A photo of downtown Ottawa. Against a background of skyscrapers, huge trucks are parked, facing the camera. A multitude of signs lean up against them, with slogans like "Mandate Freedom" and "We Stand On Guard For Thee."

In February, the Freedom Convoy descended on Ottawa, choking streets with trucks and protesters demanding an end to mask mandates, vaccinations, and lockdowns. Maksim Sokolov/Wikimedia Commons.

The oil industry’s Frankenstein

Amid the cacophony of conspiracies, claims, and controversies emanating from Canada’s Freedom Convoy in February, one issue was decidedly muted: energy. While energy issues had been the driving force behind previous right-wing protests in Canada, it was barely visible during the weeks-long occupation of the nation’s capital. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the infamous court artist rendering of Convoy organizer Tamara Lich in her Canada Action-branded “I love Oil and Gas” sweater, the vast majority of Canadians would be unaware of the extensive links between the Freedom Convoy and what has been described as “petro-populism.”

If on the surface the links between energy and the anti-lockdown politics of the Freedom Convoy seemed scant, below the surface they were extensive. The organization, tactics, networks, and funding for the Convoy didn’t spring from nowhere. In fact, they were nurtured and cultivated through past protests and campaigns centred on energy issues. In the wake of the Convoy and the attention on its organizers, we have learned that many of these organizers became radicalized and honed their strategies and tactics via the contentious energy politics and protests in western Canada. Indeed, Freedom Convoy organizers and advocates like Tamara Lich, Pat King, James Bauder, Glen Carritt, and Mark Friesen all cut their teeth in the anti-carbon tax and anti-immigration activism of the Yellow Vests movement that grew in 2018 and the closely aligned United We Roll convoy that would lead a pro-oil truck cavalcade to Ottawa in February of 2019.

“The Yellow Vest movement has become the anti-lockdown movement, because it’s the same people. It’s the same people and it’s growing in numbers.”

In fact, it may be more helpful to view the Yellow Vests, United We Roll, and the Freedom Convoy as a continuous and evolving right-wing movement rather than separate or unique events. Jacob McLean, a PhD candidate in the Environmental and Urban Change program at York University, has been studying these movements as they have developed over the past few years.  McLean suggests that the Freedom Convoy and the United We Roll convoy should be viewed as “twin convoys” that are actually “two flashpoints in a broader, continuous and growing far-right movement.” McLean’s research illustrates how some participants in the Freedom Convoy also view themselves as part of a longer trajectory of right-wing activism stretching back to the Yellow Vests movement. “The Yellow Vest movement has become the anti-lockdown movement,” one of McLean’s informants notes, “because it’s the same people, it’s the same people and it’s growing in numbers.” Kurt Phillips of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network concurs, noting “Every single prominent Yellow Vester that I’m aware of is now an anti-vaxxer.” 

Given the trajectory and growth of far-right activism in Canada over the last few years, understanding the genesis and advance of these earlier right-wing protest movements becomes all the more important to understanding how and why so many Canadians have been attracted to and radicalized by this movement. However, when one investigates the origins of these earlier manifestations of right-wing protest, one discovers that they have a very curious midwife: the Canadian oil industry.

Canada’s oil industry builds itself a social movement

Beginning in the late 2000s, the Canadian oil industry realized it had an image problem. Canadian oil, and the tar sands in particular, were the subject of growing critical international attention and domestic opposition. As industry struggled to respond to these attacks, it became increasingly clear that its traditional behind-the-scenes lobbying and public relations approach was ill-equipped to counter what was perceived to be a highly effective social media-enabled environmental movement. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ (CAPP) then-president David Collyer lamented that while “high-priced advertising could nudge the needle of public opinion in the industry’s favour,” a “well-timed counterpunch from opponents on social media would almost always push it right back.” Faced with the ineffectiveness of traditional forms of advocacy, industry decided to emulate the tactics of their opponents, adopting a movement-based model of advocacy that sought to mobilize small but motivated constituencies that would take the industry’s message out into public debates and forums.

Spooner’s presentation recognizes the environmental movement’s passion and conviction that drives its members to “take action” and “take to the streets,” wondering how the oil industry might capture the same conviction and “harness it.”

But this would be no “astroturf” operation, the pejorative for fraudulent grassroots campaigns that have little if any public support. Rather, what the oil industry sought to create was a “subsidized public,” that would facilitate and incentivize public shows of support for the industry by providing supporters with organization, platforms, and messages crafted by industry but delivered by the people.

Canada’s Energy Citizens (CEC) – a CAPP-sponsored initiative – would be used for just this purpose. Designed to showcase public support for the energy sector and encourage ordinary Canadians to become vocal industry advocates, CEC was a carbon copy of the American Petroleum Institute’s own Energy Citizens campaign created in 2009. Outwardly, CAPP would characterize their Energy Citizens campaign as merely a means to inspire supporters to be a bit more public in their defence of the industry. “We’re not asking people to take to the streets,” noted Jeff Gaulin, vice‐president of communications at CAPP. However, internally, the message would be very different. In April of 2015, CAPP invited Deryck Spooner, senior director of external mobilization for the API to present on their Energy Citizens campaign. Spooner’s presentation recognizes the environmental movement’s passion and conviction that drives its members to “take action” and “take to the streets,” wondering how the oil industry might capture the same conviction and “harness it.” Building that kind of support, Spooner explains, requires industry to engage with potential industry supporters across a variety of mediums – meetings, social media, rallies, town halls, letters to the editor, message boards, direct mail – to “recruit, educate and train” its supporters in order to “motivate and activate” them in service of industry objectives.

What the oil industry sought to create was a “subsidized public,” that would facilitate and incentivize public shows of support for the industry.

CAPP would follow the same strategy though its Canada’s Energy Citizen’s campaign, aiming to “shift industry supporters from a mode of passive endorsement to active engagement,” with planned mobilizations of its supporters that would “include letter‐writing campaigns, lawn signs, events and rallies.” While Canada’s Energy Citizens would be the most prolific and well-funded of the new industry “citizen” groups, it would be emulated by other industry advocacy organizations as well: the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors (CAODC), for instance, runs Oil Respect, another citizen-centred advocacy effort. A number of self-proclaimed grassroots advocacy groups would also develop campaigns to support the industry during this period. Groups like Canada Action, Oil Sands Action, and Oil Sands Strong have attracted hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.  While nominally independent, they often work in close coordination with industry groups, promoting and amplifying their message. Canada Action has been in receipt of at least $100,000 in industry funding that we know about.  

A message worthy of a movement

It is one thing to identify supporters, but to generate the kind of passion and conviction within those supporters that industry required, they needed a narrative capable of driving supporters to “take the streets.” To do that, the stakes must be high and the situation urgent. And the oil industry would deliver this, through its narrative of “extractive” or “petro” populism.

Many political theorists talk of populism as a “thin ideology,” which means that beyond its basic narrative of the people versus elites, it often borrows its more substantive content from other sources. The basic narrative of populism is that a pure people have been betrayed by a corrupt and unrepresentative elite that do not represent the people’s interests and even hold the people in contempt. Extractive populism would put the meat on the bones of this otherwise familiar populist message in western Canada.

The final claim calls for the political mobilization of industry supporters who are required to defend “our very way of life” from the sinister forces that threaten it.

According to Simon Fraser University School of Communications professor Shane Gunster, extractive populism contains three key claims. The first is that the oil and gas industry constitute the anchor of the Canadian economy, delivering a wide range of economic benefits to everyone in the country. Yet, despite bringing this economic prosperity, the second claim is that the oil and gas industry is under an unprecedented and unfounded attack, threatened by a small but highly vocal and surprisingly powerful constellation of political forces. The final claim calls for the political mobilization of industry supporters who are required to defend “our very way of life” from the sinister forces that threaten it – with those “sinister forces” running the gamut from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to foreign environmentalists to Hollywood celebrities.

As Gunster and his colleagues show, the narrative of extractive populism has been propagated by the industry for more than a decade and already has deep roots in much of western Canada, with politicians eagerly recycling its core claims and even creating institutions and policies to address it – see, for example, the Alberta inquiry and “War Room”). Moreover, its claims have been particularly prevalent within the social media messaging of the industry advocacy groups described above. Indeed, it is this narrative of existential threat and betrayal of western Canada by outside forces that allowed industry to activate and mobilize their supporters to literally “take to the streets” for the earliest public rallies in support of the oil and gas industry in 2018.

Taking it to the streets

Four years prior to the Freedom Convoy, western Canada would witness a series of pro-industry truck convoys and rallies calling on the Trudeau government to support the oil industry by facilitating pipeline construction as well as scrapping the federal carbon tax and the environmental regulation contained within Bill C-69, dubbed “the pipeline killer.” These rallies were staged in towns and cities across Alberta and Saskatchewan in the winter of 2018–2019, often organized in concert with industry citizen groups like Oilfield Dads and Canada Action and vigorously promoted by Canada’s Energy Citizens and Oil Respect on social media. Indeed, a December 2019 newsletter from Canada Action claimed to have hosted more than 30 “resource rallies” across Canada. Although organizers were keen to present the fledging movement as non-partisan and moderate, participants often went off-script, with early hints of the more violent, conspiratorial, and anti-immigrant rhetoric making its way into news coverage. Indeed, as these planned protests progressed, participants began adopting the symbols and messages of Canada’s burgeoning Yellow Vests movement, often to the consternation of industry advocates and organizers. While the Yellow Vests’ vehement opposition to the carbon tax was more than welcome, its conspiratorial and often virulently racist anti-immigration stance was not. This would inaugurate a conflict within the pro-industry movement that would have profound consequences going forward. As McLean sees it, the industry citizens’ groups did not want to be publicly associated with the Yellow Vests, but “the public they had subsidized into action insisted on heading in that direction.”

The industry’s Frankenstein is set loose

Industry advocates would increasingly try and police the movement they had created, admonishing participants to forgo the symbols and messages of the Yellow Vests. Cody Battershill, founder of Canada Action, speaking on his decision to ban Yellow Vests from a Regina protest in January of 2019, noted that “[t]here is no room for racism. There is no room for some of these viewpoints in our movement.” Yet the Yellow Vests’ presence would continue to grow within the pro-industry movement, and the conflict would come to a head over competing visions for a cross-country convoy targeting Ottawa in February of 2019.

