During past few weeks since the start of the Israeli operation of and collective punishment against the people of Gaza, which was supposedly triggered by the killing of three Israeli teens by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas which controls the Gaza strip, the statements released by the Conservative government have come to dangerously resemble Ezra Levant type rants instead of thoughtful and thought through foreign policy.

In fact not only has this Conservative government lent a blind eye to the majority of the violations of international law that the Israeli government has committed during this military operation, our Canadian government has thrown its support and whatever leverage it has on the international scene behind the Israeli hawks, taking a unilateral position which favors Israel in any given circumstance or situation.

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Ezra Levant at the PetroCultures conference (photo Jay Manafest)

Unfortunately this neo-conservative stance is far from being a novelty. It appears that in the eyes the Conservative war room, international affairs is merely an extension of domestic affairs by other means, another tool to assert their domestic agenda and garnish support among certain sections of the Canadian electorate in view of 2015.

But as for all pre-fabricated position of ideological purity, this doctrine or approach to international affairs has it’s Achilles heel and that is the hypocrisy and double speech on which it is founded.

During the heated debate revolving around the PQ’s  Charter of Quebec Values, the Harper Government, much like Don Quixote jousting against invisible windmills, took the bold position to cut down the nascent legislation, using the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the ultimate rampart against xenophobia and racism used as political vectors for short term political gains. But while the Conservative Government supposedly crusades against such intolerance and xenophobia on domestic turf, on the international scene it promotes its antithesis, an international policy which refutes basic human rights and international conventions favoring instead a Manichean vision of the world, rooted in profound demagogy and fueled by fear.

Other governments of the same vein through the globe have pushed forward Islamophobic legislation with the intent to preserve the sanctity of some mythical antique society, refuting one religious dogma for another in the name of secularism. This Conservative regime prefers to promote pseudo multiculturalism within its borders and support racist and xenophobic policy and segregation and inequality on the outside. Unfortunately, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

This government’s reaction to the suffering of the people of Gaza, slandering them and belittling them at every possible occasion as “terrorists” and “fundamentalists,” not the victims of Israeli aggression but the makers of their own oppression in some sort of twisted Stockholm Syndrome way, is but the culminating point in a decisive shift in foreign policy taken by the current regime.

On the African continent, the current Canadian government has allocated funds to extreme-right, homophobic and xenophobic evangelistic groups, thus aiding them in their mission to propagate the light of Christ throughout the world. In South America, the Conservative Government has lent their support, through enhanced free trade deals, to Canadian multinationals that run amok, with devastating consequences for entire communities, especially for indigenous communities resisting the violation of their habitats. Such a policy endangers their way of life and is pushing them to the brink of extinction.

When it comes to international cooperation in terms of climate change or within the United Nations, the current government has undermined much of Canada’s international status as a deal broker, preferring to sign alliances with the newly anointed group of “weasels”—composed of the ideological brothers of Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada—and push for climate deregulation.

The hard right might not have found its niche with the Conservative government domestically, many on that side of the spectrum would like to see this government be more assertive with its social conservatism and push for the criminalization of abortions and the repeal of gay marriage legislation. But in John Baird and his Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they have found a champion.

They are several types of power in terms of international affairs; the two main strains are described as soft and hard. Hard power is referred to as the usage of brute force, military force, and domination through physical submission. On the other hand, soft power is domination through cultural influence and diplomacy. Canada might have once had a strong stock of soft power, but today it has given up on both approaches to fully endorse the Ezra Levant archetype of Sun News power.

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This is a power that serves only the ideological purposes of the most radical sections of the Conservative Party of Canada and the vision of a planetary struggle of Ying versus Yang. Any pragmatism or rationality are sidelined in favor of an outright xenophobic foreign policy which asserts through the rants of it’s spokesperson—John Baird has taken the role of Ezra Levant in this case—that some human beings have more rights than others, some populations are more valuable than others, some communities have more a right to live a dignified life than others.

A government that is honest with itself cannot appeal to the high moral standards of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when dealing with domestic xenophobia and disregard such values aboard. Canada must promote human rights for all.

What better role could Canada play on the international scene than being the sole defender of human dignity and human rights, with the values and ethics invested in it through the charter of Freedoms and Rights. That must be our banner on the international scene.

This past Thursday and Friday, a wide range of accomplished doers and thinkers gathered for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the University of Alberta’s Petrocultures Conference. Presentations took many interesting turns, from Brenda Longfellows’ interactive documentary Offshore to Lynn Millers’ discussion of how to save oil-soaked birds. Most presenters focused on the current and future state of Canada’s energy-producing resources as well as on the cultural, social, political and economic implications of shifting toward a sustainable green economy.

