through the tar sands, warns NASA expert James Hansen, it’s “game over” for the climate. Second, an oil spill from the pipeline could devastate the Midwest: A recent study by the University of Nebraska estimates that a worst-case spill in the Platte River would create an oil slick that would stretch for hundreds of miles and contaminate drinking water for millions of Americans.

There are signs the pipeline may already be a done deal: The State Department’s environmental review of the project recently concluded that the pipeline would have “no significant impacts.” But Obama can still stop the project all by himself, simply by refusing to sign the certificate of national interest required to allow the pipeline to cross the U.S. border. But blocking Keystone XL means saying no to Big Oil. Among the companies with the most to gain if the pipeline is built: Koch Industries, a major backer of the Tea Party. To put pressure on the State Department, which must sign off on the pipeline, Keystone’s operator has hired the former deputy director of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as a lead lobbyist.

Environmental choices don’t get much starker than this. “Obama is alone at the top of the key,” McKibben recently wrote. “Will he take the 20-foot jumper – or pass the ball?”

Frye in “Canada: New World without Revolution”:

Canada, with four million square miles and only four centuries of documented history, has naturally been a country more preoccupied with space than with time, with environment rather than tradition.  The older generation, to which I have finally been assigned, was brought up to think of Canada as a land of unlimited natural resources, an unloving but rich earth-mother bulging with endless supplies of nickel and asbestos, or, in her softer parts, with the kind of soil that would allow of huge grain and lumber surpluses.  The result of such assumptions is that many of our major social problems are those of ecology, the extinction of animal species, the plundering of forests and mines, the pollution of water, as the hundreds of millions of years that nature took to build up our supplies of coal and oil are cancelled out in a generation or two.  The archaeologists who explore royal tombs in Egypt and Mesopotamia find that they are almost always anticipated by grave robbers, people who got there first because they had better reasons for doing so than the acquisition of knowledge.  We are the grave robbers of our own resources, and posterity will not be grateful to us. (CW 12, 435-6)

An earlier post on the Keystone XL protests here.

“Harperland: The Politics of Control”

From the conclusion to Lawrence Martin’s new book:

It was no small wonder that Canadians feared what Harper might do with a majority government. With that kind of power he could establish a hegemony the likes of which Canadians could not imagine.

It’s no secret what’s coming: the construction of new prisons despite our steadily declining crime rate, a prospect that distresses even Conrad Black, as well as the introduction of a surveillance state with a “crime bill” that will allow the police to access our email and internet traffic without warrants.


Harper seems to have no sense of our history, our political traditions, or our expectations as a society. During his rise to power, he dismissed Canada as “a second-rate socialist country.”

Who?  What?

Sixty-one percent of Canadian voters cast their ballots to the left of the Harper Conservatives last May. That’s 61%. George Bush was at least required to have the appearance of more or less 50% of the vote in order to run amok on American ideals, laws, and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Harper doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of support, will never have anywhere near that kind of support, and, worse yet, knows he will never need it. Knowing that in fact appears to be his m.o.

He apparently intends to make over this country to fit his own cramped, angry and unforgiving worldview on the basis of just the 39% who voted Conservative in the last election. With our first-past-the-post electoral system, the needs and expectations of the remaining very large majority don’t much matter, as Harper has made clear enough. His unrelentingly vicious disdain for his political opponents (see Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff) appears to extend to the people who vote for them. The most effective solution, unfortunately, is also the most elusive, which is to consolidate the massive majority on the left, as Harper did on the right when he helped to engineer the destruction of the Progressive Conservative party, and then lashed the wreckage to Alberta’s particular brand of resentment politics that evolved by way of the Reform Party, then the Canadian Alliance, and eventually Harper’s own custom-tailored Conservative Party.

Until there is an effective political realignment on the majority left, however, there is still consolation, not least in the work that needs to be done to revitalize our politics and priorities. Whenever the Harper government burdens us with policies and laws that have nothing to do with us and everything to do with him and his remarkably small core-constituency, we should remind ourselves of our strength of numbers and resolve to use it by all the means democracy allows, beginning with free speech and the right to call to account the public servants who serve only at our will.

