From across the table, Stuart McCarthy glared at me. He spoke in the slow, deliberate manner one uses to reason with someone who has just asked something utterly daft. “You have to impose the rule of law and build this pipeline,” he said, “otherwise the country will descend into anarchy.”

It was June 2018, and we were eating lunch in Ottawa at a day-long confab hosted by Canada 2020, a think tank closely tied to the Liberal party. 

Around me sat a group of lobbyists, including McCarthy, a Liberal ally and Senior Vice-President of BlueSky Strategy Group, which had lobbied the government on behalf of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, among other corporate clients. It would have been hard to find a more Liberal in-crowd. 

A week before, the Trudeau government had announced it would buy the Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline for $4.5 billion. As conversation had drifted to the news, I wondered aloud: even if the government owned the pipeline, how would the Liberals overcome the fierce opposition in British Columbia and complete the expansion? 

McCarthy seemed disturbed. What he said next was all the more striking because his shaved gleaming head and high-arched eyebrows gave him an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Evil from Austin Powers.

“You don’t need the military, just use the police. And send in some fire trucks.”

You mean, to hose down protestors?

“Yeah, exactly. It’s not going to be pretty. But we have to draw the line.” He sliced aggressively through a piece of chicken on his plate. 

“The protestors are a noisy minority,” he said confidently. “There’s maybe 300 hardcore activists. Most of the Indigenous ones are imports. Once you deal with the leadership, the rest will collapse. And declaring the project part of the ‘national interest’ means you could deal with them as a terrorist threat.” 

No one at the table batted an eye. Soon after, they congratulated each other on the conversation and wandered off to look for dessert.

It all sounded like Liberal locker-room talk: how partisans speak their mind when they figured non-Liberals weren’t around. Listening to McCarthy, I thought to myself that a Liberal-friendly organization named BlueSky was a perfectly apt misnomer: far from imaginative, visionary thinking, he had just given us a demonstration in cynical realpolitik. Yet at the heart of Liberal circles, such a perspective seemed all too reasonable. 

In December 2016, just days after Trudeau had first approved Kinder Morgan’s expansion, Liberal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr had mused about summoning the Canadian military to deal with protests. “If people choose for their own reasons not to be peaceful, then the government of Canada, through its defence forces, through its police forces, will ensure that people will be kept safe,” he said to applause at an event with a construction lobby group in Edmonton.

A week after the meal with McCarthy, it didn’t surprise me when David Dodge, former Governor of the Bank of Canada, made similar remarks. “We’re going to have some very unpleasant circumstances,” he told an audience of lawyers. “We have seen it [in] other places, that equivalent of religious zeal leading to flouting of the law in a way that could lead to death.”

That summer, the RCMP would oversee mass arrests as Indigenous and environmental activists mounted civil disobedience to block construction north of Vancouver. And over the following years, increasingly brutal police attacks would be unleashed on Indigenous land defenders occupying land in the path of the project in BC’s interior. 

The Liberals had made it clear: nothing would stand in the way of their pipelines—not their climate rhetoric, not their emissions targets, and certainly not the movement of people whose support had helped get Trudeau elected.

 

In 2017, Trudeau told an audience of oil and gas industry executives in Texas that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” Credit: CBC

The “All of the above” strategy

If there was a global leader who was supposed to have understood the urgent need to transition from fossil fuels, it was Justin Trudeau. But like many establishment politicians who had taken on the mantle of climate champion, he couldn’t seem to say “no” to oil companies. With his ubiquitous catchphrase—“we can protect the environment and grow the economy at the same time”—Trudeau would give an all of the above energy strategy the most optimistic gloss yet. 

In 2016, Trudeau told a conference that the “choice between pipelines and wind turbines is a false one. We need both to reach our goal, and as we continue to ensure there is a market for our natural resources, our deepening commitment to a cleaner future will be a valuable advantage.” This line—which eventually morphed into the argument that building tar sands export pipelines would generate revenue to pay for clean energy investments—would become one of Trudeau’s main refrains. It had an evasively progressive ring, until you realized it was like a nicotine addict insisting that, to build the courage to quit their habit, they would have to continue chain-smoking. 

There were always other options. Trudeau had been elected on a widely popular mandate not just to fight climate change but to embark on a massive infrastructure-driven stimulus plan. It seemed like the perfect foundation for a era-defining energy transition: create hundreds of thousands of jobs in a roll-out of wind and solar energy, a national high-speed rail program, and an ambitious retro-fitting program for houses and buildings. Contrary to relentless oil industry propaganda, a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives showed that the government could create far more jobs—as many as 34 times—through investment in clean energy, rather than in oil and gas. 

