The real foreign interests in the oilsands
If there were a global competition for the most brazen and preposterously transparent attempt by a ruling political party to change a necessary subject of national debate with alarmist distractions and hubbub, the Conservative escapade engineered in Ottawa these past few days really deserves some kind of grand prize.
First it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself, carrying on about some sort of conspiracy involving jet-setting American radical billionaire eco-saboteurs who are intent upon blocking Canada's vital bitumen semi-fluids by ambuscading the Enbridge pipeline hearings that began this week in the Haisla village of Kitimat on British Columbia's north coast.
Then Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver got in on the act. "These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. ... They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest." A problem: when he went dredging around for evidence, Oliver came up with a two-month delay in approving some skating pond in Banff National Park. Then he tried backtracking. He'd suddenly found himself keeping company with conspiracy theorists who like making dirty insinuations about Ducks Unlimited. You had to feel sorry for the guy.
But if we're seriously supposed to be going all villagers-with-torches about foreign outfits with weird ideologies undermining Canada's national economic interests, let's review what's really going on, shall we?
The $5.5-billion Enbridge pipeline project is all about sending Alberta bitumen in huge oil tankers to China. Beijing's own state enterprises are among the project's major backers, and Beijing has been buying up Alberta's oilpatch at such a dizzying pace lately it's hard to keep up. In the spring of 2010, China's state-owned Sinopec Corp. took a $4.65-billion piece of Syncrude. Then the China Investment Corporation, which is run by the Chinese Communist Party, took possession of a $1.25-billon share of Penn West Petroleum. Last summer, the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation gobbled up Opti Canada for $2.34 billion. And so on.
Then, last month, Sinopec spent $2.2-billion to take over Daylight Energy Ltd., and last week, Petro-China, with the final push of $1.9 billion, became the owner and manager of the MacKay River oilsands project. This is what Ottawa doesn't want you noticing.
Until now, Beijing's strategy has been to fly under the radar by taking only pieces of oilsands ventures and to murmur occasionally about bringing in Chinese workers or pulling up stakes altogether should they hear too much backchat. Now, everything's changed. Sinopec's Daylight deal was a first: it was a complete takeover of a Canadian oilsands company by a Chinese state corporation. The MacKay River deal was a first, too, but in a bigger way: when the McKay project is up and running in 2014 it will be a full Chinese show, with a boss that answers directly to Beijing. The thing is, nobody in Ottawa wants to have a serious conversation about any of this.
During the 2008 election campaign, the vow to block the export of Canadian bitumen for processing offshore didn't come from Leonardo DiCaprio in some underground command bunker of Hollywood eco-freaks. It was what the federal Conservative Party said. Back then, Ottawa's very own Competition Policy Review made a series of recommendations about how to deal with takeovers of Canadian resources by foreign state-owned companies. Ottawa promptly ignored those recommendations. In last May's federal election, the subject simply didn't come up. And now it's serious. Really serious.
It's not just old-school Canadian nationalists who think so. Last April, a poll conducted for Canadian environmental groups found that 72.8 per cent of British Columbians were worried about China's increasing command of Canada's resources sector. Fewer than five per cent of British Columbians agreed with Ottawa's new line, which is that it's not a big deal.
Also last April, the federally funded, China-friendly Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada released its own poll findings, showing that 75 per cent of Canadians opposed Chinese state-owned companies gaining controlling stakes in Canadian companies, and 57 per cent of us saw the rise of Chinese economic power as a threat to Canada's interests.
This isn't just old Vancouver hippies worrying about the implications of 200-plus tankers taking oil out of Kitimat every year. In each of four public opinion polls sponsored by B.C. environmentalists in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011, at least two-thirds of British Columbia's Conservative voters said they wanted oil tankers banned from the wild waters of the West Coast's notoriously ragged and wind-shredded coastline.
When the Asia Pacific Foundation released its poll results last spring, foundation president Yuen Pau Woo warned Ottawa that there is "an urgent need for political leadership" on China's deepening influence in the Canadian economy. And now, just as Beijing makes its move and entrenches itself deeper than anyone anticipated, Ottawa wants us to play connect-a-dot for the evidence that will link sinister Hollywood gazillionaires to delays in getting that ice rink set up in Banff.
It turns out that two can play this sort of game. B.C.'s environmentalists are now making great sport of it, pointing out that Ottawa's "ethical oil" branding exercise was begun by Conservative party gadfly Ezra Levant, who was succeeded at the Ethical Oil institute by none other than the otherwise intelligent Alykhan Velshi, who parked himself there between his term with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and his new job in Stephen Harper's office. Bonus points: Ethical Oil diala-quote Kathryn Marshall is married to Hamish Marshall, Harper's former strategic planning manager.
While it's all good fun to play Spot the Freemason, something very serious is going on here. Last summer, John Bruk, the Asia Pacific Foundation's founding president, warned that Ottawa was ignoring the rapid emergence of Chinese government interests "in sheep's clothing" taking over Canada's natural resource industries. Bruk told B.C. Business magazine: "Are we jeopardizing prosperity for our children and grandchildren while putting at risk our economic independence? In my view, this is exactly what is happening."
As things have turned out, Bruk was more right than he knew.
Terry Glavin is the Harvey Stevenson Southam lecturer in journalism at the University of Victoria. His most recent book is Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle For Peace in Afghanistan.