How to learn to stop worrying and love the oil sands
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How to learn to stop worrying and love the oil sands

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January 14, 2012

“Communication might be understood as both the conduit for and the actual substance of human culture and consciousness. Psychological warfare is the application of mass communication to modern social conflict.”
—Science of Coercion, Christopher Simpson, American University

Tendencies of psychological warfare (U.S. Army War College):

1. Destroys will and ability of enemy to fight
2. Deprives enemy of support of allies and neutrals
3. Increases internal will to victory

Effects of psychological warfare (U.S. Army War College):

* Dissension
* Distrust
* Fear
* Hopelessness

Given the challenges that we face as Indigenous Peoples in Canada, it’s important to take a step back every now and again, if only so we make sure we know what exactly is being placed in front of us. If we don’t than we run the risk of wasting what little time and resources we have to stop an untenable project like, for example, the proposed Enbridge pipeline–a project that threatens our cultural heritage, our health, the environment and our ability to exist as distinct Peoples.

The goal of this article is to explore one of the most far reaching obstacles around, which happens to be blindsiding us this very moment. I refer here to the psychological war that has been waged on us by the government of Canada, oil companies and proponents of the tar sands.

Most of the time, governments and corporations will pretend that we don’t exist, for reasons that are fairly straightforward. They want to take something on our land and they don’t mind sacrificing us in the process. So, instead of engaging us like the law says they’re supposed to, they strive to do as much as they can as quietly as they can for as long as they can get away with it.

However, as soon as the tide begins to turn and we start presenting obstacles of our own, they can no longer afford the luxury of silence. And if we somehow manage to get the public’s attention–with reason and empirical evidence in hand–they give us their full and undivided attention. In a colonial state like Canada, where indigenous land rights are constantly being suppressed, that usually means they’re going to try to take us down.

That said, it’s pretty clear there’s a critical mass on the way; especially when it comes to the Enbridge pipeline. Opposition to the controversial project has brought together an unprecedented number of First Nations across the country. One could even say that it’s just a matter of time before the project is tossed into the garbage can, where it rightfully belongs.

At this point, there isn’t a heck of a lot that the proponents of the tarsands can do stop it. They’ve already tried suppressing damaging reports, discrediting doctors, and dismissing health concerns as fair trade offs for a few hundred jobs. Many lawsuits have also been thrown out of the courts, no contest. About the only thing they can do now is escalate the psychological war that is already well underway.

Enter Ethical Oil. A friend and colleague of mine at the Public Good Project, Jay Taber, hinted at the effects of the psychological war in his recent analysis of the Ethical Oil ad, which first appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Network in August 2011.

Writing at the Fourth World Eye, Taber states:

[…] one is hard pressed to comprehend how the oil companies in Canada actually believed their television ad Ethical Oil could succeed in duping American liberals into believing the Tar Sands nightmare equates to a human rights initiative. Then again, it wasn’t all that long ago that a candidate for US President ran on a platform of hope and change that had liberals swooning.

I could come up with other examples of phony PR campaigns that hoodwinked liberals into supporting such frauds as the wars on Iraq, but I think you get my point. No matter how fraudulent, immoral, or simple minded, Madison Avenue has the upper hand when it comes to baffling liberals. All they have to do is invoke saving the panda, children, women or whales, and liberals will fall all over themselves to support warmongers and planet destroyers without a second thought.

However, Taber’s concern goes much deeper than liberals being ‘hoodwinked’. He later explained to me, “My main concern is … that the Harper administration and the extraction companies he works for might be able to mobilize resentment against indigenous peoples and thus foment violence. Secondarily, I am concerned that neutralized liberals might let it happen.”

Taber also pointed to the mechanics of Psychological Warfare, according to Paul Linebarger, who literally wrote the book on the subject. According to Linebarger, psychological warfare or “psywar” is a continuous process rather than a single event like a television ad. “Psywar,” says Linebarger, “has in private media facilities, in an open society, a constantly refreshed source of new material that, when selectively censored, can prevent non-governmental materials from circulating.”

Discussing the mechanics of psywar, Taber comments

[…] he talks about psywar analysis using questions such as, What is the targeted audience? What is the intended response? What is the motivation for that response? Is the operation a black op (counterfeit), gray op (misleading), or white op (forthright)?

Using the Ethical Oil ad as an example, we might determine that it was a gray op, since the premise was true (Saudi Arabia is not a democracy), but the conclusions were not (killing Cree is not ethical, destroying Alberta will not make Canada energy independent, Americans do have a stake in this issue due to transshipment, etc.).

Since the TV ad was broadcast on Oprah Winfrey Network, we can assume the target audience was liberal American women. The intended response was likely to get them to back off demanding Obama and the oil companies not build the pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. Motivation is human rights consumerism, something that is a powerful force when deployed intelligently and courageously–something liberals rarely if ever do.

This got me thinking about a key concept that always seems to be on the tip of my mind– one that Noam Chomsky has helped popularize among activists. The “imperial grand strategy” Chomsky reminds us, aims to “deny, delay, deceive, disrupt, destroy, exploit and neutralize” any target that a government wishes. It’s a far reaching strategy, to say the least! But the government isn’t the only one who uses it. Corporations and lobby groups use it too.

“Ethical Oil” is a good example. In addition to the troubling effects of the ad that Taber highlights, it launched a certain clearly-well-funded organization to the forefront of the tar sands debate; It attempted to undermine the credibility of everyone that’s peacefully opposing the tar sands; and, by counter-posing oil in Canada with oil in Saudi Arabia, it was proposing that if you are against the tar sands than you are for Saudi Arabia. That last one’s a pretty thin puddle; but it’s more than enough to poison the minds of people who aren’t well informed or prepared.

