The Ninth Post: Memories of a Northern Summer

Over the summer, an article of mine was published in the Wild Lands Advocate, the journal for the Alberta Wilderness Association. The article detailed my experience leading participants down the Mackenzie River as a summer job in 2009. It was a truly wonderful experience and anyone who hasn’t been to Canada’s north, I suggest you go. The article can be found here, and is pasted below.

Memories of a Northern Summer

By Matthew Dow

It was something that many of us had wanted for a very long time. For others, it was something that sort of just happened – an opportunity that presented itself and was grasped at just the right moment. For whichever reason we were there, it did not really matter because when we reached the river’s banks, we knew it was exactly where we wanted to be that summer.

Camp Chief Hector YMCA is a summer camp and outdoor center that for over 80 years has been devoted to building young leaders through outdoor education. Resting quietly under Mt. Lookout and in clear eye shot of the near famous Mt. Yamnuska, the camp has gradually evolved into an institution in the Bow Valley.

During the school year, hundreds of school kids as week, primarily from the Calgary area, arrive in a world like no other. For some, its their first time away from home for an overnight stay. For others, its the first time in their lives that they have left the city boundaries. For most, its a formative experience in the natural world. Whether hiking, horseback riding, canoeing or even just sitting around a camp fire singing camp fire songs, memories of camp resonate for years.

When the school year ends and July approaches, a wave of energy floods the camp. Over a hundred counsellors, many fresh from a year of academic studies and some originating from countries all around the world, descend on the camp for ten days of intense training on everything from z-drag river boat rescues to consoling a homesick camper. When that first Sunday arrives, hundreds of campers and their nervous parents flood the gates and the place truly comes alive with the spirit of youth. If you have been to camp, whether Camp Chief Hector YMCA or the hundreds of other summer camps across the country, you know the feeling. Its hard to articulate your emotional attachment to the space and when you tell your friends about it, you inevitably just conclude, “it’s a camp thing.” But its for these unspoken reasons that so many of us kept coming back year after year.


When you are a young camper at Camp Chief Hector YMCA, you are among hundreds of other camps but as years go on, the numbers slowly start to dwindle as other life commitments start to take over. It might be the need to get that first summer job, the desire to play competitive sports, or just to simply to hang out with your friends in the city. Whatever the reason, the number of participants shrink in size but the strength of that community only grows more robust with each passing year. By the time the campers are 16, they enter the leadership program which is comprised of both technical skills, including backcountry cooking, hiking, navigating, canoeing among other tasks, but also the “softer” skills including group management, communication, risk awareness and outdoor leadership.


It was in the senior level of that leadership program that we found ourselves that summer. We were ten in all, two leaders and eight campers, setting out for that years Sac Dene trip, a 44 day canoe trip down Canada’s longest river, the mighty Deh Cho (also known as the Mackenzie River). Winding westward and eventually north out of Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River travels over twelve-hundred kilometres until it hits the Mackenzie River delta where it divides up into hundreds of channels before eventually dumping out in the Beaufort Sea. Our destination was Inuvik, NWT, which rests along the most easterly channel of the Mackenzie River delta and is roughly one hundred kilometres inland from the Beaufort Sea.

Since we had decided not to rely on any food or equipment drops during our adventure, we had to prepare all the food for ten people for forty-four days. To put this in perspective, this included eighty-two blocks of cheddar cheese that we dipped in paraffin wax to prevent mold, an industrial sized bucket of nuts, an entire thirty litre dry bag of spices, another thirty litre dry bag of cooking oil and margarine, sixty packages of beef jerky, two-hundred sesame snacks, and enough egg powder (dehydrated eggs) that none of us ever want to think about egg powder ever again. We packed this into ten standard sized canoe barrels that weighed approximately one-hundred and twenty pounds each and would account for five days of food for the entire group.

After two days of full driving from Southern Alberta and a short ferry ride, we reached the north bank of the Mackenzie River in the small community of Fort Providence. On the first morning, we dipped the canoes in the water and figured out how to best load our overflowing craft. We attached our specialty canoe wet skirts, lathered up the sunscreen and pushed off with the boats so heavy that the gunnels of the canoe only cleared the water by a few inches. As we paddled away from the community, we had only the stories of past trips to fill our expectations.


