The Tar Sands: A made-in Canada problem

JANUARY 4, 2013 – The tar sands development in northern Alberta is an ecological nightmare, and an insult to indigenous land rights. This nightmare and this insult are profoundly Canadian – shaped by Canadian corporations and Canadian government policies. Unfortunately, there was a tendency by some in the movement in 2012, to try and “off-shore” the problem, shifting the blame, in particular to China. This has no basis in fact, and opens the door to a nasty politics of xenophobia.

Listen to the rhetoric. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, rightly highlighted concerns about a trade deal between Canada and China. But she irresponsibly raised the stakes, saying that, as a result of the deal, Canada would “become the resources colony in that context” (Scoffield, 2012).

Nikki Skuce from B.C.-based ForestEthics Advocacy, in a report on the tar sands that is receiving wide circulation, similarly argued that “Canada is about to move one step closer to being a resource colony for China” (2012a). She bases this claim on the assertion that “the vast majority of tar sands production is not owned by Canadians,” and focuses on the growing role of “rising Chinese Investment”. The combination, she says, is “positioning Canada as China’s resource colony” (Skuce, 2012b).

May and Skuce are quite wrong. Targeting an Asian country as “the problem” should set off alarm bells – particularly when that targeting takes place in British Columbia, a province with a noxious history of “yellow peril” politics. China might be undergoing a massive industrial revolution, but it remains a society far more impoverished than Canada.

More seriously, the term “colony” should not be used lightly. It is a very heavy term, loaded with meaning. For China in the 19th century, the encounter with European colonialism, meant the horrors of the Opium War (1839-1842), the Arrow War (1856-1858, sometimes called the Second Opium War), the resulting disintegration of social order in the 1850s and 1860s, and the subsequent carving up of various ports into “concessions” open to the imperialist powers (Dillon, 2010, pp. 29–119). There is a colonial history in Canada in the same century, but it is not a story about Canada’s subjection by non-Canadians. It is rather a story of colonial violence, carried out by the newly created Canadian state, directed against the Cree, Assiniboine, Métis and other peoples, as Canada used force to consolidate its developing capitalist economy (Ryerson, 1975, pp. 309–423). Canada is not a victim of colonialism, but is rather a colonial power in its own right.

Further, this alarmism about Canada becoming anyone’s resource colony has no basis in fact. Statistics Canada has systematically collected data on all sorts of aspects of “who controls what” in the Canadian economy, going back decades. For oil and gas, we have access to two separate databases. One is from 1954 until 1986 (based on percentage of capital employed in petroleum and natural gas), and the other is from 2000 until 2010 (based on percentage of assets in oil and gas extraction and support activities). The story told by these statistics is quite straightforward: Canadian control of the oil and gas industry is steadily increasing.

Go back 60 years, and control of the oil and gas sector was in its majority held outside of Canada – principally by corporations and individuals based in the United States. Through the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, in any given year, typically less than 40 per cent was in the hands of Canadians, with U.S. control at times approaching 60 per cent.

This steadily changed through the 1970s and 1980s. By 1986, the year the first database ends, the situation had reversed, Canadian control sitting at about 60 per cent, U.S. control at below 30 per cent.

When we pick up the story with the new database series, beginning in 2000, the pattern continues. By 2010, Canadian control of the oil and gas industry was approaching the two-thirds mark, while U.S. control was down to just above 20 per cent.

There are other ways by which to measure control of oil and gas production in Canada. Calgary-based Peters & Co. has developed a database for country of control in the oil and gas industry based on the 50 biggest companies in the field, as measured by 2012 production of Barrels of Oil Equivalent per Day (BOE/D). The next chart takes their figures, their four categories (number of companies, oil production, gas production and then oil and gas production combined) and then divides the universe of companies into four categories – Canadian, non-Canadian (total), non-Canadian (U.S.) and non-Canadian (other than U.S.). The results provide a momentary, one-year snapshot, perfectly consistent with the 66-year Statistics Canada time series, highlighted above. In all four categories, Canadian control is above 60 per cent, and sometimes close to 70 per cent.

Peters & Co. would suggest that the Canadian figures depicted here are just a bit too high. Their statisticians decided that the third biggest company on the list – Husky Energy Inc. – should be classified as “non-Canadian”. As Husky is responsible for 314,000 out of the daily total of 5,107,000 BOE/D, this would reduce the Canadian control figures above by about six per cent.

This is a very arbitrary classification. It is true that Husky, although headquartered in Calgary, does have 70% of its shares held offshore in companies based in Barbados and Luxemburg. However, those companies are in turn controlled by a man called Li Ka-shing and his family (Husky Energy, 2012, p. 4). Li Ka-shing was born in China, but according to the Globe and Mail, is also a Canadian citizen (MacKinnon, 2011). If he is a dual citizen, Chinese and Canadian, it is not surprising that this is a fact about which he is fairly circumspect. China does not recognize dual citizenship, and Li Ka-shing has substantial holdings in China. Frequently referred to in the press as a “Hong Kong billionaire”, in 2000 “his two main companies, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. … and property developer Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd.” accounted for “about 15% of the market capitalization of Hong Kong Stock Exchange’s main board” (Cattaneo, 2000). But this corporate empire – including Husky – is in large part managed by Li Ka-shing’s two sons, Victor and Richard Li, both of whom are absolutely Canadian citizens (York, 2005). So Canadian are these two, that they ranked a mention in 2003 as two of the three new additions to Canadian Business’s annual list of Canada’s richest individuals (Erwin, 2003).