But Trudeau had no intention of pursuing it. His government would first maintain—and then only tweak—the emission reductions targets of the Harper government, which was far less serious than comparable European countries. When former U.S. President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s decision and revived the Keystone XL pipeline, Trudeau government officials secretly cheered, touting Donald Trump’s election as “positive news” for Canada’s energy industry. 

In 2017, Trudeau received an award from oil and gas industry executives at a summit in Houston, Texas. “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he said to a standing ovation. Toward the end of his first term in office, Trudeau would spend billions of public dollars buying the Kinder Morgan pipeline—something even the Climate Denier-in-Chief in the White House hadn’t had the gall to do. 

And over the course of the coronovirus pandemic, Trudeau’s favours to the tar sands barons would reach new heights. At the request of the corporate oil lobby, his government formed a secretive committee with oil executives to look after their interests. In 2020 alone, the Liberal government would spend or announce $18 billion in public money for the oil and gas industry.

What climate policies he would pass were rooted in incremental, market-based approaches that centrist Liberal politicians—and, it would turn out, the corporate lobby—had embraced. But as the 2018 United Nations climate report had made evident, small nudges were utterly inadequate in the face of the climate crisis. So perhaps it was no surprise that, six years after Trudeau signed the Paris climate accords to international acclaim, Canada was the only G7 country whose carbon emissions had actually risen. The reason? The expanding emissions from the Alberta tar sands.

Meriting the title of a real climate champion, on the other hand, would have required ambitious action, imagining and implelenting solutions at the scale and speed of the crisis. It would have required something that Justin Trudeau had shown he was unwilling to do: take on the power of the oil corporations.

For those paying close attention, the writing had been on the wall for years.

Greenpeace activists block the entrance to the Canadian High Commission in Trafalgar Square, London, with a “Crudeau Oil” in April, 2018. Credit: GP

Friends in Unexpected Places

In early October 2012, Trudeau gave a press conference in Montreal announcing he would run for the Liberal party leadership. The first stop on the campaign trail was Alberta. At a packed event in Calgary the next day, Trudeau called the province’s tar sands a “blessing” and disavowed the energy policies of his father. “I think any policies and any politics that divides this country against itself, within itself, has been unhelpful in the past, is unhelpful today, and will be unhelpful going forward,” he told cheering Liberal supporters. Though none of the satisfied media observers characterized it this way, Trudeau’s act underlined how he himself would govern: loyal to the interests of the corporate oil giants.

Trudeau returned again to Alberta the next year to address the Calgary Petroleum Club, not long after winning the leadership of the party. This time, his tone was even warmer. His speech laid out a vision not for challenging the country’s most powerful and destructive industry, but for intimately collaborating with it. Stephen Harper might have run the “so-called friendliest government that the Canadian energy industry has ever had,” Trudeau told the oil executives, but it had been a total strategic failure. 

“Alberta’s interests have been compromised more than just about anyone else’s by Mr. Harper’s divisiveness,” he said. Harper hadn’t been able to move “the yardsticks on one of the most important infrastructure projects of our generation, the Keystone XL pipeline.” He had turned the tar sands into an “international poster child for climate change.” Stymied by a growing cross-continental movement, Harper had not been able to “open markets to our resources, and facilitate the creation of pathways to those markets in responsible, sustainable ways.”

In other words, Trudeau did not differ from Harper over his support for the tar sands—he simply questioned the methods by which he had promoted them. Harper’s government had antagonized Obama, instead of appealing to him. It had demonized First Nations and environmentalists, instead of building partnerships with them. “It has made enemies of people who ought to be your friends, and turned what should have been a reasonable debate into an over-the-top rhetorical war,” Trudeau said. “Most importantly, it has impeded progress.” This was Trudeau’s pitch to the oilmen: he would be a more sensible salesman, a prime minister who could soften the ranks of opposition with a cheerful disposition and diplomatic touch.

He elaborated on the strategy he had in mind. “Market access, more and more, will depend on how well we manage our domestic policy, especially when it comes to the environment,” he said. “I believe we can solve these problems a lot faster, a lot better, and a lot more cheaply if we see each other as partners in that national effort.” The trick, he implied, would be a few policies that would give cover for tar sands expansion. “If we had stronger environmental policy in this country—stronger oversight, tougher penalties, and yes, some sort of means to price carbon pollution—then I believe the Keystone XL pipeline would have been approved already,” Trudeau said. When elected prime minister, he would help build this “national energy strategy.”

If the heads in the room weren’t vigorously nodding, it was probably only because oilmen know better than anyone to not reveal when they’ve been dealt an unbeatable hand. During all the years that Stephen Harper had spent in government, they had been waiting for a prime minister to endorse a carbon tax, while uttering those magic words: national energy strategy. It was their phrase more than Trudeau’s, evoking a plan to protect and preserve the business model that they had been honing and promoting for several years in alliance with Conservative and Liberal politicians, right-wing think tanks, business-friendly academic institutes, and the country’s biggest corporate lobby groups.