The Mackenzie River is truly a mighty beast and although it only has a few sets of rapids that would pose any risk to anyone, its strength rests in it immense ability to move massive amounts of water. The width of the river ranged from ten to twenty kilometers at its widest points to just one kilometer as it enters a section of steep cliffs known as The Ramparts just south of the community of Fort Goodhope. In many instances we found ourselves feeling as if we were paddling a massive lake with no current at all, but at other times, we clocked ourselves at thirteen – fourteen kilometres an hour without paddling.

For everyone on the trip it was our first time north of there Alberta-Northwest Territories border and although in some ways the landscape is very similar to the forests and riparian areas that we had paddled and hiked in years previous, there were very some distinct breaks from our past. One of the most amazing differences that we experienced was the amount of sunlight in the summer months. Of course we knew all about the long days and short nights, but it was far more difficult to comprehend exactly how this would impact our trip.

For some the ability to live in perpetual light, or least in an environment that did not require any artificial light, might not seem significant but in sharing some of our favourite moments in many of the endless discussions we have had together since we returned, so many stories were aided by the long sun filled nights.

One of our favourite memories was when we left the town of Tulita and headed towards the oil and gas town of Norman Wells. We left just after noon since we had met so many wonderful people that had shared their homes, vehicles and traditional games and foods, that we wanted to take some time to thank all those who had helped us. We set out with a strong tail wind and after an hour of paddling, we grabbed our guide tarp and bundled the canoes together. We harnessed the wind with the makeshift sail and were able generate a significant wake while we read out loud and napped under the summer heat. Since we had been able to relax for much our journey that day, we decided to paddle a bit longer than we usually would and we spent the evening glaring into a warm sun reflecting off the water until it eventually dipped down just below the horizon as we pulled into our destination at some point after midnight. As usual, the sunset that night was remarkable but by that point, stunning sunsets had become the norm and hardly worth dragging the camera out of the several layers of waterproofing.

ImageOur canoes bumped into the sandy beach below the cliffs on which the town rested and we set up camp as a well deserved meal was prepared over the camp fire. Back in Alberta it could have been seven o’clock in the evening but by the time everything had wrapped up for the night, it was likely somewhere around two in the morning. Night after night we were treated to the stunning open skies, cool breezes off the river, roaring campfires, delicious meals and the non-stop laughter or our group. But the true lasting memory of this trip is this evocative emotion that sweeps over us whenever we flip through our pictures or pull out the paddle still damaged and worn from the rivers silt and sandy beaches. It is a common cliche but at times, the trip remains is beyond words.

But the reality is, the story that we have tried to detail here might seem simple, mundane or ordinary. We have no doubt that someone who will eventually read this has had a much more grand adventure on a more remote northern river or mountain peak half-way around the world. However, the beauty of wilderness adventure is that it does not matter what other people have done. Though we felt isolated and alone in an untouched environment, we knew that thousands of people have paddled the same river, camped in many of the same campsites, and met so many of the wonderful people that we were able to meet, but this was our trip and the stories we created formed an everlasting bond with each other that will never be broken. Living in the wilderness and enjoying the natural world has this uncanny ability to bring people together, to learn together, to grow together and to share in the most simple things in life that will always bring us so much joy. From the laughs we shared when we would show off our lifejacket tans, or the inevitable inside jokes that never seem to die, we formed a highly effective community that still remains to this day. As our separate lives have taken us across the country from Vancouver to Halifax, we always set time aside around the holiday seasons to reconnect with a family that we built over that summer. We know were given a tremendous opportunity and we just hope that other young people have the same opportunity to build these kinds of memories outdoors because these are the memories that truly last forever.



The Eighth Post: Winter Biking in Saskatoon

This was penned in April 2013 but never made it to print. I think the recent weather in Saskatoon makes this post more relevant than ever. Get a bike, move around. You might enjoy it. 

As the snow gradually melts here in Saskatoon, I have the opportunity to reflect on a full and mean season of winter biking. After purchasing some fierce looking spiked tires last spring on discount in Edmonton, I strapped them onto the ole’ diamond back mountain bike. I generally prefer my 1980’s Apollo road bike but knowing the depth of Canada’s annual snow fall, I felt mountain bike tires would be far better suited for the terrain.

