Good morning! It’s James Keller in Calgary.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney won the spring election on a campaign that argued his province – and more specifically its oil and gas industry – was under attack. And he promised to fight back with a campaign-style “war room” that would rush into action to correct misinformation and go on the offensive against environmentalists, journalists, and other critics of the industry.
This week, Mr. Kenney launched the agency with a slightly more benign name – the Canadian Energy Centre. Led by former journalist and failed United Conservative Party candidate Tom Olsen, the centre will push content to its website extolling the benefits of the industry, purchase traditional ads, and use a “rapid-response” unit to respond to errors and criticisms.
It has a budget of $30-million a year, financed in part through an industrial carbon tax on the province’s largest emitters. The government registered it as a private corporation, rather than an official Crown agency, in part to shield it from access-to-information laws. The government argues opening up the centre’s records for public scrutiny would only let the province’s opponents gain the upper hand.
So far, the centre feels a lot like a traditional PR campaign. Its website features a series of articles that are written to sound like news reports and columns, and there’s a video that argues Canadian oil sparks joy around the world and makes happier babies.
Mr. Kenney said the centre will also produce research and data about the industry aimed at investors, researchers and policy makers.
The war-room effort has been criticized for essentially serving as a propaganda arm of the government, a suggestion that Mr. Kenney firmly rejected. And members of his staff have pointed out on social media that the former NDP government launched an ad campaign in support of the province’s oil sector that cost more than $20-million.
Our Alberta columnist, Kelly Cryderman, is skeptical. She notes that the opening video is cringeworthy, but the issues run deeper: “And really, the problem with the centre isn’t the look and feel of one video. It’s the centre itself – an entity that looks and feels entirely too secretive, too partisan and too political.”
Still, she argues that the centre could still prompt some useful questions about the oil and gas sector’s place in the Canadian economy and whether, as the Premier argues, it’s better to export Alberta oil rather than leaving that to producers from the United States, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
Around the West:
BC LEGISLATURE: The new year will bring uncertainty to British Columbia’s political landscape, with opportunity and risk for each of the three parties in the legislature. The departure of Green leader Andrew Weaver means the relative stability of NDP Premier John Horgan’s minority government over the past 29 months is no longer assured. At any time it could be over, he tells his cabinet ministers, so get to work now.
CANNABIS: In a region hit hard by the downturn in Alberta’s oil and gas industry, a massive cannabis facility under construction in Medicine Hat gave the community a badly needed boost of optimism when it was announced last year. The Aurora Cannabis Inc. project, at 1.6 million square feet, would be one of the largest in Canada and create as many as 800 jobs when it’s fully up and running. But that enthusiasm has been tempered as the company pulls back on the construction schedule, recently announcing it will delay completion for the foreseeable future.
HONG KONG CONFLICT: A handful of people demonstrating in support of protesters in Hong Kong gathered in front of Richmond City Hall on Friday, demanding the resignation of teachers and a principal at a Richmond high school, where tensions have prompted student confrontations and left school administrators to ask for help from RCMP.
POLITICAL DONATIONS: A judge has thrown out a fine issued by Alberta’s former election commissioner, saying investigators acted unfairly when they penalized a donor for breaking contribution limits in a ruling that also condemns how those fines were calculated.
STUDIO SHUTTERED: The Vancouver branch of the visual effects and animation company that has worked on such films as The Martian, The Lion King and the coming Godzilla vs. Kong has shut down its Vancouver operation amid a production boom in B.C. Representatives of Moving Picture Co. (MPC) said in a letter circulated to staff that “external market pressures in Vancouver and more attractive opportunities in other locations” were to blame for creating a challenging environment to sustain the studio, which has been operating in the city since 2007.
BIOSIMILARS: Alberta’s decision to switch thousands of government-insured patients to less-expensive versions of drugs called biologics is being greeted with alarm by some gastroenterologists and patient groups who fear the policy could hurt patients. But rheumatologists and representatives of patients with inflammatory arthritis are welcoming Alberta’s plan to save hundreds of millions of dollars by promoting the cheaper alternatives, known as biosimilars – so long as the province’s United Conservative Party government carefully manages the transition for patients.
HOMELESSNESS: The mayor of Nanaimo, B.C., wants the province to institutionalize severely mentally ill people who are homeless and often addicted to alcohol and illegal substances. Leonard Krog said the government’s construction of modular homes that replaced a bulldozed tent city is helping but those suffering from mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, need specialized care.
REAL ESTATE: Vancouver is ranked dead last in a new look at luxury-property markets for 2020 as prices are forecast to decline 5 per cent. It’s still an “improving scenario,” however, according to real estate consulting group Knight Frank.
HOCKEY NIGHT IN CREE: APTN and Rogers Sportsnet agreed to a three-year deal on Friday to broadcast NHL games in Plains Cree. The first of six games to be broadcast on APTN in the Indigenous language will be when the Winnipeg Jets visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 19. The next will be when the two teams meet again on Feb. 9 in Winnipeg.
Robyn Urback on Alberta’s unemployed men: “Historically speaking, disenfranchised hordes of young men who can’t find work and can pin their misfortune on a particular target do not make for the happiest of endings. This is not a warning that the Nazis are coming, but a suggestion that we ought to take this anxiety seriously. Telling young Alberta men to move or find work in other fields will only fuel their feelings of ostracism, not quell them.”
Andrew Coyne on Alberta’s fiscal problems: “A provincial sales tax is a hard sell at the best of times in Alberta, but it hardly helps matters for the federal government to rescue the province from the consequences of its own fiscal folly. The notion, moreover, that taxpayers in the rest of Canada, who are much poorer than Albertans on average, should be forced to underwrite a government that is in most years much richer than theirs, per capita, in order that its citizens might continue to be spared paying the same taxes everyone else does – well, let’s just say it’s up there with forcing Albertans to underwrite a province that refuses to allow their oil to be shipped across it.”
Adam Pankratz on the threat of transit strikes: “Provincial and local politicians, bus drivers and SkyTrain employees should be congratulated for creating a safe, reliable and expanding network of transit options for Lower Mainland residents. They have made the system essential. What cannot happen is for those same politicians to encourage people to abandon driving without considering the mechanics of what goes into keeping the alternative running. Politicians have created this transit monster; it’s up to them think seriously about how to deal with it. Declaring transit an essential service should be on the table.”
Gary Mason on Vancouver’s proposed property-tax hike: “Cities are responsible for more than 70 per cent of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions. They could determine whether we succeed or fail in our efforts to save the planet from warming beyond levels that will be irrevocably harmful to human existence. Five cities, including Paris and San Francisco, have already set 100-per-cent renewable-energy targets by 2030. ... What this means is that if cities are serious about fighting climate change, they will have to take matters into their own hands. And that will come at a huge cost.”