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Tzeporah Berman, the former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Global Climate and Energy Program, Executive Director and Co-founder of PowerUp Canada and Co-founder and Campaign Director of ForestEthics

For some, technology was advanced as the solution. Cenovus Energy, one of Canada’s “green” oil  companies sees technological solutions remedying the array of problems plaguing their industry, from reducing air-born pollutants to minimizing the impact of drilling by using helicopters to access remote wells.

For others, technology is no panacea. Darin Barney, Canada Research Chair in Technology & Citizenship at McGill instead sees politics as the arena where problems will be resolved. His talk focused on the prevailing discourse that  promotes oil-sands through a nationalist and especially a technological-nationalist discourse. Though this is viewed as a last resort strategy on the part of oil-advocates, appealing to nationalist sentiment nonetheless remains effective in quieting dissent and excluding alternative opinions by delegitimizing opponents as radicals and un-Canadian.

This nationalist veil also serves to mask the fact that, far from being a country-wide project benefiting all Canadians, it is the people who shoulder both the risks and costs while subsidies and profits flow directly into private coffers. Barney stated that while only 13% of oil reserves world-wide are privately owned, 51% of those are in Alberta.

Every year, oil industries benefit from over $1.4 billion in government subsidies. If you think this cash contributes to impressive job-creation stats you would be mistaken. Equiterre’s Steven Guilbeault stated that for every $1 million invested in the oil industry only 2 jobs are created, compared to 15 jobs in the green energy sector.

According to Tzeporah Berman, investing $1 million in any other sector yields more jobs than investing that same amount in Canada’s petroleum industry. Berman, a leading Canadian environmental activist, delivered one of the most memorable, informed and impassioned speeches reminding us that safety and health must trump the current trend of subsidies, production and pollution.  “We have a right to debate,” she said “and a right to the right debate.”

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Sun News’ Ezra Levant talking about “ethical oil” (image published over the objections of the author who thinks this man gets too much free publicity already)

Preceding Berman’s talk, Ezra Levant, our national court jester, appeared as his usual brash and boring self. While he was light on the reasoned argument front, he scored points nonetheless for giving the loudest speech (yet not loud enough to cover the audible derisive snickers from the audience). It was a wise decision on the part of the moderator to quash Levant’s question period; he was the only speaker to merit the distinction. Let’s give him another point for that too.

While Levant may have been the loudest, the students involved in Divest McGill were the most persistent. They came armed with relevant and hard-hitting questions, such as when Lily Schwarzbaum asked Gerald Butts, former President and CEO of WWF-Canada and current Trudeau advisor who also sits on McGill’s Board of Governors, why the university had not agreed to divest the $50 million it has invested in tar sands, fossil fuel and Quebec’s Plan Nord. He declined to answer, thus delivering a slap in the face to his fellow panellists and audience members who repeatedly called for more dialogue and openness throughout the conference.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking speech came from University of Alberta’s Imre Szeman who, echoing Mike Hulme’s Meet the Humanitiesadvocated for the inclusion of humanistic disciplines, the energy humanities, in discussing and solving the ongoing climate crisis. One of the main difficulties inherent in discussing pertrocultures is that we are all deeply imbedded in it; our daily lives are so dependant on energy that we have all become petro-subjects. Our identity and culture have developed in tandem with cheap available energy making it very difficult to untangle ourselves from that on which we have become so reliant. It has also made for easy targets; just think of when Al Gore was skewered because he would fly to speaking engagements.

The bright minds engaged in the energy humanities can help us conceptualize and move toward a viable “after-oil”  society that hard scientists, governments, and industries have been unable and unwilling to put forward. Part of the solution must involve the study of values, power, psychology, mobilities, meanings and institutions in order to finally get society to act on the mountain of facts about climate change it already possesses.

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Tenelle Starr ‘s controversial hoodie was one of the subjects discussed during Pretrocultures’ co-director, Sheena Wilson’s presentation

The Pertrocultures Conference may be perceived by some as a room full of white men, inherently conservative and exclusionary, and to some degree the accusation is warranted. Nonetheless, the conference brought together some of the smartest and most engaged players who both advocate for and act toward a cleaner and greener future. Hopefully new partnerships between allies were formed during this two-day event. Partnerships dedicated to bridging the chasm that currently exists between knowing and acting.

Perhaps the one line of thought all participants and attendees could agree on comes from Cenovus’ spokesperson: “The status quo is not acceptable.”

* photos by Jay Manafest, see the complete album on our Facebook Page