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opinion

It takes a person with a strange sense of humour to make the unlawful imprisonment of environmental activists by an authoritarian regime fodder for a speech laugh line.

But for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, the arrests served as a sort of teachable moment, a poignant and even funny illustration of the power that such acts by brutal dictatorships can have on shutting down the kind of protests for which Greenpeace and other like-minded groups are known.

Earlier this week, Mr. Kenney was speaking to an oil sands conference in Fort McMurray, a friendly audience to be sure. He soon waded into familiar territory: the injustice of environmentalists targeting Canada’s oil industry, while giving countries responsible for far more of the world’s crude production a free pass. Countries, he was quick to add, that have terrible environmental and human-rights records.

It was at this point he cited the 2013 arrest of 30 protesters planning to board an Arctic oil rig stationed in the Pechora Sea. The Greenpeace vessel, Arctic Sunrise, was stormed by members of the Russian coastguard brandishing guns and knives. Those on the ship were arrested and thrown in a Russian prison for two months before they were released. An international tribunal would later find Russia’s actions illegal and order the country to pay €5.4-million ($8-million) in damages. A settlement worth €2.7-million was reached this year.

In his speech, Mr. Kenney seemed to suggest the jailing of the protesters was a strategy that worked. “Funnily enough, they’ve [the protesters] never been back,” the Premier said to much laughter. “I’m not advocating that for Canada but it’s instructive, it’s instructive.”

Instructive? Something to be learned? He went on: “Do you think they [protesters] would get away with that in the Bolivarian socialist republic of Venezuela or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the Islamic republic of Iran? We all know the answer to that question.”

Yes, we do. Activists would likely be killed, deaths sanctioned by sick, tyrannical rulers. Given that we’re much nicer here in Canada, those who believe burning fossil fuels is bad for the planet should back off and allow Alberta’s oil producers to get on with things. That’s essentially Mr. Kenney’s message.

Let me say that I’m not unsympathetic to the view that there does seem to be an inherent unfairness – “a perverse double standard” to use Mr. Kenney’s phrasing – about environmental campaigns that target Canada’s oil sands while production in some of the aforementioned countries goes unfettered. Even oil production in the United States has doubled in the past decade. Although it’s not true to assert, as the Alberta Premier and others do repeatedly, there is no similar activism in the U.S. What does he call the years-long crusade against the Keystone XL pipeline?

But Russia, the OPEC nations and others, countries that, at the state level, often represent the worst of humanity, are not targeted the way Alberta is. Without question. But I don’t think it’s right to argue that because Iran and Saudi Arabia aren’t subjected to environmental dissent, oil companies here should escape scrutiny and protest, too. Canada is different. And we should take pride in the fact that environmentalists can campaign against projects without fear of being thrown in some gulag for months.

The Premier misses another important point: It’s not just Greenpeace or the Sierra Club or Stand.earth that believe there should be no more pipelines – many everyday Canadians believe it, too. Their concern with climate change is reflected in poll after poll. When Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau campaigned in the 2015 election against the Northern Gateway pipeline, he wasn’t just caving into the demands of environmental groups, he was responding to the demands of Canadians generally, not to mention First Nations groups, many of whom wanted nothing to do with the project.

This is also what Mr. Kenney is missing with the inquiry he has just launched to determine the extent to which the campaigns against the oil sands are foreign funded. It ignores the fact that many Canadians, worried about the health of the planet, believe that building up the oil industry and sending carbon-dioxide emissions soaring to new levels, is not in anyone’s best interests.

Amnesty International Canada recently issued a statement expressing concern over Mr. Kenney’s campaign to fight back against critics of his province’s oil and gas sector. The organization believes the inquiry and the $30-million war room the government is setting up to respond to negative commentary about the oil sands will create a “climate of hostility” toward activists.

I don’t think there’s any question we are charting new territory when it comes to the debate over the future of Alberta’s energy industry. I also don’t think the overheated rhetoric we’re hearing from the Premier and others will ultimately help achieve the results for which he’s looking.