Canada – The Petrotyranny

The revelations over how the federal Tories used a robo-calling firm (or firms) to contact voters in possibly 30 or more ridings during last year’s election – misleading them about where polling stations were located – is just another example of the Harper government’s undemocratic tactics. This is on top of their new on-line surveillance bill that would allow police to access people’s private data without a warrant.

And don’t forget the police brutality wielded against protesters during the G20 Summit in 2010, and twice proroguing parliament in 2008 and 2009 to shut down debate on the Afghan detainee scandal and prevent opposition parties from forming a coalition government.

While the robo-calling scandal was breaking, Harper was in Asia sucking up to the leaders of China, extolling the virtues of Canada’s tar sands and encouraging their investment in Alberta. Harper, acting as front man for the oil patch, is desperate to have China as a customer of our dirty fuel, even if it means strip mining and poisoning all of Alberta to do so.

There is something all very banana republic about where Canada is drifting. On one hand, you have a government that is authoritarian – using every dirty trick it can muster to slime its opponents, denying democratic participation and debate at every turn, while decimating and browbeating the one media outlet that has had displayed some independence in the past – namely the CBC (which is taking a 10% budget cut this year). On the other, we have a government that has allied itself with corporate interests and the autocratic pathology that goes along with it.

Which suggests Canada is heading towards becoming a petrotyranny.

In 2000, the Canadian environmental activist and scholar John Bacher published a book called “Petrotyranny” which examined the politics and economics of the oil industry. One of his troubling conclusions was how energy-rich countries tend to be led by undemocratic regimes: indeed, the amount of oil reserves found in countries ruled through non-democratic and unrepresentative means is more than six times the reserves found in more democratically-aligned countries. “Oil wealth is the biggest single factor sustaining these tyrannies,” Bacher wrote. “Oil profits aid to repression also makes them a principal cause of war.” Countries like Iraq, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia stand out in this regard.

In Canada, our economy is witnessing a shift in balance of power – from the manufacturing east to the oil-producing west. And the Tories’ strongest base of support is in the west. It seems to be no accident that the stronghold of the most undemocratic right-wing element is Alberta, a province where the  Conservatives have been in power since 1971, and where the government derives as much as 40% of its revenue from the oil patch. Democratic diversity is no longer part of Alberta’s political DNA, it seems.

Oil is deeply distorting the economic foundations of Canada. The world’s  demand for fuel has driven up oil prices, and kept our dollar artificially inflated. And in doing so, has decimated our manufacturing sector in eastern Canada.

Industrial Info Resources, a business intelligence group, reported recently that Canada saw 79 industrial plant closings in 2011, costing nearly 14,000 jobs – twice the pace of the US. Overall, Canada lost 50,000 manufacturing jobs in 2011. And from 2004 to 2008, we lost more than one in seven manufacturing jobs, nearly 322,000 in total. Since the early aughts, Canada has gone from a relatively well-rounded capitalist power to one that is increasingly dependent on selling our raw resources abroad. In fact, last November Canada had $1.1-billion trade surplus based largely on energy exports.

Yet, instead of addressing the demise of Canada’s manufacturing base, Harper sees our economic future based on building pipelines out of western Canada. They have displayed tremendous passivity over the loss of  the Caterpillar plant in London, and the selloff of Canada’s steel and mining industry to foreign corporations, or their refusal to rescue Nortel from bankruptcy and prevent its valuable assets from being auctioned off to foreign competitors. And if RIM dies, you can bet Harper won’t step in to rescue what’s left of Ontario and Quebec’s high tech industry.

As the election-manipulation scandal unfolds in the coming weeks, beyond the obvious observation it is part and parcel of the introduction of US-styled (in particular Republican) political methods to Canada, people also need to look at the connections between Big Oil and authoritarianism (and reread John Bacher’s prescient book). I think they are closely related.

(My  exposé of the crimes of Canada’s financial industry, “Thieves of Bay Street” is being published by Random House Canada in mid-April. You can read about it here:

Or pre-order it here:


  • Good post, Bruce.

    I hadn’t known about Barber’s book, but there was quite an interesting economic literature during the 1990s and 2000s about the “resource curse”. This is the apparent paradox that countries more dependent on resource exports, particularly non-renewable point source resources such as fossil fuels and metals, had a lower rate of long-term economic growth than countries without an abundance of natural resources.

    There were a number of explanations for this (including Dutch disease) but a major one is the fact that point-source natural resources and the economic rents they yield provide much greater opportunities for corruption.

    Canada’s economy may have benefitted from high commodity prices over the past few years, but it has led to a hollowed out and imbalanced economy with low levels of productivity growth, with little of the benefits of our natural resources trickling down.

    Looking forward to your book. Are we also developing a financo-tyranny, given the high level of protection and integration of the banking and financial sector with the political establishment?

  • Thanks Bruce I also appreciate positive comments about my book.

    One aspect of the bizarre about Harper is branding Canadian environmentalists as puppets of the Americans. This sort of attack is used (I show it in Petrotyranny) by one of the most nefarious remaining petrotyrant’s Valdmir Putin. Harper always wants to cozy up to him!

  • Indeed Bruce great post.

    One of the things you get at is the divisiveness of the selective economics that Harper has implemented in his vision of building Canada. Free market hands off, when it comes to the economy of every sector but oil. (mind you there was a auto sector loan but that mainly due him dragged to the table by the opposition fed parties and Obama’s swift action south of the border).

    There is a very clear and present danger for Canada. The tie that binds us has been historical economic unity and provincial transfers to even up as fairly as possible the bounty that all sectors contributed to our economic wealth. However the goal has always been focused on growing the pie. And historically this has been what has kept our unity effective, minus plenty of squabbling over language and a plethora of grievances.

    There is a message in your article and I would like to underline it, we are at a very dangerous time in our history. As it seems as though the largest provinces of the country are put in the economic back seat of free market policies. Truly I do not think Harper understands how critical the crisis we are facing could leave the country in a disjointed, asymmetrical journey towards the abyss. We are no Greece in Ontario or Quebec, as we are a nation, and we are glued together with more than the economics, but I think Harper is overestimating the other non-economic threads that bind us together. Potentially that is his goal?

    I am not optimistic, especially if that sudden small uptick south of the border turns out to be a phantom recovery, loaded up on top of a bunch of Canadian austerity.

    How far can the economics threads be stretched before we break? I am surprised that we have not seen much of this being debated. Now that the Drummond report has seemingly unleashed this new discourse onto the Ontario landscape, I do wonder about our future as a nation. Many have stated that since free trade we have become nothing more than a monetary union.

  • Harper would probably overall be happy if Canada broke apart into a number of statelets which then got swallowed by the US. No more second-rate socialist welfare state, or whatever his line was. His highest ambition is for Canada to be Mini-Me to the US’ Doctor Evil, but if he can’t have that he’d rather blow the whole thing up than let it continue being the Canada it’s always been.

  • As the United States under Obama moves to the left, Harper will not want integration into it. He fears that stronger US environmental laws will cause trouble for his beloved oil companies of the tar sands. This sort of nonsense is behind both his celebration of the War of 1812 and his attacks on Canadian environmentalists as puppets of the Americans!

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