It’s telling that Harper’s policy of “law and order” — law, as Frye points out, not being the same thing as justice — involves imprisonment and the denial of privacy where there is no need for either. These are the key elements, as Frye again points out, of dystopia. While Harper may behave as though the social contract subordinates us to him, Frye regularly reminds us that it actually puts all of us, including the political class, in the service of a vision of society that is a source of our salvation:

It seems to me that there are two very powerful myths in political life: the myth of origin, which is a version of the social contract, and the myth of ending, or telos, which is going to be some form of Utopia. It doesn’t matter whether you say you believe in a social contract or Utopia–belief has nothing to do with it–the thing is that these are maintained in your mind as the frames by which you do your thinking about society. (CW 24, 514)

Harper likes to end his speeches with “God bless Canada,” which is just one of a number of his unpleasant American imports into our much more civil political process. It may also represent a rare glimpse into his own harsh Day-of-Judgement Christian belief as a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. But Canada is not just a secular nation, it is the only multicultural nation in the world as a matter of statutory and constitutional law. So if a deity must be invoked, why must it be Stephen Harper’s? Why not “Allah bless Canada,” or “Yaweh bless Canada,” or “Jehovah bless Canada,” or “Krishna bless Canada,” or “All the gods of all the world’s polytheistic religions bless Canada”? And what about the large number of those who do not believe in gods of any sort, as it is their constitutional right to do? Does the prime minister not represent these people too? This is why God has no place in our shared public sphere, of which the prime minister is a most conspicuous representative.

A Utopian society is inclusive. A dsytopian one is exclusive. It runs on fear and resentment. It builds prisons where none are needed, and it subjects its citizens to unwarranted surveillance as an ongoing exercise in intimidation. Freedom is not a boon to be granted by those who possess power. Our freedoms are expressed by the guaranteed rights of all citizens, whatever their status, whether they are homeless people living on the street, or a couple of Conservative senators and other party functionaries charged with the jailable offence of breaking federal election law: they are all equal before the law, and are not advantaged or disadvantaged depending upon who they know or who they don’t.

We clearly do not need a suddenly-urgent policy of “law and order” included in our list of our national priorities. We already have law and order in this country to which Stephen Harper has done nothing to contribute. The most that is expected of him is that he not vandalize what he has been entrusted with. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Quote of the Day: “Sadistic and Malicious”

Here is a notoriously well-known public figure speaking out against the Harper government’s corrections policy:

Not only is it emphasizing severity on sentences, not only squandering money for prisons that don’t need to be built on this basis of build-and-they-will-come, not only is it going to end up housing an inordinate number of native people who should be treated altogether differently, but these programs that are foreseen to reduce the effort made to help people to overcome their problems and therefore become more likely candidates for successful reintegration into society, and even more appalling to me, these plans to crack down on contact between prisoners and their visitors is just a terrible and barbarous thing.

Can you guess who that is? No, it’s not a liberal. It’s the congenitally conservative Conrad Black: Lord Black speaking as Citizen Black.

Here’s more from a story in the Toronto Star:

Black says he is in “violent disagreement” with the Conservatives’ “so-called roadmap” — a blueprint  document that sets out the Harper government’s corrections policy.

He told The Globe and Mail the Harper government approach is “sadistic and malicious.” He told the CBC it is “barbarous.”


“Spence’s Republic”

The NFB has always displayed a typically self-deprecating Canadian sense of humor. American history is world-shaping stuff and is to be rendered chin up. Canadian history, not so much. This is one of a handful of historical vignettes that sardonically reminds us that, for all our good fortune, we didn’t have to work all that hard for it and we’d be wrong to romantisize it too much.

TGIF: “The Big Snit”

The Big Snit” may be the most famous animated short by the NFB’s Richard Condie. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1985, one of the last NFB animated shorts to draw enough attention to be widely seen. It remains a favorite among animators.

In 1980’s “Across the River and Out of the Trees,” Frye considers the effects of mass media upon Canadian broadcasting culture. It is a remarkably optimistic outlook all told, even though the cost to Canadian institutions like the NFB has been high.

But there were difficulties that the coming of television made painfully obvious. These three new media, film, radio, and television, are mass media, and consequently follow the centrifugal and imperial rhythms of politics and economics more readily than the regionalizing rhythms of culture. This was not too crucial a problem for CBC radio, though it was certainly there, but the NFB had to struggle with problems of distribution created by the fact that movie houses had been monopolized by American syndicates. I remember a Spring Thaw skit which was a takeoff of an NFB film, ending with the line “on view in your local Sunday-School basement.” (CW 12, 561)

TGIF: “Special Delivery”

Here’s “Special Delivery” from the National Film Board of Canada. It won an Academy Award in 1978, which NFB shorts regularly did. Seeing this is like getting a glimpse of a Canada that has just about disappeared over the horizon. The NFB is a shadow of its former self, overtaken by events and the critical mass of mass culture. This cartoon short is a reminder that, at least until recently, we were readily able to tap into the whimsically sly element in our national character. Not that we ever made a big deal about it.