The winter bike set up.
The winter bike set up.

As anyone in Saskatoon would tell you, this winter was brutal. I’m currently looking out my window on April 12th at about 2-5 feet of pilled snow, sloppy streets and temperatures hovering around freezing.

Winter biking is an adventure that I highly recommend. Travel in winter can be difficult at the best of times but for me, biking has allowed me to have more control in the way I get around the city. While I have access to a car, I would prefer not to drive for a multitude of reasons.

Nothing beats strapping a toque, neck warmer, gloves, ski goggles, a helmet, snow pants and winter coat before a leisurely bike ride to your destination. Everywhere I went, people would tell me I was crazy but for those who haven’t experienced it, what is there to be crazy about? I get to my destination in a reasonable amount of time, I’ve had a minor workout, I’m usually quite warm when I arrive and it cost me nothing other than the $150 for the winter tune up in November. When most folks are trapped inside their homes and offices all winter, I’m getting a daily dose of mother nature and a nice time to decompress at the end of the day.

I’ve thought a lot about writing this post (as I was biking) and what I came up with is a list of winter biking tips.

1) Go Slow: While I only bailed once on some extremely slippery ice this year due to my excellent studded tires. Winter biking is not for the speed demons or those running late. The paths and roads are often rough and unpredicatable so its best that you go about half as fast as you would in the summer. Further, your ability to really crank up the speed when you’re really late only means that you arrive to your destination still late and extra-sweaty.

2) Get Winter Tires: Winter tires rock! I felt just as safe on the hard pack snow as I would on concrete or asphalt.

3) Wear Ski Goggles: When its -30C, and you’re travelling at 20 km/h, you’re facing a windchill around -50C which leads to frostbite in about 4 minutes and that’s assuming that the wind isn’t already coming against you. You’ll probably also want a buff or neck warmer to cover the face on these frigid days.

4) Avoid Traffic: I am usually a pro-traffic rider and I get a thrill riding in traffic but I wouldn’t recommend riding in traffic in the winter, especially in Saskatoon where they don’t plow the streets. Drivers already have enough to worry about with the bumps, snow piles and ice to have to avoid a biker who is going to be travelling at about a fifth of what the rest of traffic is moving at. For me it was more a personal safety issue and simply isn’t practical.

5) Use the Meewasin Trail System: The Messwasin trail system is better kept than most roads in the city during the winter and they paths are generally blown clear leaving that perfect hard pack for your tires to grip into.

6) Learn How to do Skid Turns: Brake with the rear brake, swing the back wheel and ride it out. Don’t ruin your tires.

I hope this is somewhat inspiring. Since originally writing this, I have noticed many more riders this winter compared to last. The big boy bikes with the extra fat tires appear quite popular right now and I’ve even heard of some folks going off roading with them through the thick snow. Anyway, enjoy the winter, enjoy the snow, and stay warm. 

The Seventh Post: Saskatchewan Eco-Network Environmental Film Festival

ImageI have spent the past few months helping organize the 8th annual Saskatchewan Eco-Network Environmental Film Festival here in Saskatoon, SK. I hope if you’re in Saskatoon during the weekend and you’re looking for something to do that you might come check it out. The Facebook Event can be found here.

Here is the schedule! 

Sea the Change, Be the Change: SEN Environmental Film Festival

April 18 – 21, 2013

At the Roxy Theatre, Saskatoon

Thursday April 18th

5:30pm Let’s Talk About Water / Networking event

6:30pm Last Call at the Oasis / Guest speaker panel.

This is event is hosted in partnership with the Global Institute for Water Security

Friday April 19th 

6 pm SEN Environmental Activist Awards

7 pm Chasing Ice

9:30 pm Green Un-Gala at Paved Arts

Saturday April 20th 

12 pm Lost Rivers / Speaker Dr. Robert Patrick on Cities and Rivers

2:30 pm Short and Sweet Environmental Film Shorts! / Water and Climate themed.

4 pm Blue Gold: The Tsilhqot’in Fight for Teztan Biny / Speaker Erica Lee from Idle No More

7 pm Just Do It!

