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A prominent environmentalist has been fired from an organization that has staunchly protested the Northern Gateway pipeline after he accused the Prime Minister's Office of resorting to intimidation tactics against the project's critics.

The dismissal of Andrew Frank, spokesman for anti-oil-sands group ForestEthics, comes amid an increasingly tense atmosphere among environmental groups – especially those registered as charities, whose public advocacy is supposed to be limited – that have come under fire by the federal government for harbouring "radicals" intent on "hijacking" the review process for Gateway.

The departure of Mr. Frank reflects the fear that has been created among environmental groups nervous about federal scrutiny of their practices.

One of the groups that has received the most attention is Tides Canada, a wide-reaching foundation that supports nearly 40 organizations, including ForestEthics, an environmental organization with roots in the mid-1990s fight against clear-cut logging.

Today, ForestEthics devotes substantial effort to battling the oil sands, including the Gateway pipeline. It has registered as an intervenor in the public review of the $6.6-billion project, which hopes to bring Alberta oil sands crude to Pacific waters for export to Asia and California. Gateway has stoked major debate, with supporters saying it will give Canada access to new markets, and opponents saying it stands to devastate western waters rich with salmon and whales.

Mr. Frank was one of the country's loudest voices against Gateway. He spent three years as a part-time press officer for ForestEthics before being hired, in early October, as senior communications and media manager. His responsibilities included devising and executing strategies for the group's anti-oil-sands campaign – and it was his work that brought much Gateway opposition to the attention of national media.

Late Monday, he was let go, after serving notice he intended to go public with allegations that a PMO official, in a meeting with a Tides executive, had pressured the group to end its support of ForestEthics. On Tuesday, Mr. Frank released a signed affidavit alleging the threats against ForestEthics and documenting internal conversations at ForestEthics that suggested jobs at the group might be at risk.

But Mr. Frank did not attend the PMO meeting in question, which took place Nov. 15. He relied, instead, upon second- and third-hand reports, and both the PMO and Tides shot back against his allegations. In an e-mail, PMO press secretary Andrew MacDougall said the government "denies making any of the statements referenced in the reports." Tides Canada president Ross McMillan said Mr. Frank's descriptions of the meeting were "inaccurate."

It's clear, however, that the PMO meeting stirred new concern for Tides, a charity, about its support of ForestEthics. Indeed, Tides requested the meeting after it came under increasing public scrutiny in light of the Gateway review. At the meeting, the two sides discussed what was allowable advocacy conduct for a charity, which can legally spend no more than 10 per cent of its budget on non-partisan political activities. A PMO official articulated the Harper government's view of Canada's national interest – which includes supporting Gateway – and pointed to ForestEthics as an example of a group acting against the government of Canada and the people of Canada.

But Tides itself had already been examining its relationship with ForestEthics, which has taken an increasingly public stance against oil-sands projects. Employees at Tides had documented instances where ForestEthics had transgressed, or skirted the line on the restrictions on charitable activities.

That work could result in ForestEthics being spun out into a different organization, although a pair of ForestEthics co-founders held a press conference Tuesday to say relations with Tides, which provides administrative and other support, remain positive.

It's clear, however, Ottawa's pressure has caused pain for environmental groups. Some donors have been spooked away. Others have asked that they be kept anonymous. ForestEthics employees have been warned that their jobs could be in jeopardy.

"The chilly atmosphere that has been created in public by the federal government is very dangerously close to the kind of unethical government interference on behalf of dirty oil that we would have expected from another era, like 1950s McCarthy time," ForestEthics co-founder Valerie Langer said.

And West Coast environmental leaders caution that inflammatory government rhetoric can create a dangerous – and sometimes violent – atmosphere. In 1997, then-premier British Columbia Glen Clark called Greenpeace members "enemies of British Columbia" and "eco-terrorists," at the height of the debate over forestry practices and violence followed.

Will Horter, now executive director at the Dogwood Initiative, said he can recall five times when governments in Canada and North America have essentially accused environmental groups of treason.

"Three of those five times, people got beat up," he said.