In other words, the family which controls Husky Energy has some pretty good credentials as being Canadian, as Canadian as many of the other estimated 2.8 million Canadian citizens who some of the time live outside the country (Hoffman, 2010). When Céline Dion sings, Wayne Gretzky plays hockey, or Justin Bieber breaks hearts, we don’t question their Canadian bona fides.

ForestEthics Advocacy uses a different method by which to assert minority Canadian control in the tar sands. They argue it is misleading to call companies Canadian just because they have headquarters in Canada. The key is to examine the nationality of those who own their shares, and since “71 per cent of all tar sands production is owned by non-Canadian shareholders” it is justifiable to deny that what is going on in the tar sands is made in Canada.

Certainly having a head office in Canada is not sufficient as proof of Canadian control. Imperial Oil, the sixth biggest oil and gas producer in Canada, proclaims its head office as being in Calgary, but also indicates, in the same source, that it is 70 per cent owned by Exxon Mobil Corporation, the pre-eminent U.S.-based oil multinational (Imperial Oil, 2012, p. 32 and 29). No one argues that Imperial Oil should be considered as being under Canadian control, any more than anyone would make a similar argument about several others on the list, including Statoil Canada, owned by Statoil Norway and Murphy Oil Corp., headquartered in El Dorado Arkansas (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 2012; Murphy Oil Corporation, 2012, p. 1).

But ForestEthics goes further, claiming that we should also exclude from the Canadian list: the biggest oil and gas producers in Canada, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.; the second biggest, Suncor Energy Inc.; the seventh biggest, Cenovus Energy Inc.; the 13th biggest, Canadian Oil Sands; and the 33rd biggest, MEG Energy Corp. (Skuce, 2012b) These companies, they argue, have more than 50% of their shares owned outside of Canada, and are therefore not really Canadian.

Look at the four biggest corporations on the list. Canadian Natural Resources, Suncor, Cenovus, and Canadian Oil Sands are all headquartered in Calgary. None of them are subsidiaries of another corporation (Canadian Natural, 2012; Canadian Oil Sands, 2012; Cenovus, 2012; Suncor, 2012). To say they are “foreign controlled” because slightly more than 50% of their shares are held by people living outside of Canada, displays a misunderstanding of the way in which corporate control is exercised in a capitalist economy. According to a very standard understanding of corporate power, provided by the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD), “control of a corporation occurs when a single institutional unit owning more than a half of the shares, or equity, of a corporation is able to control its policy” (2003). In other words, identifying that 50% of the shares of a corporation are owned outside of Canada, would only be significant if those shares were controlled by a single entity.

The OECD goes further. “In practice, when ownership of shares is widely diffused among a large number of shareholders, control may be secured by owning 20 per cent or less of total shares”. This is actually fairly basic economics. ForestEthics Advocacy’s “resource colony of China” paradigm is based on a flawed understanding of the way in which control is exercised in the real world of contemporary capitalism.

Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, speaking November 17, 2012 to a packed Toronto teach-in on the pipelines, also mistakenly asserted that “more than two-thirds of the tar sands production is now in foreign hands”. But Barlow is aware of the fact that the tar sands problem cannot be blamed on non-Canadians. She immediately qualified her statement, saying this “doesn’t mean that it would be fine if it was in Canadian hands” (LeftStreamed, 2012).

Our movement needs to be completely clear – the tar sands are in Canadian hands, and those hands are dirty.

This article is based on research which will be presented in more detail as a chapter in Meenal Shrivastava and Lorna Stefanick, eds., Beyond the Rhetoric: Democracy and Governance in a Global North Oil Economy. Edmonton, Athabasca University Press.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article has been published as “Is Canada a ‘resource colony?’” Climate & Capitalism, 7 January.


Bloomberg BusinessWeek (2012, December 27) Statoil Canada Ltd.: Private Company Information [online]. [Accessed27 December 2012 ]

Canadian Natural (2012) 2011 Annual Report [online]. Calgary: Canadian Natural Resources Limited.

Canadian Oil Sands (2012) 2011 Annual Report [online]. Calgary: Canadian Oil Sands Limited.

Cattaneo, C. (2000, October 30) ‘Lau details Husky’s plan for growth’, National Post, C1.

Cenovus (2012) 2011 Annual Report [online]. Calgary: Cenovus Energy.

Dillon, M. (2010) China: A Modern History. New York: I. B. Tauris.

Erwin, S. (2003, December 9) ‘Thomsons top Canada’s rich list’, Kingston Whig – Standard, 36.

Hoffman, A. (2010, July 31) ‘A Canadian key drives a Chinese success’, The Globe and Mail, B4.

Husky Energy (2012) Management Information Circular [online]. Calgary: Husky Energy.

Imperial Oil (2012) 2011 Summary Annual Report [online]. Calgary: Imperial Oil Limited.

LeftStreamed (2012) Tar Sands Come to Ontario – No Line 9! [5/5] [online]. Toronto.