9 pm The City Dark/ Presentation Saskatchewan Light Abatement Committee

Sunday April 21st 

11 am Saskatchewan River Delta

2 pm Film TBA / Workshop by OXFAM SK.

4 pm The Carbon Rush

Admission by suggested donation per film: $10 (waged); $5 (student or low income)

Full Details at

Thanks to our Sponsors:

SCIC, Riversdale Community Assoc. U of S Office of Sustainability,

Sask. Federation of Labour, Cinema Politica, Environmental Studies Students Association, City of Saskatoon, Loraas Recycle, SaskWater, Caffe Sola, Saskatchewan Light Pollution Abatement Committee, Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin, Global Institute for Water Security, Saskatchewan Arts Board, Saskatchewan Culture and Saskatchewan Lotteries, Paddock Wood, Neesh Dental, MPetit Productions, Maestar productions, PAVED Saskatchewan Eco-network. Image

The Sixth Post: Environmental Double Jeopardy in Alberta’s New Super Energy Regulator

The inspiration for this post comes from a colleague who shall remain nameless due to their employment situation but I am tremendously grateful for their contribution. 

Alberta is due to reveal the new energy body that will govern energy development in the province. They are so close that they’ve even appointed former CAPP executive director and energy lobbyist Gerry Protti as chair of the regulator (regulatory capture anyone?). This new body, which has been in the works for the since 2010, will combine the legislated responsibilities that were previously held by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AENV-SRD) (which were two separate departments before the 2012 Alberta election) and the Energy Resource Conservation Board (ERCB).

Before this synchronization, if an energy company wanted to develop a project, they were required to get approval from both AENV-SRD, who had to approve environmental impacts of the project, and the ERCB, who had to approve of the more technical nature of the projects including safety and market considerations. This process was cumbersome not only for energy companies but also for stakeholders and community organizations intervening against the project because they had to enter the regulatory system through multiple points. In efforts to streamline the process, the Alberta Government proposed the one-stop shop Alberta Energy Regulator so that both energy companies and stakeholders only had to access the system through one point.

This single regulator will be in charge of all upstream oil, gas, and coal activities and will control the licensing and authorizations under the Water Act and relevant responsibilities under Environmental Protection and Enforcement Act (EPEA). It will also govern reclamation, remediation, inspections and compliance along with the issuing of public land dispositions and the right of entry to public lands. The goal is for the new body is “One application [for an energy project], one review, one decision.”

But will the new regulator be as stringent in governing the environmental policies previously adopted from AENV-SRD? Some including myself are skeptical and think the new system may be subject to environmental double jeopardy.

The reason for this suspicion rests with the integration of the two sets of policy which have been developed through two very different systems. Environmental policy making in Alberta, particularly those policy areas formally held by AENV-SRD, is a very contentious issue with many competing and conflicting interests. To manage these conflicts and maintain legitimacy in policy making, AENV-SRD has used extensive (though often far short of genuine) multi-stakeholder decision making processes to reach policies that are intended reflect an aggregation of the multiple interests involved. The process is often slow and cumbersome but many agree that it is the best way to guarantee agreement among the different parties. Since environmental organizations bring certain policy demands to the decision making table, when negotiated with energy companies, these demands are often diluted to something that is amenable to the energy companies. This is the first set of compromise for environmentally focused policy.

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 2.02.18 PM

In contrast, the energy policy development is not subject to the multi-stakeholder nature of environmental policy. The Department of Energy is ruthlessly efficient and decision making is made primarily between the Government of Alberta and energy companies. For instance, the sale of oil and gas leases is completed without any stakeholder consultation, a situation which could provoke future legal conflicts with First Nations who argue they are not being appropriately consulted for development on traditional lands (First Nations are able to intervene and are “consulted” during the project approval process). The ERCB does provide more space for community engagement but there is abundant evidence that suggests their criteria for allowing organizations and citizen to intervene in the regulatory hearing process as a full participant has been interpreted far too narrowly. Needless to say, there has been little substantive policy compromise on behalf of the industry on the ERCB and Department of Energy side of the new single regulator.

