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McGill Petrocultures Protest Aims to Reframe Fossil Fuel Debate

If Canada is to seriously confront its addiction to fossil fuels and fight climate change, we need to reframe the entire debate.

That's the message a group of protesters aimed to send when they occupied and disrupted a conference at Montreal's McGill University on Friday.

At 7:45 a.m., about 30 people entered the prestigious McGill Faculty Club where the second day of Petrocultures, a conference organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), was to take place. Instead, the conference was forced to start an hour and a half late. While most of the day's events still went ahead at the new location, the protesters saw the action — which was tied to a banner drop — as a success.

"Every slowdown of this kind of conference helps," said Mona Luxion, a McGill student and spokesperson for the occupiers, in an interview with DeSmog.

At first glance, the conference isn't an obvious target for environmental activists. While featuring several pro-oil speakers, including an oil company vice-president and the former head of the Oilsands Developers Group, the conference appeared to lean towards voices critical of fossil fuel extraction, including an Indigenous anti-oilsands activist, prominent environmentalists, and academics and artists critical of the fossil fuel industry.

But while the conference featured critics of the oilsands, a promotional video for the event featured co-chair Dr. Will Straw saying the goal of the conference was to cover all sides: "It would be very easy to have a conference on this subject that would bring together everybody who's on the same side: hard core environmentalists, anti-oil people, and so on. But we do want all sides to be heard," he said in the video produced by TV McGill.

It's this kind of false equivalency between the two sides of the fossil fuel debate that's dangerous, said Luxion. "Debate can be productive…But a debate that puts support for the tar sands as equal [to criticisms of the fossil fuel industry] isn't the debate we need to be having."

The negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry — from higher rates of cancers in First Nations communities living downstream from the oilsands, to the growing catastrophic impacts of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions — are well documented, Luxion said.

Instead, the occupiers argue there is an urgent need to discuss how we end our dependency on fossil fuels, and how to stop the promotion of the fossil fuel industry.

Co-chair Dr. Will Straw told DeSmog he agrees not all sides of a debate are equal, and said McGill attempted to give more space to fossil fuel critics.

"We didn't look for a balanced conference. One side already has more access to the media," he said, referencing the oil and gas industry. He also stressed that by holding the conference on campus and reducing the entry fee (in the past, McGill Institue for the Study of Canada) conferences have been held at hotels with hefty $400 registration fees), there was a much broader student and community participation.

Even with greater participation, the conference's mandate to "discuss and debate the role of oil and energy in shaping social, cultural and political life in Canada at present and in the future" still served to reinforce the status quo, said Luxion.

The protesters voiced an additional concern that invited representatives from the environmental movement weren't challenging the status quo aggressively enough. 

In a written statement, the occupiers were specific in their concerns:

"To whom does Petrocultures offer a stage? Beyond outright promoters of the tar sands and fracking: a co-founder of ForestEthics, which advocates for 'responsible industry,' a co-founder of Équiterre, which urges 'responsible consumption,' and the president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which campaigns to achieve 'green growth.' The common thread uniting these speakers is a commitment to making moderate adjustments to life under capitalism, adjustments which serve to extend the lifespan of an inherently violent system without abolishing it."

Steven Guilbeault of Montreal-based Equiterre was invited to speak at the conference, on a panel with Tzeporah Berman of ForestEthics, and Sun News personality and oilsands proponent Ezra Levant.

While Guilbeault agreed the debate around fossil fuels is in need of being reframed, he feels the necessary discussions on how to combat climate change are happening in the environmental movement, and that Équiterre and its allies have seen successes.

"I often debate with myself and others on what we need to do to be more effective; how do we become more radical, more effective, more inclusive," he said. The debate is shifting, he argued, pointing to 50,000 people out last year for a march in Montreal against fossil fuels, and 300,000 coming out for Earth Day in 2012, at the height of the Quebec student strike.

But Luxion says the protesters want a stronger challenge of current economic frames: "Our concern specifically was that that the people who are proposed as opponents don't veer too far from capitalism…They aren't talking about decolonizaton or about changes to our economic model."

Also reached for comment, Levant, who contends that Canadian oil is more ethical than oil imported from countries like Saudi Arabia, agreed that the debate around oil in Canada needs to be framed differently, although to different ends.

"Right now the framing of it is: imperfect oilsands oil versus the fantasy fuel of the future that's perfect in every way (except it doesn't exist yet)," he wrote. "I'm trying to reframe the debate towards real-life choices: ethical oil from Canada versus conflict oil from OPEC."

The ethical oil argument, however, fails to address the problematic aspects of oil development in Canada, leaving the important questions unaddressed. Ethicaloil.org has deep ties to the oil and gas industry and the Conservative party.

Levant's presence at the conference became a lightening rod for criticism. Straw said if he was to redo the conference, he may not have invited the controversial pundit. Guilbeault said Levant's presence served to reduce the credibility of the event.

For Luxion and other occupiers, though, the mere presence of Levant wasn't what made the conference more problematic. Rather, it's that the discussion continues to reflect a status quo that places pro- and anti-fossil fuel positions on the same footing, a status quo which is also reflected prominently in mainstream media and Canadian politics.

"The fact that all the federal parties support fossil fuel extraction to a degree points to the fact the debate is about how to exploit oil and gas, and not whether or not we should," said Luxion.

* Correction Notice: This article originally stated that the Petrocultures Conference was forced to change venues. That was not the case.

Tim McSorley is a freelance journalist and editor with Media Co-op.ca. He lives in Montreal.

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