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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, centre, addresses attendees at a press conference to announce the launch of the Canadian Energy Centre at SAIT in Calgary, Alberta on Dec. 11, 2019.

Greg Fulmes/The Canadian Press

A Vancouver chef who was featured in an article produced by Alberta’s “energy war room” says he’s furious he wasn’t told that the Canadian Energy Centre was created and funded by the provincial government.

Donald Gyurkovits, president of the Canadian Culinary Federation, said his group strives to stay out of politics and he never would have participated if the writer who contacted him explained the background of the centre. Several other people interviewed by the war room have also said they were not told about its ties to the Alberta government and critics have questioned why the centre’s writers have been describing themselves as reporters.

The Canadian Energy Centre was launched earlier this month with a $30-million annual budget to promote Alberta’s oil and gas sector while pushing back against the industry’s opponents. It was a campaign promise from Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party, which won the spring election.

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So far, the centre’s work has focused on a website with a series of articles and opinion pieces on various facets of the oil and gas industry. One of those pieces featured chefs, including Mr. Gyurkovits, extolling the benefits of cooking with natural gas.

Mr. Gyurkovits said the person who interviewed him identified herself as a writer from Toronto working for the Canadian Energy Centre. Her initial e-mail requesting an interview did not explain the origins of the centre and instead linked to its website, which does not prominently identify it as a creation of government.

“I never knew it was a government agency – never,” Mr. Gyurkovits said in an interview.

“I kind of feel little betrayed because we are not a political entity in any way, shape or form. … I wouldn’t have commented if I knew it was a political play. We’re about cooking and what’s good for our business and our industry."

Mr. Gyurkovits said his industry accepts that it will need to move on from fossil fuels and wants to ensure small businesses are protected and offered financial help to make that happen.

“I live in British Columbia,” he said. “I don’t want an oil pipeline or a gas pipeline going through my backyard.”

In other cases, staff and freelance writers from the centre have identified themselves to potential sources as reporters. The Canadian Association of Journalists has decried war room writers’ use of the term “reporter” as Orwellian, given that the energy centre has a mandate to support the industry and government policy.

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The association's president, Karyn Pugliese, said the war room is inappropriately blurring the line between journalism and government public relations. She said it's deceptive for war room writers to identify themselves as reporters and not disclose that they are working for an extension of the provincial government.

“Governments, they want to support a position, they want to get people to vote for them. They can do PR, but it’s not journalism,” she said in an interview.

“What they’re doing is they’re spinning. And they’re welcome to spin, but when they masquerade that as journalism, it’s completely dishonest.”

Grady Semmens, a spokesman for the centre, argued there’s no problem with war room writers using the term “reporter,” although he said they are told to explain that they are producing content for the Canadian Energy Centre and make it clear that “that the CEC is funded by the government of Alberta.”

“To avoid any confusion, we will underscore to our writers that they need to ensure it is clear who they are working for,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The Premier pitched the war room as a response to what the Alberta government has deemed to be misinformation about the oil and gas sector. The centre is funded through a mix of industrial carbon tax revenue and money previously earmarked for public relations.

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Aside from its website, the centre will promote its message through social media and traditional advertising, and it will include a “rapid response” team whose job it will be to respond to criticism of the oil industry.

The war room has prompted comparisons to Ontario News Now, an online video service run by Premier Doug Ford’s caucus and paid for by taxpayers. Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government had a weekly video series called 24 Seven, and Ontario’s Liberal Party produced YouTube videos a decade ago called Liberal TV.

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