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 2.02.30 PM

When these two sets of policies that have been reached through these two different policy making processes are amalgamated and integrated it seems likely that a compromise would be struck between the primarily environmental policy and the energy policy. Since the environmental demands of environmental organizations has already been subject to an initial compromise, this second compromise creates an environmental double jeopardy which weakens Alberta’s environmental policy in relation to energy development. The policy demands which have been brought by environmental organizations in good faith, may be further diluted under this new single regulator, potentially weakening Alberta’s environmental policy with regard to energy development in the province.

The Fifth Post: Oil Sands GHG Emissions Intensities


Canada has established a climate change target is a 17% reduction in greenhouse gasses (GHG) below 2005 levels by 2020 but in 2012, the Environment Canada’s National Emission Trends predicted that Canada would miss the 2020 target by 113 MT CO2e if the current business as usual case was continued. One of primary reasons why Canada is expected to miss the 2020 target is growth in the Alberta oil sands. 

The oil sands, are a heavy greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, both on a per barrel basis and overall. The oil extracted is more GHG intensive than conventional crude oil because of the energy intensive extraction, upgrading and refining process required.


With current oil sands production hovering around 1.6M bbl/d and expected to double by 2020 and triple by 2030 to over 6M bbl/d, the cumulative GHG produced are also expected to dramatically increase to 104 Mt CO2e by 2020 as seen in Figure 1 above.


This projected increase in emissions in the oil sands stands in contrast to the rest of Canada as seen in Figure 2. To put this in perspective, without increases from the oil sands, Alberta’s cumulative emissions would be expected to fall by 8 Mt CO2e between 2010 and 2020. To further emphasize the point, by 2020 the GHG emissions from the oil sands will grow to be 14% of Canada’s total emissions. If the oil sands were its own province, they would have the third highest emissions in the country next to Alberta (with out the oil sands) and Ontario by 2020 (see Figure 4).


When the oil sands industry is challenged by these GHG growth figures, a common response is to highlight the reductions in emission intensity that have occurred since early production. Emission intensity is the amount of emissions per barrel of oil produced. This is different from overall or cumulative emissions since emissions intensity could decrease while overall emissions increase as a result of increased production.

Since 1990, the oil sands have reduced emissions intensity by 29%. According to IHS CERA, these reductions can be attributed to a switch from petroleum coke to natural gas for electricity generation as well as cogeneration of heat and electricity, and greater efficiencies in bitumen extraction and upgrading. However, despite this significant decrease, since 2006 the emissions intensity downward trend has reversed and begun to increase.


Figure 5 identifies the per unit emissions intensities for twelve oil sands facilities in Alberta between 2006 and 2009. It shows that some facilities are continuing to reduce emission intensities while other facilities have seen an increase. Overall, the average between the twelve facilities increased every year between 2006 and 2009.

The reasons behind the shifting trend would vary across the different facilities but one potential reason is the falling reservoir quality as the easiest to access bitumen is extracted leaving more difficult, energy intensive deposits left over. Another reason, not displayed in Figure 4 or 5, is the shift from oil sands mining, which has traditionally dominated production, to in situ methods which are significantly more GHG intensive but far more abundant.

The final reason for this reversed trend can be attributed to the diminishing returns of technological improvements and the absence of effective incentives to encourage further improvements. The easiest and lowest cost technologies were implemented at an early stage to reduce total operational costs. These made the most significant gains but additional technologies come at a greater cost for each unit of emission reduction achieved. Suncor’s recent Greenhouse Gas Reduction Road Map for Oil Sands has outlined their cost ratios for future emissions intensity reductions. For mining, in situ and upgrading operations, minor improvements can be made in both operational and capital improvements at relatively low cost around $20 per tonne CO2e. However, the most significant reductions through various technological improvements, including carbon, capture and storage (CCS), come at a cost of $100 per tonne CO2e or more.

