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Author John Ralston Saul is president of PEN International. He won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction for The Unconscious Civilization in 1996. His latest book is Dark Diversions: A Traveller's Tale.

Is the term "ethical oil" an oxymoron?

Well, let's put it this way: As far as I know, the history of oil has never been attached to democracy. The exploitation of oil has much more been attached to dictatorships. Democracies have always had a tough time making the oil industry conform to democratic standards. The success or failure of democracies where they have oil is always dependent on how tough they can be in forcing the oil market, if you like, to conform to democratic standards.

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Does saying we're democratic and respect human rights, unlike some other oil-producing countries, make our oil "ethical" by comparison?

You'd have to work very, very hard to make sure it's functioning in a democratic way, and I don't think that's clear. There are lots of arguments to be made, but one of them is instinctual and visual. Some of the sites are quite far from the rivers and plants, but some are right on the river bank and I remember when I first saw it, I thought, "My God, you can't have a tailing pond right on the river without it affecting the river!" It doesn't matter how much money is spent on PR with nice-looking people saying, "We're improving the world," you simply can't convince human beings when they see that picture that this is not leaching into the river.

Oil sands/tar sands, ethical oil/conflict oil – do semantics matter?

Well, the reason there are 800-and-something writers in prison around the world is because language matters. And corporations that want to be thought of as better than they are fight very hard to call themselves things. We live in an era where firing people is called "rationalization" and shutting down a corporation is called "rebuilding for the future." If you look at the language in Canada in these areas, it's not very healthy, either. The advertising is certainly not.

Oil is expected to drive the Canadian economy for decades. Denying or impeding that seems a recipe for economic disaster. Can we afford ethics?

The simple answer is, "Can we afford the absence of ethics?"

Your question presupposes that ethics is the jam once we've got the bread. When I grow up and have got a house and a middle-class [lifestyle], then I'll become ethical? That's not the way democracy is supposed to work. That doesn't mean you lose money. That means you begin from a position of ethics. And frankly, there's lots of proof that, if you begin from a position of ethics, you will make money. You don't begin from a position that ethics is expensive or that ethics is gratuitous.

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If you believe that the marketplace is the primary driver, you'll end up in all sorts of really strange corners with really strange people. There are other factors which are equally important and more important, and you have to take those into consideration. Ownership is not just about nationalism. There are a whole bunch of things that go with the responsibility of ownership. But if you say that everything should be determined by the marketplace – God forbid we should get in the way of the marketplace – you are going to end up with, for example, a dictatorship wanting to be in charge of your oil.

The government seems to have appropriated the term "ethical oil." This would seem to presuppose that everything a democratic country produces is therefore "ethical."

A country is only as ethical as what it does. Being a democracy doesn't make you ethical. Actions are what will be judged. Judged by people, judged by history, judged by your opponents, judged by your fellow citizens. You don't get a free pass because you have done one thing right. Every action will be judged. You are not ethical sitting there doing nothing. You are ethical because you have done something right.

One of the obligations of government is to be fairly strict and make sure that the public good comes first. There are lots of ways to make money. It is never a take-it-or-leave-it situation. It isn't all about money. There are other choices.

Here's the thing. People are ethical. The market is not ethical. Government is not necessarily ethical. Cement is not ethical. Oil is not ethical. It's the people and the rules that are established and enforced that are ethical – or not.

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