A leading conservation group has recruited a phalanx of well-known Canadians to join its fight against the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, in a bid to counter past claims by the Harper government that many pipeline opponents are "radical" activists.
World Wildlife Fund Canada has signed up Canadians ranging from former Olympic hockey team captain Scott Niedermayer to author Joseph Boyden and economist Jeff Rubin, all of whom have agreed to publicly oppose the pipeline.
Others who have joined the WWF campaign include Afghan war veteran and author Trevor Greene, Tony Dekker of the band Great Lake Swimmers, and the VanCity credit union.
"This is a bunch of people from all different walks of life who don't have a preexisting organized position to adhere to," WWF Canada president Gerald Butts told The Globe and Mail's editorial board on Wednesday. Those opposing the pipeline want to get the facts out and have a "science-based" discussion, he said.
WWF Canada says the Northern Gateway – proposed by Enbridge Inc. to carry oil sands crude from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., for shipment by tanker to China – would be disastrous for the Great Bear Rain Forest along British Columbia's Pacific coast.
Mr. Butts said Ottawa's message that anyone opposing the pipeline is a "radical ecological terrorist" offended many people and prompted the group to take a stand. Earlier this year, the Conservative government suggested the approval process for the controversial pipeline could be hijacked by foreign interests and people with an agenda.
"Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wrote in a January, 2012, open letter. "Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth."
Asked whether Canadians on the WWF's list would be considered radicals, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said the government doesn't advocate for or against any given project.
"Canadians are free to express whatever opinions they have about a particular project," Andrew MacDougall wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "That is not the concern of the government – we are opposed to people who seek to obstruct and delay review processes just for the sake of delay."
A spokesman for Mr. Oliver said the project will be evaluated independently and based on scientific evidence. "Without getting into the specifics of any project, we believe it is in Canada's interests to diversify markets for our exports," Christopher McCluskey added.
Mr. Butts said the idea is not to start a political movement, but rather to create a "civil society" campaign.
Great Bear is one of the last intact coastal temperate rain forests. Running a pipeline through it is incredibly dangerous, the WWF says, and any spill of raw bitumen – particularly in a river or along the coastal waters – would be virtually impossible to clean up, no matter how advanced the recovery technology.
"It is just inevitable" that tankers on the dangerous coastal waters will get into trouble, said Mr. Butts, who insists WWF is not against all energy development.
"The industry and the governments involved have characterized this project as if it is going through 3,000 kilometres of moose pasture between Fort McMurray and Kitimat," Mr. Butts said. "The truth is, it puts at risk some of the most significant and unique natural attributes that this country has to offer."
Polls show that about 60 per cent of B.C. residents are against the Northern Gateway pipeline, and the WWF hopes its campaign will drum up similar levels of opposition in the rest of Canada.
Mr. Niedermayer, who grew up in B.C., said he opposes the pipeline because "one mistake with a big oil tanker" could put the pristine wilderness of the Great Bear Rain Forest in danger. "I'm passionate about this issue," he said.