Policy Shortfalls and Implications

Alberta’s Specific Gas Emitters Regulation (SGER) was introduced in 2007 and is the only policy governing GHG emissions from the oil sands. Applying to all heavy emitters in Alberta, it requires operators to reduce their emissions intensity by 12%. While this policy was the first policy to place a price on carbon emissions in North America, it does so by focusing on emissions intensity as opposed to cumulative emissions. Operators unwilling to meet the 12% emissions intensity reduction have the option of paying a $15 price per tonne of carbon emitted into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund. Given the option between paying for GHG reduction or paying the $15 per tonne price, it is expected that polluters would be willing to pay for improvements that cost less than $15 for every tonne reduced.

Since the majority of emission intensity reduction technologies and mitigation strategies costing below $15 per tonne of CO2e reduced have already been implemented, the proper incentives to reduce emissions, either cumulatively or on an intensity basis, are not in place. As a consequence, we should not expect a reduction in emissions intensity until the SGER’s carbon price is increased. The greater the price, the more likely polluters will implement the necessary changes.

Additionally, if policy makers wanted to reduce the cumulative emissions from the oil sands to help Canada achieve its 2020 targets, the 12% target of emission reductions would have to increased along with the proper carbon price to ensure compliance. The Pembina Institute calculates that, with current production rates, if oil sands emissions were to remain at 2009 level (45 Mt per year), it would require industry to reduce emissions intensity by 53% by 2020. Since this would be almost double the reductions since 1990, it seems unlikely that this would be achievable.

The SGER is inadequate at encouraging emissions reductions both on an intensity and cumulative basis from the Alberta oil sands. Consequently, the oil sands will continue to grow and will be one of the primary reasons why Canada will fail to reach their 2020 climate targets.


1 Grant, Jennifer, and Marc Hout. 2012. Clearing the Air on Oil Sands Impacts: The Facts About Greenhouse Gas Pollution from Oil Sands Development – Fact Sheet. 2.

2 Data obtained from Environment Canada. 2011. National Inventory Report 1990-2009: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada. 56 and Environment Canada. 2012. Canada’s Emissions Trends 2012.’s-Emissions-Trends-2012_e_01.pdf. 24

3 Environment Canada. 2011. National Inventory Report 1990-2009: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada.

4 IHS CERA. 2010. Oil Sands Technology: Past, Present and Future. 9

5 Data obtained from the Alberta Oil Sands Information Portal. GHG Emissions Intensity History. Accessed December 2, 2012.

6 Bramley, Matthew, Marc Huot, Simon Dyer, and Matt Horne. 2011. Responsible Action?: An Assessment of Alberta’s Greenhouse Gas Policies. The Pembina Institute. 32.

7 Bohm, Mark, Robert Brasier, Bill Keesom, and Chris Vogel. 2012. A Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap for Oil Sands Prepared For.

8 Alberta Environment. 2007. Specified Gas Emitters Regulation: Technical Guidance Document for Baseline Emissions Intensity Applications.

9 Energy, Alberta. 2012. “Facts and Statistics.”

10 Bramley, Huot, Dyer, and Horne. 2011. 31

The Fourth Post: Ezra Levant doesn’t buy “ethical oil”.

In response to the growing national and international resistance to oil sands development in North Eastern Alberta. The oil industry and federal and provincial governments have come to the defense of development with a ferocity not seen before. In 2008, the Alberta provincial government, then under Premier Ed Stelmach launch a 25 million dollar public relations campaign to clean up Alberta’s image. Since then, countless millions have been spent to purchase the social license to develop and operate production in the oil sands. (to contrast, Greenpeace’s oil sands campaign budget in Edmonton is less than $300,000)

There are several deep flaws in Ezra’s argument.

First, “ethical oil” is an oxymoron and a false dichotomy. No environmental organization or activist is arguing that we should be buying “unethical oil” from the world’s dictators. They are arguing that the combustion of fossil fuels is adversely affecting life as we know it. The argument is missing the third option which is not to produce oil at all. Perhaps if we could implement a carbon tax and a dictatorship tax, and internalize all the externalities of energy production, we would find the most “ethical” choice. We might be surprised to find that the alternative sources of energy which are currently struggling to enter the energy market will be the most ethical after all. Then again, maybe not. Simply, the problem is far more complex then what Ezra and myself are currently making it out to be.