MacKinnon, M. (2011, October 31) ‘China test drives the concept of charity’, The Globe and Mail, A3.

Murphy Oil Corporation (2012) 2011 Annual Report [online]. El Dorado, Arkansas: Murphy Oil Corporation.

OECD (2003, March 3) Control of a corporation [online]. OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms.   [Accessed27 December 2012 ]

Ryerson, S. B. (1975) Unequal union: confederation and the roots of conflict in the Canadas, 1815-1873. Toronto: Progress Publishers.

Scoffield, H. (2012, October 30) ‘Investment deal with China would leave Canada a resource colony: opponents’, Whitehorse Star, 8.

Skuce, N. (2012a, October 24) ‘It’s a bad deal’, The Globe and Mail, A14.

Skuce, N. (2012b) Who Benefits? An investigation of foreign investment in tar sands [online]. ForestEthics Advocacy.

Statistics Canada (2000) CANSIM Table 3760047 – International investment position, capital employed in non-financial industries by country of ownership, annually. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Statistics Canada (2012) CANSIM Table 1790004 – Corporations Returns Act (CRA), major financial variables, annually. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Suncor (2012) 2011 Annual Report [online]. Calgary: Suncor Energy Inc.

Vanderklippe, N. (2012, December 12) ‘How much of Canada’s energy resource lies in foreign hands?’, The Globe and Mail, B4.

York, G. (2005, November 29) ‘Canadians by choice, Hong Kongers by nature’, The Globe and Mail, H4.

Venezuela – The Americas’ Other Presidential Story

NOVEMBER 1, 2012 – While most eyes in North America have been on the presidential election in the United States, for people in the South another election last month was actually of more interest. In the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, incumbent president Hugo Chávez was up against a strong challenge, from a – for once – united opposition. Gwynne Dyer (2012) was not alone when he speculated, days before the vote, that this could be “Hugo Chávez’s swan song”. However, when the vote came, it wasn’t really close, Chávez winning a third term as president with 55.08% of the vote, far ahead of the 44.3% obtained by his challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski (CNE 2012). Neither candidate in that other presidential election in the Americas can even dream about this kind of a victory margin.

There was good reason for huge interest “South of the Border” in the results of the election. The Chávez presidency has been at the centre of an assertion of sovereignty in Latin America and the Caribbean, an assertion of sovereignty that has put up a wall against economic, political and military encroachments by the Global North. To take one example from each of the spheres of economics, politics and the military, this wall of resistance has seen:

  1. the 2005 collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), scheduled to be implemented that year, but which is now completely moribund;
  2. the 2009 decision by the Organization of American States (OAS) to end its exclusion of Cuba from the organization (OAS 2012);
  3. the 2009 suspension of Honduras from OAS membership because of a right-wing coup against President José Manuel Zelaya (OAS 2010).

None of these would have been conceivable just a few years previous. The fact of a growing group of states willing to defy the U.S. is a huge change from the 1990s. None of it would have been possible without the accession to office by Chávez in 1999, the first government in some years in the region (except for, of course, the one in Cuba) to openly oppose U.S. hegemony.

The accomplishments of the Chávez presidency are almost always minimized in the Global North press. Dyer is typical, acknowledging that “Chávez’s rule has benefited the poor in many ways” but saying that this is solely because of oil. Chávez, he says, “has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold increase in the world oil price” so that “almost all the growth in Venezuela’s economy since Chávez took power is due to higher oil prices” (Dyer 2012).

This is quite misleading. Alberta in Canada has oil, and is one of the most developed areas of the world. By contrast, Nigeria in Africa has oil, and is mired in deep, debilitating poverty and underdevelopment. Using a resource like oil for national development, or alleviating poverty, is not an inevitable question, but a political question, and the situation Chávez inherited when he took office in 1999 was politically retrograde.

Since 1976, oil extraction, refining and distribution in Venezuela, has been under the umbrella of a state-owned oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA). But PDVSA did not operate in the interests of either the Venezuelan economy or the Venezuelan poor. It was, in effect, a front for Global North oil corporations, which maintained most of their privileges, paying exceedingly low royalties and taxes. In the Orinoco tar sands area, for instance, “the PDVSA capped the royalties to be paid by these projects at 1 percent” (McNew 2008, 153). An elite in PDVSA and the Venezuelan government became wealthy, but the economy remained in bad shape, poverty grew, and the oil wealth flowed out of the country.

Changing this situation proved extraordinarily difficult. In 2006 Chávez would call his plan for the oil industry “Full Sovereignty Over Oil” with the aim of gaining majority control of the 32 joint ventures with foreign companies, raising income taxes to 50% and increasing “royalties payable to the government from as low as 1 percent to 33 percent” (Carreño 2006; Collier 2006; McNew 2008; O’Grady 2005). In 2000, the objectives were much more modest. In November 2001, he passed the Hydrocarbons Law, whose key provision was to introduce royalties on a sliding scale from 20% to 30%.

The source for the details about the Hydrocarbons Law is an otherwise dry as dust publication called “The Oil Daily”. Interestingly, in the same issue of that publication, the authors highlight another aspect of the Chávez reforms that they consider problematic. “Also controversial is new land reform legislation that allows the expropriation of areas deemed unproductive by the government” (The Oil Daily 2011). There is a fascinating consistency to these spokespeople for big business, concerned to protect the interests of Global North corporate profits, and the Global South privileged, landed elite.