The note on which Trudeau ended his speech at the Calgary Petroleum Club must have sealed their confidence. “Keep an open mind,” he said. “You can find friends in the most unexpected places.”

Rally against the TransMountain pipeline inˆMontreal in May, 2018.

Corporate Canada finds their spear carrier

In the late 1980s, the environment barely registered as a concern for Canadians, when surveyed by pollsters. But by the mid 2000s, it was among their highest priorities. As these concerns mounted, the more savvy thinkers among Canada’s corporate elite realized a shift in strategy was necessary: if they had lost the battle over whether climate change was in fact happening, they could yet win the war over what should be done about it. 

Tom d’Aquino, as the head of the Business Council of Canada the most powerful lobbyist in the country, was a practiced hand in this realm. In 2006, d’Aquino seized on an idea articulated by Roger Gibbins, a right-wing political scientist at the University of Calgary. In Gibbin’s view, the industry “needs the protection, or cover, of a Canadian energy strategy…even if it means, in the final analysis, that we have to water our wine a bit.”

Led by d’Aquino, a taskforce of CEOs took up this idea and began whipping Canada’s corporate elite behind the idea. As SFU professor of communications Donald Gutstein traces in his book The Big Stall, soon they were promoting a national plan that would include investment in new technologies, emissions targets that wouldn’t limit their planned growth in oil production, and—the water in their wine—a carbon tax. They were willing to accept a policy they had previously reviled, but only because they hoped to head off regulations that would be more intrusive and take a much bigger bite of their profits.

Judging by today’s polarized debate, one might think there were mixed feelings among the corporate elite over a carbon price. That wasn’t the case. When business professor Kaija Belfry Munroe conducted interviews in 2008 with the executives of Canada’s corporate lobby groups and the largest companies in the heaviest-emitting industries, she discovered a remarkable consensus. Shell, Suncor, Nexen, ConocoPhillips, gas and steel companies, forestry giants like AbitibiBowater and Weyerhaeuser, the major cement makers, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and the Mining Association of Canada all “strongly supported” either carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. 

D’Aquino’s Business Council helped create a new organization, the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC), to act as a gathering point for Liberal and Conservative politicians and as a lobbying arm to win broader political support for their strategy. Its president for a period was Dan Gagnier, whose wide-ranging career embodied the ease with which members of the Canadian establishment passed between the political and corporate worlds. He had been vice-president at Alcan, chief of staff to Quebec Premier Jean Charest, chief of staff of the premier’s office for Dalton McGuinty, and a federal corporate lobbyist. Gagnier had also known Justin Trudeau since he was a child, through friendship with his father. Along with Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, he was part of Trudeau’s innermost circle.

A network of corporate forums, oil-funded think tanks, and academic institutes were soon promoting the plan even more widely. At a meeting in Winnipeg in 2009, business and political leaders met and “reached a broad consensus on the need for a pan-Canadian energy strategy.” In Banff the following year, another meeting was convened on a “truly Canadian clean energy strategy,” where all the key players of EPIC met with executives from oil companies and a select group of representatives from mainstream environmental organizations, including Gerald Butts (then-President of WWF-Canada) and Marlo Reynolds, a director at Pembina Institute and later the chief of staff for Environment Minister McKenna. John Manley was there, as the new head of the Business Council of Canada. And so were future Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and the omnipresent Dan Gagnier. 

But the plan hit a roadblock: Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In 2011, Alberta Premier Alison Redford had become the first mainstream political leader to sign on to a pan-Canadian climate plan that included a small carbon tax, alongside coordinated support for pipelines. She was soon joined by other premiers, but federal support was missing. Harper was ideologically dead set against any policy containing the detested three-letter word, tax. It was around this time that Trudeau, as the new Liberal leader, began making the rounds with a new pitch: if the oil barons wanted their vision to be realized, it would need a more-aligned prime minister. 

Just days before Trudeau’s victory in the 2015 federal election, it was revealed that Gagnier—then serving as the Liberal Election Campaign Co-Chair—had been working as a lobbyist for pipeline company TransCanada. A letter he had written to several company officials was leaked, showing he had advised TransCanada on how they should lobby the incoming Trudeau government.

Too little attention was paid to the contents of Gagnier’s letter to TransCanada. It made clear that the goal the wider corporate and oil lobby had been working toward together for nearly a decade was now, finally, within reach. 

“An energy strategy for Canada is on the radar and we need a spear carrier for those in the industry who are part of the solution going forward rather than refusing to grasp the implications of a changing global reality,” he wrote.

In Trudeau, Big Oil had found their spear carrier.

  • This is an adapted excerpt from Martin Lukacs’s book The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent.