As web sites go dark, ministers sell Tory vision of resource exploitation

OTTAWA – Opposition to the Harper government’s controversial omnibus budget bill went viral Monday as more than 500 organizations shuttered their web sites to protest measures they say will destroy the environment and silence dissent.

But there was little sign the federal Conservatives were listening.

As hundreds of web sites went “dark,” the government dispatched 10 of its ministers across the country from St. John’s, N.L., to Surrey, B.C., to sell its vision that having fewer checks on resource exploitation isn’t necessarily bad for the environment.

The battle over Bill C-38 continued throughout the day, with opposition parties taking the fight to the House of Commons. MPs wore black-over-white pins in support of the cyber “Blackout Speakout” campaign dreamed up by 11 environmental groups in May.

It has since spread to include unions, human rights advocates, churches, First Nations, ordinary citizens and celebrities like author Margaret Atwood.

Canadians logging on to the David Suzuki Foundation website, along with many others, encountered a mostly black screen with a bilingual message expressing support for the campaign.

“We’re still here, doing what we do every day,” the Suzuki site declared. “But today, we’re joining hundreds of organizations across the country as a single voice for Canada’s nature, for human rights, and for democracy.”

Gillian McEachern of Environment Defence Canada said the government hasn’t listened to opposition parties, maybe they will listen to the grassroots in Canada.

The groups are opposed to changes that would speed up the approval of large resource projects, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline the government wants to build to take oil from Alberta to a B.C. port.

As well, they accuse the government of attempting to gag environmental groups by denying charitable status to those that get too involved in political advocacy.

The opposition has attracted the usual civil society groups, but also some strange bedfellows. Former Conservative fisheries minister John Fraser appeared with Davis Suzuki for a news conference in Vancouver denouncing the government as anti-democratic.

He noted that in 1982 the Conservatives stayed out of the House for two weeks to block a Liberal omnibus bill and he called on Conservative MPs to speak out now that their own party is the offender.

“Silence is not an option,” Fraser said. “Private members have got to speak up but they won’t speak up unless the public gets behind them.”

The Canadian Federation of Municipalities, which often supports the government, called over the weekend for the bill to be split.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May attempted an unusual tactic Monday, asking the Speaker to declare C-38 improper.

She got quick support from interim Liberal leader Bob Rae.

“If this is allowed to happen there’d really be no need for us to show up for much business,” Rae said. “You could just put the entire kit and caboodle of government policy into one single bill and be debating it, you know, as one. Are there any limits? Apparently not.”

The NDP have called for a news conference Tuesday morning to discuss their next steps in attempting to hold up what they’ve termed the Conservatives’ “Trojan Horse bill.”

The battle drew some impolitic language during question period, with Environment Minister Peter Kent referring to a question “as sanctimonious twaddle.”

“I suppose that would count as sanctimonious clap trap,” shot back Rae.

In defending the bill, the government is arguing that the changes to environmental protection rules are vital to the economy and creating jobs and are just common sense.

NDP critic Megan Leslie had a simple explanation of why the government is so dug in.

“It’s all about oil. I’ve said since day one this is a pipeline budget. Any barrier they can think of, they’ve worked to try and get rid of it,” she said.

Monday morning, the Department of Finance issued a release estimating that energy and other major resource projects will generate more than $500 billion in new investment over the next decade. The sector already represents about 10 per cent of the country’s output, the department said.

While co-ordinated, the government counter-campaign Monday showed signs of being cobbled together at a moment’s notice.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver led the effort with a short a short speech at the Quebec branch office of PCI Geomatics, a geo-imaging company.

It was an unusual launching pad. The minister spoke in a small cramped room in PCI’s fourth-floor offices in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa. The handful of company executives in attendance were outnumbered by the news cameras.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty spoke at the New Era Tool and Die plant in Toronto, but appeared to have trouble hearing reporters’ questions in the chosen site.

“It’s hard to hear,” he said as the question and answer session began. “It’s hard for me to hear, just an echo in here.”

Substantively, Flaherty said the problem with the opposition is that they are presenting the case in too stark terms.

“I think most Canadians realize that we can have environmental protection — reasonable steps, reasonable processes on a timely basis — and at the same time have significant economic growth,” he said.