It was this modest attempt to push back against the privileges of the oil industry, which provoked the social crises of 2002 and 2003. The corruption in Venezuelan society was not limited to the corporations. The leaders of the main trade union central, the Workers’ Confederation of Venezuela (CTV) – including its most important section, the oil workers of Fedepetro – joined with the main bosses’ organization, Fedecamaras, to oppose Chávez. This perverse united front of privileged managers and corrupt union leaders, bent every effort to roll back the reforms.

The highlights of this struggle are well known. April 2002, there was an attempted coup against Chávez, stopped by massive mobilization of the poorest sections of Caracas, and a split in the armed forces. In the winter of 2002-2003, there was a strike (really a lockout) centred in the oil industry which brought the economy to its knees. This was only ended when the blue-collar workers who supported Chávez, pushed aside the white-collar workers who supported the opposition, and began to restart production. In the end, 18,000 PDVSA employees – half of the PDVSA workforce, but fully “90 percent of PDVSA’s white-collar workforce” were dismissed (Collier 2006; Clough 2008).

It is only after this massive social upheaval lasting almost two years, that Chávez was able to assert the very basic right to increase royalties on oil production in the country. The point is, there is nothing automatic about being able to direct profits from the extractive industries towards national economic development, let alone social assistance for the poor. There were very serious class forces opposed to these steps being taken, and two years of intense class struggle before these very modest reforms could be implemented.

None of this history matters for commentators like Dyer. He berates Chávez for overseeing a rate of economic growth that has been slower than in Brazil or Colombia. Of course economic growth in Venezuela has been slower. First, Brazil is the biggest economy on the South American continent, with a domestic market many times the size of that in Venezuela. Second, Colombia’s growth has been as a virtual client state of the U.S., and the price of its growth has been the displacement of millions from their land, and the death of thousands at the hands of right-wing death squads. Third, while Venezuela was able to assert control over oil by 2003, the oil industry in the country has never fully recovered from the loss of the 18,000 white-collar professionals. It is absolutely understandable why they were fired – their alliance with the bosses’ federation pushed the country to the brink of chaos. But the modern oil industry is extraordinarily complex, and their skill and expertise has yet to be replaced in the oil fields and refineries.

Veteran Latin American Commentator Mike Gonzalez in his analysis of the election, identifies some real problems in contemporary Venezuela. “[W]hoever travels to Venezuela with open eyes cannot fail to notice the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie with its shopping centres, restaurants, the permanently guarded houses and estates, and the fourwheel drives with tinted windows that speed through the streets” (González 2012). He is right. There is a new elite developing around the state apparatus. The privileges of the old elite are still remarkably intact.

But Gonzalez makes his critique less persuasive by offering a confusing assessment of the election results. “Although official spokespeople of the government insist that the vote for Chávez grew, in reality, despite a large campaign backed up by immense resources, the vote he received was much lower than any since 1998” (González 2012).

In fact, the exact opposite is true. This is not the lowest vote total for Chávez since 1998. It is his highest vote total ever. The chart on this page makes this very clear. It shows the total votes counted in the last three presidential elections, the total vote for Chávez, and the total vote for his chief opposition candidate (CNE 2006; CNE 2012; IFES 1998).

There are several remarkable aspects to this chart. First – voter participation has exploded. The total votes cast in 1998 were just under 7 million. This jumped to almost 12 million in 2006 and more than 15 million in 2012. More than twice as many people cast ballots in 2012 compared to 1998.

This can only partly be accounted for by population increase. The other key factor has been the increase in overall participation. In 1998 63.76% of the eligible population cast a ballot. In 2006 that figure jumped to 74.69%. This year it reached the astonishing figure of 80.52%. These levels of voter participation are higher than in Canada, and far higher than in the United States. Perhaps we need editorials in the Globe and Mail and the New York Times, bemoaning the lack of democracy in the Global North, and praising Venezuela for high levels of citizen involvement in elections.

Then look at the vote totals for Chávez. He was first elected, in 1998, with 3.7 million votes. He almost doubled this in 2006, to a total of 7.3 million. This year he received almost 8.2 million votes, an increase of more than 800,000 from the total of 2006.

The 2012 elections did see a narrower margin of victory for Chávez, in the context of a massive voter turnout. Clearly what was going on was a serious mobilization by the right wing to oust Chávez. That his vote increased in the face of this tidal wave of right wing organizing, is impressive.

It was the fact of this right wing surge which shaped political attitudes in Venezuela. The only position to take in the 2012 election, with whatever criticisms, was to support Chávez, something that, as Jeffrey Webber points out, “was recognized by close to the entirety of the Venezuelan left over the last several months, including those sectors especially critical of the limits to the political economic program of the government and the lingering influence of an important conservative bureaucratic layer within the ruling party” (Webber 2012).

Outside of Venezuela, we face a different challenge. Chávez’ great crime in the eyes of the leaders of the United States, Britain and Canada, is that he has presided over a movement which has restricted their ability to drain oil profits out of the country, a movement which has instead diverted those profits towards social programs. As a result, the transnational oil companies, and the Global North governments will be only too ready to support any mobilization of the right-wing against Chávez, and we have to be ready to do our bit to oppose them, if and when they embark upon such a course of action.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This article has been published as “Are the Venezuelan people’s gains ‘solely because of oil’?Links, November 1.


Carreño, Rafael Ramírez. 2006. “Full Sovereignty Over Oil.” Sitio Web PDVSA.

Clough, Langdon D. 2008. “Energy Profile of Venezuela.” The Encyclopedia of Earth.

CNE. 2006. “Elección Presidencial – 3 De Diciembre De 2006.” Poder Electoral.

———. 2012. “Divulgación Elección Presidencial – 07 De Octubre De 2012.” Poder Electoral.

Collier, Robert. 2006. “Chavez Drives a Hard Bargain, but Big Oil’s Options Are Limited.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 24.

Dyer, Gwynne. 2012. “Hugo Chavez’s Swan Song in Venezuela?: He Could Lose; He Could Die. But What He Has Built Will Survive Him.” The Spectator, October 2.

González, Mike. 2012. “Venezuela: El Chavismo Contra Un Candidato No Tan Nuevo.” En Lucha, October.

IFES. 1998. “Election Profile for Venezuela – Results.” Election Guide.

McNew, B. Seth. 2008. “Full Sovereignty over Oil: A Discussion of Venezuelan Oil Policy and Possible Consequences of Recent Changes.” Law and Business Review of the Americas 14: 149–158.

O’Grady, Mary Anastasia. 2005. “Americas: Oil Wells Refuse to Obey Chavez Commands.” Wall Street Journal, May 20, sec. A.

OAS. 2010. “Member States.” OAS – Organization of American States: Democracy for Peace, Security, and Development.

———. 2012. “Member States.” OAS – Organization of American States: Democracy for Peace, Security, and Development.

The Oil Daily. 2011. “Venezuelan Strike Poses Big Challenge.” The Oil Daily, December 10.

Webber, Jeffrey R. 2012. “Latest Step in a Long Road: The Venezuelan Elections.” The Bullet, October 12.

Iran and the Axis of Hypocrisy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a new coalition of national unity, elections in the country have been pushed back by months, and suddenly the danger of an armed strike against Iran, by Israel, has become more acute.

It is now ten years since the January 29, 2002 State of the Union speech – the first since the 9/11 attacks on New York City – where then U.S. President George W. Bush announced to the world that the U.S. was up against an “Axis of Evil”, a label derived from the “Axis of Hatred”, coined by Canadian conservative journalist, David Frum (Noah 2003). These “evil, hated” states were Iraq, North Korea and Iran. But the real enemy is an Axis of Hypocrisy.

The world saw what happened to Iraq. The evidence for its “evil” status proved to be entirely false. There simply never were any Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in the country. Yet the U.S. attacked anyway, and devastated the country. The very conservative estimates from Iraq Body Count put the death toll after just three years at just under 50,000, double that by 2012. Some put the figure far higher, The Lancet in 2006 estimating that already, 650,000 had died (Iraq Body Count (IBC) 2012; Oziewicz 2006). By 2007, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimated that 4.2 million Iraqis had been driven from their homes by the war, half right out of the country (MacKinnon 2007).

Ironically, North Korea – which does have at least one or two WMDs (it has twice detonated a nuclear device, once in 2006 and again in 2009 (Hecker 2010, 44)) – has not been attacked by the U.S. In fact, at the height of the Iraq war in 2006, it agreed to “return to nuclear-disarmament talks with its four neighbors and the U.S. in a deal brokered by China” (Ramstad, Batson, and King Jr. 2006). The issue in Iraq was not the presence of WMDs (which it didn’t have), but the presence of oil (which it has in huge quantities). North Korea has WMDs, but no oil whatsoever. So Iraq got a war, but North Korea did not.

This leaves Iran – a country that, like Iraq, is one of the world’s great sources of inexpensive, easy-to-access oil. The U.S. had attempted to sew up control of Iraqi oil, however this has not gone entirely according to plan. In the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi state, and years of destructive warfare, the most influential country in the region in the wake of the U.S. pull-out, has become … Iran. An attack on Iran by either Israel or the U.S. would be part of the “chess game” of pushing back Iranian influence in this oil-rich region.

Of course that is not the rhetoric that we hear. We are not told that Iran will be bombed for oil profits. Rather, Israel and the U.S., if they bomb Iran, will do so ostensibly to stop it from becoming a nuclear power. Since 2002, the CIA in particular has been flooding the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with “evidence” of Iran’s attempt to build an atomic bomb. But according to one senior diplomat at the IAEA, quoted anonymously in the Los Angeles Times, “since 2002, pretty much all the intelligence that’s come to us has proved to be wrong” (Drogin and Murphy 2007).

Throughout the early years of the Iraq War, the Bush administration and the IAEA were repeatedly at odds. One of the main justifications for the war against Iraq was the “fact” – pushed by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell – that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger. Then IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei embarrassed Powell and Bush when he showed the UN Security council that the documents used as “proof” of this had been forged. The Bush regime responded by opposing El Baradei’s reappointment to his post (Pincus 2003; Hibbitts 2005).

In Bush’s rush to paint the WMD label on Iran, he showed himself willing to forge alliances with the most unlikely people. For instance, the National Council of Resistance (NCR) is a resistance group, based in Iran, which the U.S. has classified as a terrorist organization since 1997. On August 14, 2002, however, the NCR held a press conference where they claimed that Iran was constructing secret nuclear facilities near the Iranian cities of Natanz and Arak. In spite of the U.S. judgment that NCR was a terrorist organization, Bush seized on its press conference as “evidence” of Iran’s nuclear intentions. One year later, the same Bush administration “closed the NCR’s Washington office” (Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism 2008, 104; Squassoni 2006, 2; 2011).

Another piece of evidence seized on by the press was a report that Iran had stolen enriched uranium from Iraq before the March, 2003 outbreak of war. The report was later revealed to be a fabrication, the ultimate source being Fereidoun Mahdavi, former Minister of Commerce in the government of the Shah of Iran (History Commons 2012).

Mahdavi’s claims didn’t end there. He also suggested there were plans for Iranian-based terrorists to hijack a Canadian airliner and fly it into a nuclear station near Boston. He further claimed that Iran was hiding Osama bin Laden. But even the CIA, eager to portray Iran as a terror-state, concluded after interviewing him that he was lying (Leupp 2007).

There are WMDs in the Middle East. The US has used vast quantities of depleted uranium and hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs in its two wars against Iraq. Its main ally, Israel, as early as 2002, had between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons in its clandestine WMD program (Norris 2002). Most people, in particular the people of the region itself, support the removal of WMDs from the Middle East. But to accomplish that would mean a withdrawal of all US military forces, and an international campaign against Israeli militarism, including against Israel’s secret stockpiles of nuclear bombs and missiles.

A military strike against Iran, should it come, would provoke devastation for the people of the region. It would also be very risky for both the U.S. and Israel. Israel used to be able to count Egypt and Turkey as allies. But the Arab Spring broke its ties with the Egyptian state, and the barbaric assault on the Mavi Marmara soured relations with Turkey. Israel is now as isolated as it has ever been in the region. And Iran is a regional power in its own right, not without resources and influence.

But the fact that there are risks does not mean an attack will not come. Twice before, Israel has launched strikes against nuclear reactors under construction in the region – June 7 1981 against one southeast of Baghdad in Iraq, and September 6, 2007 against one in Syria (Jewish Virtual Library 2012; Follath and Stark 2009).

One unnamed Israel figure “with close ties to the leadership” made this very clear to a Reuters’ reporter. “I think they have made a decision to attack. It is going to happen. The window of opportunity is before the U.S. presidential election in November. This way they will bounce the Americans into supporting them” (Stott 2012). Such a strike would be an irresponsible and extremely dangerous action, posing the very real possibility of a wider, and very bloody war. It is in all our interests to oppose Israeli and U.S. military threats against Iran.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg


Drogin, Bob, and Kim Murphy. 2007. “U.N. Calls U.S. Data On Iran’s Nuclear Aims Unreliable.” Los Angeles Times Articles, February 25.

Follath, Erich, and Holger Stark. 2009. “How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor.” Spiegel Online, November 2. 2011. “Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK or MKO).”

Hecker, Siegfried S. 2010. “Lessons Learned from the North Korean Nuclear Crises.” Daedalus 139 (1) (January): 44–56.

Hibbitts, Bernard. 2005. “IAEA Postpones Decision on ElBaradei Reappointment After US Voices Opposition.” Jurist: University of Pittsburgh School of Law, April 28.

History Commons. 2012. “Fereidoun Mahdavi.”

Iraq Body Count (IBC). 2012. “Iraq Body Count.”

Jewish Virtual Library. 2012. “Operation Opera: The Israeli Raid on the Osirak Nuclear Reactor.”

Leupp, Gary. 2007. “A Chronology of BushCo Disinformation About Iran.” The Rag Blog.

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Alberta election – Party of Big Oil Defeats Party of Big Oil

APRIL 30, 2012 – There was something absolutely wonderful about the failure of Wildrose to win the recent election in Alberta. The party is made up of a gaggle of mostly former conservatives – so extreme in their views that their party earned the nickname “Tea Party North”, and was touted by almost every polling agency to be headed for a convincing majority in the April 23 provincial election. But in the end, the pollsters were completely wrong, Wildrose winning only 17 seats and 34% of the vote (CBC News 2012a).

Wildrose lost in spite of getting substantial elite backing. Many of the usual suspects of Canadian conservatism broke from their traditional support for the Alberta Tories, and backed Wildrose. The editors of the National Post led the way, saying “Alberta’s government could use some fresh blood and vibrant new ideas” (National Post Editorial Board 2012). The Edmonton Sun editors said that “the Wildrose party has the vision and energy to set Alberta on a course to a bold and exciting future” (Edmonton Sun 2012).

That exciting future might have been a little pale in colour. Ron Leech, Wildrose candidate in Calgary-Greenway, said on April 16: “I think as a Caucasian I have an advantage …. As a Caucasian, I believe that I can speak to all the community” (Gerson 2012).

A Wildrose future might also have proven to be a little warm. Leech’s party comrade, Allan Hunsperger, running in Edmonton-South-West, wrote on his church’s blog in June 2011 that the fate of those who did not live as heterosexuals would be to “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering” (Wood 2012a).