Second, the politics and economics of oil will and never be determined by morality. Oil runs the global economy and although there are some market obstructions (OPEC, government subsidization etc.), oil prices and allocation is determined by supply and demand. For instance, the reason gas prices are lower in western Canada then they are in eastern Canada is not because the oil is produced in western Canada and companies are happy to give the local residents a break at the pumps, it is because they are unable to sell it to higher buyers. They are unable because of a glut of oil in the midwestern US and a lack of pipeline capacity which is currently depressing prices. This is why Alberta and Mr. Harper are so keen to get a pipeline directly to a coast where the oil can be sold at the global price. If the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL are built, Alberta should actually see the price of gasoline increase. Through these pipelines, Canada will be able to sell diluted bitumen to who ever wants to buy it and the current list of clientele has no “ethical” restrictions. If it did, we might reconsider selling oil to the world’s largest non-democratic regime.

Third, lets think for a second. What were to happen if we were to halt purchases of oil from non-democratic regimes, what would happen? Would these nations crumble due to a lack of revenue? Would their environmental regulations improve? Would they embrace liberal human rights for their citizens and turn into a light unto the world? Or, would oil thirsty developing (and developed) nations buy up the stock? Obviously the last choice would be correct. That oil is going to be extracted, bought and combusted by who ever is going to buy it. Now, I’m not trying to be an apologist for autocratic regimes but there are two options (with some shades of gray), we can either develop the oil sands and feel “ethically” good whilst simultaneously turning north eastern Alberta into a slew of emissions, tailings ponds, fragmented landscapes and end pit lakes while extirpating the regions woodland caribou and hindering the ability of the regions first peoples from practicing their traditional lifestyle, or, we can buy oil from the middle east and support an autocratic regimes which is going to happen regardless of our choice. Essentially, at the end of the day, we need to decide if the environmental risks to Alberta, Canada and the world are worth the benefits they produce.

Not that anyone is actually taking the organization ethical oil seriously (especially after this online spectacle, a personal favorite) but greater light needs to be drawn to this false logic. The allocation of oil is and always will be dominated by power and wealth. Although I do truly wish that energy, environment and resource decisions were based on some sort of ethics towards future generations and marginalized communities, I know that this is simply not going to be the case without government intervention or grass roots resistance.

However, as long as Ezra Levant continues to operate out of the Sun News Studio in Toronto, ON, he will continue to buy unethical oil based on the dynamics of global supply and demand. Until TransCanada’s natural gas pipeline is reversed and ships bitumen to eastern Canada and Toronto, by Ezra’s standards, the most ethical choice for Ezra might be to buy an electric car fueled by Ontario’s generous feed-in tariff system for alternative energies. And what a sight it would be.

The Third Post: Social Movement Theory and #idlenomore

Canada is currently exporting a social movement to the world. The #idlenomore protests which disrupted holiday shopping, highways and rail traffic have now finally achieved one of their short term goals, a meeting between Chiefs (in particular Attawapiskat Chief Spence) and Prime Minister Harper. For a quick and effective overview of #idlenomore, see this CBC story.


Picture from National Post  
This movement originated in my current location of Saskatoon, SK with 4 (or 5) women who decided to act on the government’s, at that point soon to be passed, omnibus budget implementation bill C-45. Their opposition rests on changes to the Indian Act and the various environmental regulations and protections that were removed with the bill’s passing. From these women’s kitchen table, they organized a protest in late November which sparked a chord with First Nations and allies opposed to the Harper government. However, this movement did not come out of a vacuum and social movement theory(s) can tell us quite a bit about this movement and perhaps project its future from this point. 

If anyone is wondering I wrote a Masters thesis on social movement theory and the environmental opposition to Alberta’s oil sands which can be found here.

Social movement theory can be broken down into three different scales and sub theories at the macro, meso and micro levels.

Political Opportunity Theory 

At the macro level (external to social movement organizations), Political Opportunity Theory argues that social movement actors actions are defined by the subjective interpretation of their political environment and the institutions of power. For instance, Canada is a liberal democracy with a host of freedoms that are for the most part protected (we’ll ignore the G20 in Toronto). First nations and allies are covered by these freedom and can feel confident that they can speak freely without overt political repression. If they perceive this to be true, they will use this opportunity to pursue political change. If a similar situation was to emerge in a totalitarian state, say Nazi Germany, we would expect not the social movement to act in the same way assuming they correctly perceive that speaking in opposition would result in repression.

