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Pro-Pipeline Canada To Americans: Butt Out, Eh?

 A screen shot from Ethical Oil's <a href=""></a> campaign, which calls on Canadians to write to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver asking him to ban foreigners and "their local puppet groups" from appearing before ongoing public hearings for a new pipeline project.
A screen shot from Ethical Oil's campaign, which calls on Canadians to write to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver asking him to ban foreigners and "their local puppet groups" from appearing before ongoing public hearings for a new pipeline project.

Yet another foreign government has accused Americans of meddling in its internal affairs. It says U.S. donors are bankrolling local political activists, and it may be time for a crackdown on the political influence of outsiders.

But it isn't Syria and it isn't Egypt. It's America's friendly neighbor to the north — Canada. The conservative-led Canadian government is peeved at American environmental organizations that have been effective in delaying U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian crude oil down to the Gulf Coast refineries. Now the Canadian government says some American environmentalists are going further, and trying to shut down all production in the country's oil sands region of Alberta.

"There are some groups in the United States that do have that view and they're sending money into Canada and they're trying to game the system," Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told the CBC.

The system Oliver accuses Americans of trying to game involves a series of public hearings for a new pipeline that would run from Alberta to Canada's west coast with the goal of filling up oil tankers bound for Asia.

The pipeline would terminate near the village of Kitimat, on British Columbia's wild, northern coast. Clifford Smith, a native of the local Haisla Nation, told regulators at a hearing that he worries about spills.

"The proposed pipeline will come through our back door and the ships will come in and transport the crude oil," Smith said. "We are indeed facing a double-barreled shotgun."

The public hearings are just getting started, but already an astonishing 4,500 people have signed up for a turn at the microphone in towns and villages all along the pipeline's route. That means the process could drag on for two years.

Kathryn Marshall runs a pro-oil industry organization called Ethical Oil. She says the flood of interest is part of a delay tactic she calls "Mob the mic."

"You know, signing up all kinds of people to speak on an issue, but they're all kind of saying the same things and they're being encouraged to sign up by one organization," she says, "a filibustering kind of campaign."

Marshall says it's one thing for American environmentalists to block the Keystone XL, but they have absolutely no business trying to keep Canada from selling its oil to Asia.

"They don't care about the oil sands worker and geologist in Newfoundland who puts food on his table because of his good-paying job in the oil sands industry," she says. "They're not concerned about these things — but Canadians are."

Marshall's organization has been running radio ads to hammer that point home. In a foreboding tone, one ad proclaims, "Say no to foreign special interest groups and their paid activists. It's our country; our pipeline; our jobs."

The ads also call environmental organizations out by name. Karen Campbell is a staff lawyer at Ecojustice, one of the organizations targeted by Ethical Oil's ads. She acknowledges the $275,000 Ecojustice received a few years back from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in California, but she says that hardly means Ecojustice is under American control.

"It's poppycock," Campbell says. "These are positions that we have taken and would be taking, and it's fortuitous and it's great for us that there is support from foreign foundations for this."

Campbell points out that American money also weighs heavily on the other side of this debate, specifically in the form of multinational investments in Canada's oil sands. Still, she's visibly shaken by the government's attack on environmental groups. She says she's not used to seeing this kind of political intensity.

"What's happening here is just so un-Canadian," she says. "It's almost too American for me, but that's what it is."

Others say it's not so new. Margaret Wente, a columnist for Toronto's The Globe And Mail, says natural resource battles can be deeply divisive in Canada, and this isn't the first time someone's invoked the ugly American.

"Historically, Canadians have been hypersensitive to American influence and the suspicion that American money is playing a part in Canadian politics," she says. "Canadians don't like to be pushed around by Americans."

Usually, it's business interests that are accused of succumbing to American control. What's new about this situation, Wente says, is that the tables have been turned. Now, the environmentalists are the ones who find themselves accused of being lackeys of the nefarious Yanks.

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.