Now the good folks on the editorial board of the National Post were aware of these backward and reactionary views when they deliberated, but they nonetheless decided that Wildrose politicians would be the best stewards of Alberta’s future. Any new party running a full slate of candidates, they argued, “will inevitably be stuck with a few loose cannons” (National Post Editorial Board 2012). Perhaps, but cannons can be fired, and party leader Danielle Smith, when confronted with these two particularly obscene cannons, chose not to pull the trigger. She said, for instance, that Hunsberger was “free to hold his personal views” (Wood 2012a).

April 23, Smith found out that if she wouldn’t deal with Leech and Hunsberger, the people of Alberta would. Both went down to defeat. Revulsion over their views, and the way in which party leader Smith was willing to tolerate open bigots in her party, led to a surge in voter participation, rising sharply to 57% from the all-time low of 2008, when only 41% of eligible voters cast a ballot (Postmedia News 2012). The unexpected trek to the polls of thousands of people, enraged at Wildrose bigotry, meant that, far from winning the majority most predicted, Wildrose will have to be content with the status of official opposition. The provincial conservatives kept a 41-year unbeaten streak going, winning 61 seats with 44% of the vote (CBC News 2012a).

Three key dynamics

To understand developments in Alberta politics, it is necessary to quite closely study this surge in voter turnout relative to the election of 2008, in context with two other key dynamics. First, there was a substantial increase in support for Wildrose, its vote going from 64,407 votes to 444,996, an increase of 381,000. Second, there was a dramatic decrease in support for the Liberals – from 251,158 in 2008 to 125,000 in this election, a decrease of almost 126,000. Third, there was the surge in turnout, rising from 950,363 to 1,290,218, an increase of almost 340,000. Charts and tables to accompany this article can be found just before the reference list. The first chart (CBC News 2012a; Postmedia News 2012; Chief Electoral Officer 2008, 142) captures these dynamics visually. (The chart also captures a fourth dynamic – the increase in support for the NDP, whose vote increased 45,000, from 80,000 to 126,000. The increase in NDP support is interesting in itself, but not the main focus of this article).

Without question, the bulk of the Wildrose vote came from disgruntled ex-Tories, who felt that Redford was abandoning core conservative policies. The flight from the Tories to the Tea Party North was in fact, massive. We of course don’t know precisely who changed votes from one party to another. But we can reasonably identify the main trends. A big part of the rise in Wildrose support came from disgruntled ex-Tories. If you peg that figure at 70%, it drops the tory vote to 235,000. There was a smaller, but important current, of Liberals shifting to the Tories, because of fear of Wildrose, and because of the new “liberalism” represented by Redford. Certainly the majority of these switched from to the newly-minted Redford Tories. Using the same approximation of 70%, raises the Tory vote to 323,000, better, but still far behind Wildrose. Focusing on just these two dynamics is what led the polling community to almost universally call for a Wildrose majority.

Enter the new voters. In 2008 just over 950,000 cast a vote. This time, turnout surged to 1,290,218. The second chart (CBC News 2012a; Postmedia News 2012; Chief Electoral Officer 2008, 142) illustrates the way in which this and the other two key dynamics have led to a recomposition of the Tory vote in Alberta. The only way for the Tories to have achieved their final total of 567,051, was for them to have received the support of 70% of these new voters. This surge of new support for the Tories was in the main a surge of revulsion against Wildrose. It kept the barbarians at the gate, and confounded the pundits. Again, these figures need to be qualified. We of course don’t know why each of the thousands of new voters headed to the polls, nor who they voted for. All of the figures above are at best, educated guesses. But – the dynamics they represent “feel” accurate, for those who were in Alberta for the election. The hatred for the newly-liberal Tories that came from the conservative media was everywhere. The even more intense visceral hatred for Wildrose bigotry was palpable in coffee shops, on campuses, and on facebook. There was real fear that the conservative push for Danielle Smith would lead to a Wildrose majority, and intense worry about what a noxious “Tea Party North” government would do to Alberta. This translated into a passionate push, particularly by young people, to get to the polls and vote against Wildrose.

Redford knew this. She knew that her only road back into office was to be a Tory who didn’t look like a Tory. In a way that would seem very confusing to those outside Alberta, the Alison Redford led Tories were at pains throughout the campaign to present themselves as a liberal alternative to Wildrose, at one point in the campaign taking out a full-colour, full-page newspaper ad, saying “this is not your father’s” conservative party (Wood 2012b).

In fact the Redford Tories do represent, at one level, a quite different set of politics from the Alberta Tories led by Ralph Klein in the 1990s. Klein was a western twin of Ontario’s Mike Harris, gleefully embracing attacks on social programs as a badge of honour. Redford, the surprise winner of the Tory leadership race in September 2011, came out on top by advancing policies far different from those of Klein or Harris. In fact in a very real sense, she won by running against the Conservative record. She “dismissed the ‘arrogance’ of her own cabinet, slammed a controversial land law and pushed for a judicial inquiry into her government’s handling of the health-care file”. In the words of one reporter, “some of Ms. Redford’s policies are indeed liberal-esque: implementing comprehensive (and expensive) ‘family care centres’ as a pillar of what is already Canada’s costliest health system, proposing higher government payments to the disabled and supporting pay hikes for employees of non-profit agencies” (Wingrove 2011). This is the political profile of her victorious leadership campaign – a political profile that is very different from a Klein or a Harris. Redford’s victory – in part based on running against the Conservative record, led many liberals and even some NDPers to look to her as a “centrist” political option.

