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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

No, opposing pipelines does not make you a Putin stooge

When it comes to Canadian oil, the ‘Putinist’ smear is aimed to discredit largely Indigenous-led anti-pipeline protest movements

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsEuropeWar Zones

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney attends a rally in Edmonton in support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion. Photo courtesy Ukrainian Canadian Congress - Alberta Provincial Council.

The second Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, it became obvious that there would be an enormous backlash against Russian-made products and Russian-owned companies operating in Canada, the ultimate goal of which would be to “isolate” and “contain” the government of Vladimir Putin. Oftentimes, Canadian officials describe this containment effort as a way to defend European democracy against the aggression of a brutal dictatorship to the east.

Pro-oil and gas politicians and think tanks in Canada have attempted to utilize the nationwide horror over the invasion of Ukraine to brand opposition to the extraction of destructive energy resources as a threat to Canada’s “pro-democracy, anti-autocratic” agenda abroad. Without pause, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney placed himself at the forefront of this campaign. Although Canada’s imports of Russian oil are quite meagre, especially in comparison to western Europe, Kenney took to Twitter to shamelessly sell Alberta oil production as an important geopolitical weapon against Russia.

It isn’t only Canadian imports that he’s targeting—after all, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a ban on imports of Russian crude oil on February 28. Kenney and other Conservative politicians argue that the revival of defunct pipeline projects like Keystone XL and Energy East will resolve the threat of energy insecurity that Europe may face in a world where the continent’s imports from Russia are drastically limited or eliminated altogether. The idea that increased oil production will fight dictatorship abroad while safeguarding Canada’s democratic allies is a key tenet of the myth of “ethical” Albertan oil.

“Now if Canada really wants to help defang Putin,” Kenney wrote on February 27, “then let’s get some pipelines built!” One day prior, he claimed that “Alberta’s oil does not fund wars [but] Putin’s oil does,” forgetting, it seems, that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has bankrolled major Alberta oil producers like Canadian Natural Resources and Suncor—all while the kingdom prosecutes a devastating war in Yemen that has killed hundreds of thousands of people since 2014.

Kenney has said that “the single most powerful thing that Canada could do” to support “the entire democratic world” is to build pipelines to ship Alberta oil and gas. Although not stated openly, this framing of the geopolitical role of Canada’s energy resources implicitly constructs anti-pipeline protestors and land defenders—including Indigenous organizations such as Indigenous Climate Action and the Tiny House Warriors, or the hereditary chiefs of the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nation, or the Gidimt’en resistance at Wedzin Kwa—as potential enemies who are standing in the way of Canada’s apparent support for democracy around the globe. Therefore, this view posits, anti-pipeline protestors and environmental activists are unwitting Putin stooges.

On February 28, the National Post published an article by a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute that flatly endorsed the implicit points of Kenney’s statement. Later republished on the think tank’s website, author Christian Leuprecht begins his article with the flagrantly Russophobic sentence: “My grandfather had a stern warning: Never trust the Russians.” The article goes on: in order to implement effective “containment” measures against Putin, who has “run roughshod over the most basic principles of the post-Second World War international rules-based order” and who views “Western democratic freedom” as an existential threat, the most important thing that Canada can do is build more pipelines.

“Putin’s war chest,” writes Leuprecht, “is plenished by Canada’s European allies that are procuring natural gas from Russia. Canada has ample supply of natural gas to liquify and export. Yet, Canada lags way behind in that game because it naively has no sense for geopolitics.” The conclusion that the author draws from this portends significant challenges for the future of climate and environmental action in Canada. “Make no mistake,” he asserts. “Canadians who oppose construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia, and pipeline capacity to enable liquified natural gas exports from Canada’s East Coast to Europe, are aiding, abetting, and condoning Putin’s behaviour.” Finally, he describes the largely Indigenous-led anti-pipeline movements in Alberta and BC as bearing “inadvertent complicity” in “Putin’s thuggery.”

It seems that, according to the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the defenders of Wedzin Kwa (Morice River) in BC, who have been bravely opposing the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline while enduring levels of police violence unseen at the dispersal of the Freedom Convoy, are nothing more than clueless agents of Putin. According to Leuprecht’s framing, anti-pipeline protestors who have had their doors chainsawed open, who have faced down machine guns and attack dogs in a nation that is supposedly a paragon of democracy and human rights, are not solely resisting the poisoning of their waterways and the environmental devastation of their communities by massive, unaccountable oil companies. They are helping Putin, and they bear partial responsibility for the invasion of Ukraine.

This blatantly bad-faith characterization smacks of a new Red Scare. If it gains traction, it is possible that anyone who opposes the destructive policies of Canada’s largest extractive companies will be smeared as a Putinist by our think tanks, government officials, and pliant media. Any principled leftist positions can be demeaned as serving the interests of Russian autocracy.

“Stop building pipelines? Traitor! You must love Putin!”

“Hands off Cuba? But they’re allied with Russia!”

“Hands off Venezuela? But Maduro is Putin’s friend!”

“Stop arming the Saudis? Would you rather Russia gain influence in the region? When was the last time the Saudis invaded anywhere? Oh right, they’re destroying Yemen, but didn’t you hear Charlie D’Agata on CBS News? The Middle East is an uncivilized place—that’s just what happens there.”

When it comes to Canadian oil, the “Putinist” smear is only the newest stage in a series of attempts to discredit largely Indigenous-led anti-pipeline protest movements. And it’s not just the ridiculous ramblings of Jason Kenney—one of Canada’s most prominent think tanks has also endorsed that view, potentially foreshadowing the character of the Canadian elite’s newest assault on this country’s land defenders.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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