Canada Action, along with a host of other pro-oil groups, announced its intention to send its “Resource Coalition Convoy” to Ottawa early in 2019, with Canada’s Energy Citizens promoting the convoy and its fundraising efforts. However, Yellow Vests Canada (YVC) would announce their own, competing convoy around the same time, demonstrating further rifts within the movement. 

Battershill would again try his best to instill some message discipline into his Yellow Vest allies:

“We’re going to do a convoy, other people want to do convoy too; it is what it is. We just need to make sure that the message that’s being sent around supporting the energy sector is not lost in conversations around other issues. That is what would be the biggest travesty. Let’s just focus on getting back to work and building support for the resource sector; we don’t need to make this about other issues that aren’t positive.”

It is not too far of a leap to believe those same corrupt elites would sacrifice your economy and livelihood to satisfy the interests of pharmaceutical corporations based on what you believe to be equally spurious vaccine science.

Ultimately, Mr. Battershill must have lacked confidence in the ability of his allies to stick to the script, because on January 14, Canada Action announced that the Resource Coalition Convoy would be cancelled due to “unexpected challenges.” As McLean observes, “many of the activists who had signed up for the Canada Action convoy promptly switched to the YVC Convoy after the former cancelled, further demonstrating the fluidity and cross-pollination between the movements.” The YVC convoy would be roiled by further divisions, as the head organizer, Glen Carritt, split off to start yet another convoy dubbed “United We Roll,” in an attempt to distance the convoy from the Yellow Vests. Yet, despite the name change, scholars Brooks De Cillia and Patrick McCurdy observe that “leadership remained consistent and Yellow Vest protestors were still welcome, with Carritt stating: ‘We still stand behind the ‘yellow vests,’ but whether you want to wear the yellow vest or not, we welcome all respectful, hard-working Canadians.” Despite this continued participation of the Yellow Vests, industry citizen groups like CEC and Oil Respect continued to promote the convoy on social media, as did prominent Conservative politicians like Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe and former Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer.

As we now know, these early protests (and others that followed) would be the incubator within which the personnel, tactics, strategy, networks, and organization of the Freedom Convoy would gestate.  And while energy issues would be sidelined in favour of vaccine mandates and lockdowns, the populist message that industry and its allies had been cultivating for over a decade would remain underneath. If you believe that corrupt, traitorous eastern elites are selling out your economy and livelihood to satisfy foreign environmentalists based on spurious climate science, it is not too far of a leap to believe those same corrupt elites would sacrifice your economy and livelihood to satisfy the interests of pharmaceutical corporations based on what you believe to be equally spurious vaccine science.

We should expect this movement to act like the shock troops of climate denial, contesting any potential limit or constraint placed on fossil fuel consumption as a betrayal of individual liberty.

Certainly, pains have been taken by industry and its allies to distinguish the “good” part of the movement from the “bad,” with the idea that the movement was ultimately “hijacked” by extremist elements now commonplace. But it must be acknowledged that industry’s self-professed strategy from the outset was to mobilize its supporters to “take to the streets,” providing the early organization, platforms, publicity, and messaging to accomplish just that. Further, it must be asked whether the industry’s extractive populist message served to cultivate and attract the kinds of conspiratorial and xenophobic sentiments shared by many of the more extremist elements within the movement. Certainly, the emphasis on powerful elites bent on the destruction of people’s economic livelihoods combined with a kind of energy nationalism that mobilizes people to defend “their resources” against attacks by envious or hostile outsiders lends itself not only to conspiratorial thinking but also to uglier forms of nativism.  Moreover, the kinds of emotion and passion stoked by the extractive populist narrative of betrayal was the original source of so many of the vituperative sentiments unleashed by those early truck convoys and protest rallies that have only seemed to become more malicious as the movement developed.

Finally, it is spectacularly naive to think you could cultivate and mobilize a social movement that could be controlled and managed in the first place. Speaking on the development of the Canada’s Energy Citizens mobilization strategy back in 2015, CAPP’s Jeff Gaulin claimed, “we’re not trying to build an army of radicals.” But that may just be what the oil industry has done. McLean argues that the industry ultimately lost control of its own creation – a veritable Frankenstein’s monster that grew too large and too unruly for its handlers. That monster is now on the loose and growing, a particularly daunting challenge for ambitious climate policy. Given the success of the Freedom Convoy and its intense disdain for environmental regulation, we should expect this movement to act like the shock troops of climate denial, contesting any potential limit or constraint placed on fossil fuel consumption as a betrayal of individual liberty and using every attempt at global collective action as further grist for their globalist conspiracy mill. While Canada’s oil industry may have failed to build the kind of obedient and compliant social movement it wanted, it may have succeeded spectacularly in creating yet another obstacle to real climate action in our country.

Simon Enoch is the director of the Saskatchewan office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in communication and culture from Toronto Metropolitan University and York University.

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