Boycott Canada?

by Tristan on August 30, 2010

in Activism, Civil disobedience, Ethics, Oil sands

The Alberta Tar Sands are one of the great, if not the greatest individual environmental disaster being committed at this moment. It is certainly the greatest environmental crime in Canadian history. How Canadians respond to this reality both determines and is symptomatic of their moral character. The question is: what ought we do?

When America invaded Mexico in 1846, Henry Thoreau protested by refusing to pay a poll tax. While in jail, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”.  We might ask today, whether it is right to pay taxes to a government subsidizing such a crime as the oil sands project? And if not, are we all guilty of not being in jail?

But, not all of us are willing to go to jail for a right cause. In fact, hardly anyone is willing to act on principle or conscience when a power responds with real consequences. This is why the police strategically targeted non-violent protestors both at the G20 in Toronto, and at Montebello Quebec in the famous exposed and admitted agent provocateur incident. Given how ineffective protest based on illegal action is at engendering any kind of mass movement, we must look elsewhere for ways of exerting public pressure.

Boycotts are not the most glamorous political actions, but they can be effective if the business community is not in total opposition. The boycott of apartheid South Africa was not totally ineffective, so we should probably look to it rather than the current Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign when evaluating potential support for an Alberta boycott. Crucially, that boycott did not become effective until the business community supported it.

So, while I’m happy to see an article in the Guardian calling for a tourism boycott of Canada because of the Tar Sands, I’m actually much more excited by the news that prominent US retailers are joining a direct boycott of gasoline made from Tar Sands oil. Since only some US refineries are currently refining tar sands oil, it is quite feasible boycott to participate in:

The list of U. S.- based refiners processing Canadian bitumen include major producers such as BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil, as well as Sunoco, Murphy Oil and Marathon Oil.

Just because this boycott is feasible now, however, does not mean it will be feasible forever. If the tar sands continue to expand, it will become more and more difficult (or impossible) to purchase gasoline from a refinery which does not process bitumen. For a boycott to be successful, therefore, this boycott must become strong enough to encourage at least some refining companies to themselves boycott the use of bitumen – which will depress its value, and reduce the economic incentive to expand the tar sands. Eventually, the Canadian State should shut down the tar sands operation – but we can’t expect this to happen magically tomorrow, especially in a political situation where both major parties support the tar sands existence and their continued expansion.

There will be detractors, of course, such as David MacLean of the Alberta Enterprise Group.

The Alberta Enterprise Group urged residents to stop supporting retailers that say they have stopped using bitumen-based gasoline but continue to face allegations of using child labour in Asia.

“It smacks of hypocrisy,” said David MacLean, from his Edmonton office. “It’s a public relations stunt at our expense, and by ‘our,’ I mean Albertans and Canadians.”

If you want, you can email David Maclean at to let him know what’s wrong with his argument. You’re intelligent readers, I’m sure you can figure it out for yourselves. But watch out, he works in public relations.

The charge of hypocrisy might be serious, however, concerning the idea of a full-on boycott of Canada. Chomsky has charged the BDS campaign against Israel as hypocritical on account of many other countries, including the United States, having far worse human rights records than Israel. He recommends instead a boycott of specific companies which are directly involved in the occupation of Palestine, such as Caterpillar – whose machines truly are weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the IDF. This targeting of specifically complicit corporations for boycott is more difficult to dismiss as hypocritical (unless you’re an idiot).

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 30, 2010 at 6:06 am

[Letter by Julius Nyerere to the editor of Africa South, October-December 1959]

WHEN I was a schoolboy, a friend of mine took me to the tailor one day and had me measured for a pair of shorts. We were great friends. His was mine and mine was his. He knew I needed a pair of shorts very badly. A few days later I got my pair of shorts, well made, fitting perfectly. I was proud of myself and proud of my friend. But it was not long before I discovered how my friend had obtained the money with which he had bought that pair of shorts for me. I returned it to him immediately. I could not disapprove of the manner in which the money had been obtained and still enjoy what the money had bought for me.

It is this same principle which makes me now support the boycotting of South African goods. We in Africa hate the policies of the SouthAfrican Government. We abhor the semi-slave conditions under which our brothers and sisters in South Africa live, work and produce the goods we buy. We pass resolutions against the hideous system and keep hoping that the United Nations and the governments of the whole world will one day put pressure on the South African Government to treat its non-European peoples as human beings.

But these resolutions and prayers to the United Nations are not enough in themselves. Governments and democratic organisations grind very slowly. Individuals do not have to. The question then is what an individual can do to influence the South African Government towards a human treatment of its non-white citizens.
Can we honestly condemn a system and at the same time employ it to produce goods which we buy, and then enjoy with a clear conscience? Surely the customers of a business do more to keep it going than its shareholders. We who buy South African goods do more to support the system than the Nationalist Government or Nationalist industrialists.

Each one of us can remove his individual prop to the South African system by refusing to buy South African goods. There are millions of people in the world who support the South African Government in this way, and who can remove their support by the boycott. I feel it is only in this way that we can give meaning to our abhorrence of the system, and give encouragement to sympathetic governments of the world to act.

It is most fitting that Jamaica, that island which has solved its racial problems so well, should have taken the action it has in support of theboycott. It is equally fitting that the Trade Union Congress of Ghana should immediately have given its support. I was personally happy to participate in a meeting in London where the boycott was launched. Already the authors of apartheid are beginning to feel the sharp effect of the boycott. But they cannot feel it fully until every person in the whole world who disapproves of the South African system withdraws his support of it by withdrawing his contribution to its upkeep.

