The Oil Sands and Canadian Identity – a Starter List

George Hoberg and Andrea Rivers
October 13, 2011

I’m preparing to give a talk on “The Oil Sands: Canada’s Defining Dilemma,” wading into a type of analysis that is a bit different. Andrea and I have been collecting quotes as feedstock for this that use the oil sands in a positive or negative light to draw more general characterizations about Canadian identity. We thought we might  try crowdsourcing the data gathering by posting a sample of the best so far in an effort to provoke more submissions. So feel free to comment adding links to statements in the media or elsewhere.

“I will make this general point, which is that, first of all, importing oil from countries that are stable and friendly is a good thing”
President Barack Obama

“There has been a demonizing of a legitimate resource. It is ethical oil.
 It is regulated oil. And it’s secure oil in a world where many of the free
 world’s oil sources are somewhat less secure.”
Peter Kent, Federal Environment Minister

“It is a regulated product in an energy superpower democracy. The profits from this oil are not used in undemocratic or unethical ways. The proceeds are used to better society in the great Canadian democracy. The wealth generated is shared with Canadians, with investors.”
Peter Kent, Federal Environment Minister

“The oilsands are one of Canada’s most vital industries, spinning off billions of dollars annually into the economy, and employing tens of thousands of workers, from First Nations to Newfoundland, and yet, they are responsible for roughly 5% of all of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions”“are-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-the-oilsands-ruining-the-atmosphere”/

“In reality, the oilsands have quickly become one of the entire country’s most vibrant job creators. And the benefits to people from B.C. to the Atlantic provinces have mushroomed at a breathtaking rate, and promise to deliver decades, and billions of dollars, more in benefits to regions all across Canada, including some of the most economically challenged places in the country.”

“In today’s world, all fossil fuels are unethical”
David Suzuki

“Just as we called on President Obama to reject the pipeline, we are calling on you to use your power to halt the expansion of the tar sands – and ensure that Canada moves towards a clean energy future.”
Letter to Stephen Harper signed by 8 Nobel Peace Prize Winners

“Canada’s image lies in tatters. It is now to climate what Japan is to whaling. The tar barons have held the nation to ransom. This thuggish petro-state is today the greatest obstacle to a deal in Copenhagen”

George Monbiot

“An area the size of England, of pristine forests and marshes, will be dug up, unless the Canadians can stop this madness. Already it looks like a scene from the end of the world: the strip-miners are creating a churned black hell on an unimaginable scale.”
George Monbiot

“Canada is a cultured, peaceful nation, which every so often allows a band of rampaging Neanderthals to trample all over it. Timber companies were licensed to log the old-growth forest in Clayoquot Sound; fishing companies were permitted to destroy the Grand Banks: in both cases these get-rich-quick schemes impoverished Canada and its reputation. But this is much worse, as it affects the whole world. The government’s scheming at the climate talks is doing for its national image what whaling has done for Japan.”
George Monbiot

“The tar sands represent a path of broken treaties, eroded human rights, catastrophic climate change, poisoned air and water and the complete stripping of Canada’s morality in the international community.”
Clayton Thomas-Muller, Indigenous Environmental Network

“Symbolically, the pipeline would be a fitting monument to Canada’s resource history – a horizontal exclamation point at the end of five centuries of exploitation, from beaver pelts to mining, forestry and cod. Indeed. Enbridge has touted it as a piece of national infrastructure, akin to the St. Lawrence Seaway.”
Chris Turner, Journalist  (on proposed pipeline from Alberta to BC Coast for export)

“There’s a tendency in some circles to treat the oil sands as a prairie aberration, but part of the reason the industry has thrived is that it’s so consistent with the country’s traditional economy. The oil sands are as Canadian as a Hudson’s Bay blanket.”
Chris Turner, Journalist

“Nations become what they produce. Bitumen, the new national staple, is redefining the character and destiny of Canada. Rapid development of the tar sands has created a foreign policy that favours the export of bitument to the United States and lax immigration standards that champion the import of global bitumen workers. Inadequate environmental rules and monitoring have allowed unsustainable mining to accelerate. Feeble fiscal regimes have enriched multinationals and given Canada a petrodollar that hides inflationary pressures of peak oil Canada now calls itself an “emerging energy superpower”. In reality it is nothing more than a Third World energy supermarket”
Andrew Nikiforuk, Author of Tarsands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (p. 2)

“ Without long term planning and policies, Canada and Alberta will fail to secure reliable energy supplies for Canadians, develop alternative sources for the country, or to create valuable resource funds for the future. Unlike the governments of Norway and Alaska, the government of Canada stands to leave citizens a singular legacy of exponential neglect and water-shed destruction”
Andrew Nikiforuk, Author of Tarsands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (p. 4)

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3 Responses to The Oil Sands and Canadian Identity – a Starter List

  1. Keith Stewart says:

    It is interesting that the Turner and Nikiforuk quotes are more or less explicitly drawing the Harold Innis-inspired version of Canadian political history that links resource extraction to regional/national identity, and Thomas-Muller’s quote also fits well in that tradition (albeit from the perspective of someone at the less profitable end of the staples-defined relationship). Innis was, of course, also a mentor for Marshall McCluhan, so there’s probably a paper in there somewhere.

    I would add to the list above the following from Stephen Harper, in his first speech as Prime Minister to a business audience in London where he laid out his vision of Canada as “an emerging energy superpower”:

    “And an ocean of oil-soaked sand lies under the muskeg of northern Alberta – my home province. The oil sands are the second largest oil deposit in the world, bigger than Iraq, Iran or Russia; exceeded only by Saudi Arabia. Digging the bitumen out of the ground, squeezing out the oil and converting it in into synthetic crude is a monumental challenge. It requires vast amounts of capital, Brobdingnagian technology, and an army of skilled workers. In short, it is an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.”

    There was, alas, no reflection on the ecological, ethical or cultural cost of pursuing this kind of “superpower” status in a carbon-constrained world.

  2. This is a very timely and worthwhile project. I really enjoyed reading through these quotations – many of which I have missed in my more casual reading of the news on the subject. I think a key theme that is missing here is Canadian culture of science and technology and how it is being represented outside of Canada. Canada is viewed not only as a friendly democracy, but also a responsible one that engages with scientists and offers a transparency that is better than other oil-producing nations. This discourse of science perhaps has been emphasized more within the Canadian media, but we cannot ignore the important role it plays in propping up notions of ‘ethical oil’ internationally. Here are a couple of examples that came to mind:

    1. David Schindler on his Nature paper:
    “Much of the debate on this topic has gone on without science,” says Schindler. “But the hypothesis that it [PPEs] is ‘all natural’ is wanting, to say the least.” (from:

    2. The High Commissioner, Gordon Campbell, speech in Scotland:
    “We understand there’s going to be a quality fuels directive,” said the High Commissioner. “What we are advocating: make it transparent what the goals are, let’s use sound science to apply those principles to all sources of energy, not just one, and let’s make sure we understand how it’s implemented.”

    I am sure you can find more on this subject if you think it fits the scope of your analysis.

  3. Hugh Thomas says:

    BC has legislation which requires it to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. So it seems hypocritical to allow bitumen from the tar pits to be transported across BC via a pipeline to be exported.

    What’s the point of making the BC public sector pay $millions to purchase carbon offsets, when you’re going to allow a pipeline to transport bitumen across the province?

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