So what is the context in which #idlenomore has originated and why has the movement selected a confrontational approach as opposed to a “work within the system” collaborative approach? This answer is worthy of a book but the political context for first nations is incredibly complex. First, the Canadian government perpetuated a genocide (as defined by the United Nations) against First Nations through its residential schools program.

Second, treaties, treaty rights and their interpretations have been bouncing around in the legal system for many decades with many first nations, particularly in BC, yet to officially cede any territory to the nation of Canada which has prompted to flurry of land claims that trickle through the justice system. At the heart of many of the cases is whether the government has sovereign authority over these “nations” or if these “nations” are nations similar to the relationship between the United States and Canada.


Picture from The International

Third, the Conservative government has not kept its desires for Canada to become an energy super power secret but much of the resources to be developed fall under first nations territory. While there is certainly a strong push to include First Nations in development plans, most projects proceed with or without First Nations consent which forces communities to make a tough decision between providing tacit approval of the project in return for jobs and other benefits, or fight the project and receive no benefits when the project is completed.

#Idlenomore also falls on the back of Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver’s open letter to Canadians about the Northern Gateway pipeline where he identified “environmental and other groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade.” ‘Other groups’ in this context was a politically correct way of singling out First Nations groups as those that stand in the way of Canada and prosperity. The recent changes to the environmental impact assessment act and other environmental changes have sought to remove the ability of these groups to “hijack” the decision making process and obstruct natural resource projects.

Needless to say, the door to engage the federal government to natural resource issues pertaining to the environment is closed and perceived that way by an increasing number to societal actors including this current social movement. If it continues to be perceived this way, and don’t expect a change after Harper’s meeting with the Chiefs, then we should expect this movement to continue to act outside of the traditional avenues of political engagement.

Resource Mobilization Theory 

The second meso (medium) level theory offers explanations of social movements by focusing at the organizational level of the social movement and in particular, the resources they use to advocate their claim and mobilize allies and members. Enough has been said about social media and the #idlenomore movement (and to be honest I can’t stand another class discussion on social media,…I get it, its important but not that important) but essentially social media is a low cost, decentralized communication medium that is capable of reaching millions in seconds. Its clear that others have devoted materials and capital to the movement but by and large, the movement has succeeded without the traditional social movement organization model. However, long term sustainability likely requires some degree of institutionalization.

The movement’s current form (decentralized, sporadic and non-institutional) likely reflects the resources used and available. With more resources, those identifying with the movement would likely establish an office with professional staff and campaigners but this would be largely redundant since many of these traditional organizations already exist (see Indigenous Environmental Network).

Frame Theory

Frame theory is the last of the mainstream social movement theories and focuses on individual actors and attributes mobilization to frame alignment or the common perception of an issue with a common required response. Borrowing from my current course in environmental decision making, everyone has a standpoint, a lens on which they view the world. This is determined by their background, ideology, identity and other things specific to each individual. For instance, I am a white middle class able-bodied heterosexual male. My world experience and they way in which I perceive the world is vastly different from that of a young First Nations female growing up on a reserve. However, despite our different world views or frames, these frames can align to perceive a problem or injustice (degradation of our natural environment and the Canadian government’s unwillingness to uphold treaty rights) and a solution (direct action, protest, civil disobedience etc.). This frame alignment produces a social movement provided that many other individuals align with the common frame.

Frames can also be adopted, stretched, warped, modified and ultimately, it is hoped that the common frame is adopted by the majority of the population in the same way that the civil rights movement was able to convince the American public that segregation and racial injustice was a bad thing worth correcting.

Where is the #idlenomore movement going? At this point it is unclear as their simplest and easiest to achieve objective has now been reached. The meeting later this week may provide an interesting turning point but judging by current social media trends, the movement is in no mood to shut down and call it a day.

Even if you are not interested in supporting this movement, I suggest everyone get out and witness it first hand, or at the very least, listen to the grievances of Canada’s First Nations whose history is fascinating but tragic.

Policy today for the world tomorrow. A blog by Matthew Dow

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