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Amnesty International warns of dangers in Alberta's approach to defending oil industry

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Amnesty International Canada's Secretary General, Alex Neve. Photo: David J. Climenhaga

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's petulant response yesterday to Amnesty International's scorching letter about the dangers represented by his United Conservative Party government's approach to defending the fossil fuel industry exposes a surprising lack of judgment for a former senior federal cabinet minister.

Rather than reassuring people elsewhere in Canada and potential investors around the world that, no, Alberta isn't taking a turn toward autocratic far-right populism with a nasty authoritarian streak, he snapped out a series of unconvincing responses to Amnesty International Canada Secretary General Alex Neve's letter that sounded as if they'd been drafted for him by someone at Rebel Media.

Every point you'd expect to hear from the "ethical oil" crowd was there: Neve was "beyond ridiculous." Kenney would "absolutely not" abandon his war room or his inquiry with its universally mocked snitch line. Amnesty should criticize Saudi Arabia or Russia instead of picking on Alberta. The international human-rights watchdog used to do better work when he was running his high school Amnesty club. Amnesty is "fighting to protect foreign-funded billionaires from transparency when they're funding a campaign to land-lock Canadian energy."

The general effect of this would be sophomoric were the issue not a serious one, with potentially real repercussions for Alberta and Canada.

It's pretty obvious that when Neve warned Alberta risked violating human rights, exposing women and Indigenous activists in particular to threats of violence, and endangering the fundamental rights of people in places most affected by global climate change, he was doing it because the world expects better of Alberta than it does of Saudi Arabia, not because he wanted to pick on us.

And you know what? It's completely appropriate for Amnesty to ask Alberta to be better and also to criticize the likes of Saudi Arabia for gross violations of human rights. It's totally reasonable for Neve to ask Alberta to ensure public funds are not used to harass, spy on or criminalize citizens who criticize the Kenney government's energy agenda, and also to tell Russia not to abuse the rights of its citizens.

As Neve told a forum on free speech at the University of Alberta last night, "what is happening in this province is part of the same vile slippery slope" authoritarian populist governments are sliding down elsewhere. "And Premier Kenney has taken a step onto that slippery slope."

Instead, he said in his letter, "Alberta should be in the forefront of denouncing such actions by other governments, not following their lead."

By reacting as he did, Kenney created the impression that if he isn't quite a two-bit Viktor Orbán, Hungary's far-right populist strongman, or a half-baked Vladimir Putin, he might aspire to be. He certainly didn't seem to mind Putin's methods when he attacked Greenpeace in Fort McMurray yesterday.

Whatever he thinks, Kenney is leaving that impression with hitherto disinterested observers elsewhere in Canada and around the world with yesterday's performance.

Perhaps Kenney just doesn't like Neve. The Ottawa lawyer has been a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. He's a member of the Order of Canada. And he's crossed swords before with Kenney, when the premier was federal minister of immigration.

Still, it's Kenney, not Amnesty International, that's poking holes in Alberta's claims we produce the world's most "ethical oil" in the oilsands.

"Amnesty International is concerned that the overriding intention and impact of both the public inquiry and energy 'war room' will inevitably be to target, discredit and silence individuals and groups who oppose or criticize the Alberta oilsands or related pipeline projects," Neve wrote.

Kenney's childish response to that makes the argument seem more valid, not less.

Neve also raised an issue I'd wager no one in the Kenney government's strategic brain trust had thought about when it cooked up this plan. "Threatening to impose funding restrictions or limiting a group's capacity to exercise their rights to freedom of association by securing funding or support from foreign sources is a violation of human rights. As described in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the right to freedom of association allows individuals to form groups for the defence of human rights and the environment."

The UN declaration "also protects the rights of organizations and citizens to access and receive funding from national and foreign sources," he said.

A lot of Albertans may not be comfortable with this fact. Putin doesn't like it much either. But professional political advisers to the premier of Canada's richest province have no excuse for being unaware of it.

And judging from the premier's response to the letter, Neve told the forum last night, "that's exactly the aspect of the letter he missed."

Anyway, as Neve's letter said, "it is troubling that your government's focus on foreign funding appears to extend exclusively to critics of the oil and gas industry and not think-tanks and other organizations actively supporting the industry."

"Furthermore, the evidentiary basis for why concerns over 'foreign funding' would warrant this degree of public expenditure and attention and the risks entailed to civil liberties appears to rely on vague conspiracy theories about the hidden goals of U.S. based foundations," he wrote.

"Labelling information that does not align with your government's policies as 'false' and 'lies' leaves little room for dialogue, which is essential to the exercise of human rights and central to a healthy democracy," he concluded. "Harassing and threatening individuals because they promote views contrary to government has significant consequences for everyone's human rights in Canada."

Kenney may not care that much about human rights, at least when the opinions they protect run contrary to the ones he wants to promote. But if he thinks this kind of reaction doesn't matter, or the attention it attracts can't have economic consequences, he mustn't have been paying attention.

Numerous corporations have already told U.S. states like Georgia that if they don't start respecting the rights of their citizens, they'll take their resources, jobs and money somewhere else. Kenney sounds as if he'd like to test their willingness to do the same thing here. That might not turn out to be a good idea.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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