Enter Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. Earlier this week, Minster Oliver took it upon himself to turn that ‘puddle’ into a lake of, well, oil, asserting in an open letter that foreign-funded “radicals” are trying to undermine Canada’s economy.

“Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” Oliver proclaimed. “Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.”

Who knows if we’ll ever find out what drove the Minister to issue such an outlandish claim. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, since we can easily recall many other instances where politicians have made the exact same claims (in India, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Bangladesh and elsewhere). Each and every time it was a lie and we knew it.

The facts alone aren’t enough to justify projects like the tar sands. They have to offer incentives to key players like free hockey rinks, brand new cars, cash payouts; and disincentives to key opponents by ignoring them, dismissing their concerns, humiliating them, discrediting them, and by turning them into enemies. That said, I don’t think anyone believes Oliver is consciously trying to wage a psychological war of his own; nevertheless he is helping to create an even more hostile environment in Canada by turning indigenous peoples, advocates, social groups, and others into full-fledged “enemies of the state.”

The respected environmentalist David Suzuki said in a statement to the CBC that he was “puzzled” by Oliver’s language. “Environmentalists want to ‘live within our means,’ ‘save some for tomorrow,’ think about the ‘legacy we leave for our children… That’s what environmentalists are concerned about and the minister’s diatribe prevents us from having this important discussion of values and balance.”

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, took a more satirical stand against the assertions.

Somehow this gigantic, ideologically, culturally, socially, politically and legally diverse group form a “radical” group of people who, according to Conservative Minister Oliver: “don’t take into account the facts but are driven by an ideological imperative.” This imperative is to “block trade” and “undermine Canada’s economy.” This out of control group “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.”

[…] Imagine the level of sophistication, planning and education that allowed such a dangerous group to read and understand those millions of regulations. The sheer level of dedication to their terrorist plot to protect the environment, the health of the residents or Indigenous lands is astounding.

Don’t let this insurgent group’s reliance on research data, scientific studies, academic publications, and internationally recognized reports fool you. They are not basing their ideology of sustainability and human rights on “facts” — they are, instead, blindly following a radical ideology which is intent on destroying Canadians — i.e., those that voted Conservative in the last election.

Dr. Palmater’s words may have confused any reader who isn’t well-acquainted with satire; but it was more than appropriate, given how she appears to be an object of investigation–along with hundreds of other individuals, organizations and communities across the country. Indeed, for the past 5 years, the Harper government has been spying on Indigenous Peoples and any one else they deem to be “of interest”.

Last December, Defenders of the Land warned that the RCMP is even sharing its findings with private industry. The average person isn’t so lucky. When Dr. Palmater found out that Cindy Blackstock, a well-rounded advocate for First Nations children, was being spied on, Dr. Palmater decided to approach CSIS, INAC, RCMP and DND to find out if she was also being targeted. “To date, only CSIS has responded,” Palmater notes, in her recent article, CSIS and me. However, CSIS was only willing to release a few tidbits of information.

[…] They would not release the whole file so as to protect Canada from my alleged ‘subversive or hostile” activities. This, to me, is like being judged without knowing what I am accused of, and then being sentenced to ongoing spying on undisclosed activities for an undetermined amount of time so as to reduce the security risk to Canada in relation to my peaceful Indigenous advocacy activities.”

The psychological effects of this ongoing surveillance operation are threefold:

1. While some of us wear it like a badge of honour; in others it generates doubt, suspicion, distrust and fear.

2. It sends a clear message to the general public that they need to “be careful” because “we are dangerous”. After all, the government doesn’t investigate law-abiding citizens, right?

3. It lays a foundation from which companies, lobbyists, the government and the media can launch new offensives.

Speaking of new offensives, Gerald Amos, former Chief Councilor of the Haisla First Nation warns that a series of attack ads have now been launched in northern communities, “where opposition to the Enbridge project is fiercest”, Amos observes. It’s a “desperate attempt”, says Amos, “to change the minds and hearts of the hundreds of thousands of people who oppose this project. It is also, clearly meant to divide us and weak our resolve.

The attacks will continue, because, as Amos says, they are desperate. They really don’t have any more options, unless, of course, they decide to take a heavy-handed approach.

On the other hand, we have more than enough options. In fact, it sort-of feels like we haven’t even gotten started. However, we have also been pushed into an almost-permanent defensive position in which we have to constantly vindicate ourselves while struggling to inform the public about the facts and the real issues.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. As Taber advises; it might be better if we just remain focused on our necessary work for the water, the trees, the animals, fish and birds, our families, our communities and nations, our cultural heritage, our health, our history, our rights and our ability to exist as distinct Peoples.

The pro-tar sands apologists, official and advocacy org’s, are on the ropes in the court of public opinion. That’s why they’re trotting out such lame PR. My advice to activists and analysts is to stay the course, not become defensive and allow the industry and corrupt officials to set the terms of the debate. This requires discipline, restraint, and intelligence, not something in abundance in most advocacy groups (IEN being an exception to the rule).

The inflammatory terms radical and hijack are standard red-baiting remarks that are best left ignored. Remember, repetition sinks in to psyches. Repeating your enemy’s accusations works to their advantage, not yours. Better to stick with the message and documentation of irresponsible industry, government fraud, and willful violations of human rights and international law. The rogue state status of Canada as anti-Kyoto/anti-Indigenous is readily available.

Let them attack the whistleblowers, and make an issue of that abuse of power in defense of the criminally insane policies and conduct of the corporate state. Don’t get into a defensive posture such as that of Suzuki. He’s a good man, and knows his science, but not the science of psywar.

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