Prior to Redford’s accession to leadership, the Alberta Tories under Ed Stelmach had become deeply unpopular. In choosing Redford, the Tories had chosen to address their electoral difficulties, by moving away from some of their more right-wing policies. The pollsters confidence in a Wildrose victory was based on the assumption that this would backfire, lead to a conservative backlash and the growth of Wildrose, because politics in Alberta always moves to the right.

There was a move right, from the Tories to Wildrose. However, there was also a bigger and more important backlash against Wildrose.  The key factor in this election was not the conservative backlash against Redford’s “liberalism”, but an anti-Wildrose backlash as their reactionary politics became exposed. The National Post editors will have to ponder the fact that their preferred party lost because it was perceived as being too right-wing – in Alberta.

The Tar Sands

One other key issue also galvanized opposition to Smith – her stance on climate change. She angered many in the province when she argued, one week before the election, that the question of climate change was not yet settled (The Canadian Press 2012). This is an enormous issue in Alberta, centre of the environmentally catastrophic Athabasca tar sands. Smith herself acknowledged the role of climate change in her defeat, saying after the election that she and her party would have to reconsider some of their policies. “The fact of the matter is there are certain policies that clearly Albertans didn’t want to see implemented,” including on her list her questioning of climate change (CBC News 2012b).

But the fact that Redford is no Klein and that the climate-change skeptic Smith lost, leaves little room for complacency. Climate justice is likely to be just as much at risk from Redford as it would have been from Smith. The editors of the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper of conservatism, backed the Tories not Wildrose. They saw Redford as a more positive voice for Alberta’s oil industry, arguing that “her Canadian Energy Strategy would facilitate the shipment of oil-sands oil to Asia, the U.S. and Central Canada; she also promises to help fund oil-sands extraction technology” (The Globe and Mail 2012).

The Globe and Mail editors were reflecting the point of view of big sections of Corporate Alberta. Those who travelled in the rarefied air of that section of Alberta, were very comfortable with a victory by either Wildrose or the Tories. Both parties received corporate donations running to the hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the case of Wildrose almost reaching one million dollars.

Most significantly, 25 corporations hedged their bets, giving cash to both parties, most prominently, companies in the petrochemical and energy industries. For Cenovus, Enbridge, Encana, Marathon Oil, North West Upgrading, NOVA Chemicals, Penn West Petroleum, Suncor Energy, Transalta and TransCanada Pipelines – there was a certain indifference. Smith or Redford would do. Either of them would be a good bet to allow the expansion of tar sands production into the foreseeable future.

The table at the end of the article (Wildrose 2012; PC Alberta 2012) lists all the corporations who made donations to both parties, beginning with those involved in petrochemical and energy. This is an astonishing table. Individual voters take our vote very seriously. We care which party is elected – which is why, of course, there are election campaigns in the first place. Very few people walk about the streets sporting buttons for two parties. People pick one, and cast their ballot. But corporate Alberta had a sweet situation. A victory by either the Tories or Wildrose would be fine. Under either party, it would be business as usual. It is no exaggeration, then, to say that both parties are parties of big oil. For big oil, the key is continuing the rush to pull oil out of the mud of Northern Alberta, regardless of the environmental consequences. We dodged the bullet on a government of social conservative dinosaurs. But we entrenched in power another majority government enthusiastically committed to Alberta’s boiling mud economy, absolutely focused on a systematic increase in the exploitation of the tar sands.

And – even though Wildrose lost, it did in fact come very close. For just under half a million voters to put an “X” beside Tea Party North, means that there is a very large base for extremist politics in the province. In addition, the fact that the Tories have become custodians of “liberalism” for now is disquieting. The Tories know very well how to be conservative. We can be absolutely sure that they will be loyal soldiers for Corporate Alberta. Very little in their background has prepared them to be loyal soldiers of progressive politics.

Redford has a comfortable majority, and can now rule without fear of a defeat in the legislature for a full four-year term. We’ll have another election sometime between March 1, 2016 and May 31, 2016 (Alberta 2006, 36). That doesn’t mean there will be an absence of politics for four more years. The most important political work always happens between elections, in the nitty-gritty work of organizing social movements from the grass roots up. February 16, hospital workers in Edmonton showed us what that kind of politics might look like, walking out on an unauthorized wildcat strike, angered at a terrible contract offer from their employer, Alberta Health Services (Kellogg 2012).

Not yet an Alberta Spring – but a lovely example of what real politics from the grass roots – and a more stable base for progressive politics – might look like.

Charts and tables referenced in the text

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article has been published as Alberta election – Party of Big Oil Defeats Party of Big Oil,” Global Research, 4 May; “Alberta Election: Big Oil Party Defeats Big Oil Party,” Climate & Capitalism, 30 April; “Alberta Election – Party of Big Oil Defeats Party of Big Oil,” The Bullet No. 628, 4 May 4


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