I must emphasise that the boycott is really a withdrawing of support which each one of us gives to the racialists in South Africa by buying their goods. There is a very real sense in which we are part of the system we despise, because we patronise it, pay its running expenses.
We are not being called upon to make much of a sacrifice. We are not being called upon to go hungry and court imprisonment. That is the lot of our brothers and sisters inside South Africa. We are being asked to substitute other goods for South African goods, however much of a sacrifice this may mean to our suffering brethren in South Africa itself. We are not being called upon to support or not to support the oppressed in South Africa. We are being called upon to stop supporting those who oppress them.

The issue is as simple as that. Let every man and woman who disapproves of the South African system search his or her conscience, and decide to support or nor to support the racialists of South Africa.

President of the Tanganyika African National Union

Milan August 30, 2010 at 10:12 am

Probably the most effective form of boycott – when it comes to exports from the oil sands – would be the refusal of neighbouring jurisdictions to allow it to pass through their territory. The oil sands can only be viable for as long as there are pipelines to carry away the various materials being produced there.

If British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Montana refused passage for the stuff (some of which is finished fuels, some of which is being exported for future processing) then most potential customers from oil sands products would be unable to access it. That said, I don’t know whether that is something U.S. states or Canadian provinces can legally due, given laws on interstate, interprovincial, and international commerce.

Milan August 30, 2010 at 10:41 am

There could be a strong economic justification for B.C. refusing to transport oil sands products. Forestry is the biggest industry in B.C. and – as demonstrated by the pine beetle epidemic – that industry is threatened by climate change.

Tristan August 31, 2010 at 4:54 pm

It seems unlikely that public organization could successfully target provincial governments to engage in a boycott of bitumen. However, individual corporations might be easier targets – partially because it is not initially very costly for them to join such a boycott, and partially because it helps them greenwash their products.

Milan August 31, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Lawsuits are one possible approach, especially when it comes to stopping new pipelines.

. August 31, 2010 at 5:33 pm

“Blasting off mountaintops to reach coal in Appalachia or churning out millions of tons of carbon dioxide to extract oil from sand in Alberta are among environmentalists’ biggest industrial irritants. But they are also legal and lucrative.

For a growing number of banks, however, that does not seem to matter.

After years of legal entanglements arising from environmental messes and increased scrutiny of banks that finance the dirtiest industries, several large commercial lenders are taking a stand on industry practices that they regard as risky to their reputations and bottom lines.

In the most recent example, the banking giant Wells Fargo noted last month what it called “considerable attention and controversy” surrounding mountaintop removal mining, and said that its involvement with companies engaged in it was “limited and declining.”””

Tristan September 1, 2010 at 12:18 am

Milan, What forms of resistance would you advocate which involve public organizing? Some things to consider – people like immediate concrete actions which seem in some way connected to the solution through more than rhetoric, and people like doing things together.

Perhaps class-action lawsuits would fit this bill? Perhaps a class action lawsuit against the Alberta government for failing to regulate the tar sands?

Do you think a BDS campaign could be effective? Imagine how effective the Anti-Apartheid BDS campaign would be if it were not constantly marginalized as racist?

Milan September 1, 2010 at 9:52 am

I think firms refusing to buy fuels originating in the oil sands could be promising, though it could also have no effect whatsoever.

To see why, imagine there is a mixed pool of similar goods – such as M&Ms of different colours. If one group refuses to buy M&Ms of one colour, it has no effect on the total quantity of M&Ms sold as long as most people don’t care about the colour and the proportion of the population that refuses to buy one colour is fairly small. It is only when M&Ms of that colour start going unsold that the boycott has any effect.

It may well be that anti-oil sands boycotts never become sufficiently popular to have any material impact. Still, their existence does draw attention to the unacceptability of the oil sands as a source of energy.

Something similar is probably true of ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ campaigns. As long as most investors don’t care, the impact may be insignificant.

Milan September 1, 2010 at 9:58 am

As for class action suits, the sensible approach is probably to use a variety of strategies and legal arguments, including the legal protections afforded to engendered species, aboriginal rights, etc. One important thing to establish is that environmental assessments on things like oil sands pipelines need to take into account global environmental effects, in addition to local ones.

When assessing the environmental impact of something like the Westshore Terminal, the global impact of the coal passing through is a lot more important than whatever effect the terminal has on local wildlife, water quality, etc.

. September 3, 2010 at 2:43 pm

“Ninety per cent of every new barrel of oil produced in the world gets burned as transport fuel. If you compare China’s auto sales with America’s sales, it’s not hard to predict where tomorrow’s oil supply will be headed. China’s oil consumption has grown from just over two million barrels per day in the early 1980s to an estimated nine million barrels per day this year. And at the rate that its vehicle market is growing, the country could double its oil consumption over the next decade or so.

By comparison, take a look at where U.S. oil consumption is going. While Chinese car sales are growing explosively, this year, there were four million fewer vehicles on the road in America than there were the year before. With triple-digit oil prices just around the corner, you can expect to see another 40 to 50 million American vehicles taking the exit lane over the next decade. “

. September 22, 2010 at 3:16 pm

“It was one of the biggest news stories in the Canadian media last week, and it barely registered in the U.S. press: an unorthodox ad campaign by environmental groups out to punish Alberta for its development of energy from its vast deposits of oil sands.

For over a week now, images of dead ducks in oil sands tailings pond have been plastered on billboards in Denver, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis. Next to them is a picture of an oil-drenched brown pelican at the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“Alberta: The Other Oil Disaster,” the billboard reads. “Thinking of visiting Alberta, Canada? Think again,” it continues.

The aim is to curb tourism interest in a province that gets five million visitors a year.”

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