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The Council of Canadians and Greenpeace Canada take to Parliament Hill to protest against the oil sands and the federal government's climate-change policy on Sept. 26, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick

As leader of the opposition, Stephen Harper was clear on the vital role of dissent in a democracy: "When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it's rapidly losing its moral authority to govern."

In power, however, Mr. Harper's Conservatives seem to have taken a page out of a U.S. election campaign: Smear your opponents early and often to avoid dealing with the substance of their arguments. Think of the advertising campaigns against Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, " Taliban Jack," or more recently, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews's demand that the opposition "either stand with us, or with the child pornographers."

What should alarm those concerned about Canada's democracy, however, is how the Conservatives have brought this election war-room mentality into government itself. Rather than engaging with citizens or organizations who disagree with their policies, Mr. Harper's government has sought to attack, even criminalize them.

One example is the government's recent revision of its anti-terrorism legislation to include environmental groups as a potential threat, even though there is no evidence of any Canadian environmental group ever employing violence. And recently, this paper revealed that assessments by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have labelled Greenpeace – a group founded on the Quaker principles of non-violence and refusing to turn a blind eye to the abuses of those in power – an "extremist" organization.

The academic who uncovered this evidence made the link back to Greenpeace's opposition to the expansion of the Alberta tar sands. Prof. Jeff Monaghan of Queen's University noted that government rhetoric around Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and "the frequent use of words like 'radicalism' and 'extremism' to characterize opposition" is being used to legitimize taxpayer-funded surveillance of vocal political opponents, such as environmental groups. Other published reports indicate that the security services are reporting on their findings from such surveillance operations to private-sector corporations, including a presentation to "energy sector stakeholders" in November, 2011.

This attack on Greenpeace is simply one part of a broader, well-orchestrated campaign against anyone who questions the wisdom of tripling the size of the tar sands or building the new pipelines this requires.

We have seen this building over the past few years, but the campaign began to roll out in earnest in early January, when Mr. Harper expressed his concern about " foreign money" influencing Canadian energy policy. He was not referring to the foreign money represented by multinational oil companies or state-owned Chinese firms, but rather to U.S. charitable foundations supporting Canadian environmental groups' efforts to protect globally significant ecosystems.

Three days later, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver accused environmental groups of being foreign-funded puppets looking to "hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda." Their crime was to participate, according to the rules established by federal law, in the environmental assessment of a new pipeline that would stretch from the Edmonton area across the Rockies and through the Great Bear Rainforest, bringing more than 200 oil tankers a year along B.C.'s pristine coast.

Next, there were the behind-the-scenes threats to change the legislation governing charities. This has already had a chilling effect, as groups have been weighing the loss of their charitable status as retaliation for speaking out against the tar sands or the Enbridge pipeline. Then, a Conservative MP publicly announced his intent to bring in a private member's bill that would prevent environmental groups from receiving foreign financial support, even as the Prime Minister went to China to try to encourage foreign investment in the tar sands.

Digging deeper, Greenpeace obtained internal government documents under the Access to Information Act that detailed how Ottawa actively works with oil companies to attack environmental laws in Europe and the United States, laws that would force tar-sands companies to clean up their act. Rather than introducing measures to reduce pollution, the federal government has chosen to join – at the invitation of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – a public-relations campaign to "turn up the volume" in support of the tar sands at home and abroad.

The federal government's own "Pan-European Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy" document divides Canadians into two camps. "Allies" include the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, business groups and the National Energy Board. Environmental and aboriginal groups are identified as "adversaries."

What's good for oil companies isn't always what is good for the country. Canadians need to send a clear message to Mr. Harper's government: Building and governing a nation differs from running an election campaign. It requires, at minimum, an acknowledgment that those who disagree with you are still part of the community.

Bruce Cox is executive director of Greenpeace Canada.