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David Suzuki is photographed at Intercontinental Hotel in Toronto on Sept. 11, 2012.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused of trampling on citizens' rights, suppressing science, and deliberately misleading the United States over oil sands development on Friday by a panel of prominent Canadian activists in Washington, D.C.

But fewer than two dozen people – most of them other anti-Keystone activists – turned up for the "What Happened to Canada" event at the National Press Club.

Their message wasn't just that President Barack Obama should reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Rather, the primary thrust was that the Harper government could not be trusted and was ruthless in its efforts to silence and thwart domestic opposition to oil sands development. To listen to the panel, America's northern neighbour has become a repressive regime where free speech is silenced and the government has aligned itself with the interests of a single industry – oil.

David Suzuki, the internationally renowned Canadian scientist and recipient of several UN awards, said Mr. Harper's effort to suppress information had been "learned well from the Bush-Cheney administration." Mr. Suzuki, a companion of the Order of Canada, compared Mr. Harper's suppression of scientific information to the rounding up of Japanese Canadians (including his family) during the Second World War and the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 when separatist terrorists kidnapped prominent in Quebec.

All science about climate change now has to be "vetted through the political lenses of the prime minister's office," he said.

"There is a systematic attack on science and democracy taking place in Canada, and the Harper government isn't even trying to hide it," Mr. Suzuki said. "But scientists cannot and will not be silenced, not when we are facing an irreversible climate catastrophe like the tar sands."

Franke James, a Canadian artist whose stark posters are appearing on a handful of Washington bus shelters in a small, crowd-funded effort intended to counter Ottawa's multimillion-dollar pro-Keystone XL campaign, said few Americans "realize that Canada is censoring and muzzling all sorts of people." She said "most Americans think of Canada as the friendly neighbour to the north," but the "truth is far different, (because the Harper government is) sacrificing human rights to oil company profits."

The group also delivered their stark assessment of Canadian democracy at meetings with Congressional staffers and U.S. groups opposed to Keystone XL.

Friday's sparsely-attended event at the National Press Club was oddly reminiscent of the parade of premiers and federal ministers who come to Washington to make strident and sweeping claims about Alberta oil sands but attract little attention except among their own supporters.

Last month, to an equally small audience sequestered on the roof of the Canadian embassy – which offers both the Capitol as a scenic backdrop and an effective way of making sure anti-Keystone protesters can't be seen or heard, let alone allowed to attend – Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver painted a rosy picture of Canada as "secure reliable and responsible producer" of energy, adding that Alberta's vast heavy oil sands crude were far cleaner than coal.

Tzeporah Berman, a Canadian environmental activist, said Mr. Harper's "ruthless pursuit of tar-sands expansion" had made Canada "hard to recognize" both at home and abroad. The "restrictions on free speech" are "unprecedented in Canada," she said, adding that it has taken Canadians "a long time to really believe it is happening."

Ottawa's plan to triple oil sands development – and the importance of Keystone XL as the critical link to market and thus higher prices that will fund expansion – is little understood in the United States, said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada. He said "the Canadian government has no credibility" in its claims that it is tackling climate change and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada can't be trusted and Mr. Obama should reject any offer from Mr. Harper than includes promises to cut emissions in exchange for approving Keystone XL, said Danny Harvey, a University of Toronto geography professor and lead author of parts of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. "There should be no deals with Canada, this government can't be trusted," he said. "We have to wind down tar sands operations."

The panel's moderator and its only American, Bill Burton, described what he called the "shocking lengths the Harper government is going to to suppress information." Mr. Burton is a former deputy Obama White House press secretary and is now a senior advisor to the League of Conservation Voters, one of the leading U.S. groups opposed to Keystone XL. He added: "The story being told here is very un-Canadian."

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.

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