Censored In Canada, Artist Brings Her Anti-Tar Sands Message To The U.S.

CREDIT: Franke James

Activists fighting against fossil fuel development can find themselves in hot water legally. In Australia, Jonathan Moylan is facing jail time after a fake press release he distributed led to temporary stock market confusion. In the U.S., activist and journalist Mike Stark is being sued for defamation after writing a strongly opinionated article about coal baron Robert Murray. And Canadian environmental writer, illustrator and activist Franke James has been blacklisted by the Canadian government for making art that was critical of the Canadian government’s policies with respect to tar sands and climate change.

According to James, in 2011 her 20-city European art show was cancelled as a direct result of behind-the-scenes government interference by high-level bureaucrats, including the Deputy Director of Climate Change, Jeremy Wallace, a Canadian Ambassador, Scott Heatherington, and a Senior Trade Commissioner in Berlin, Thomas Marr. According to the internal government documents, James was censored because her art was “advocating a message that was contrary to the government’s policies on climate change.

Since this confrontation with the government, James has continued to push her message. Her latest project brought her to Washington, D.C. in an effort to raise awareness in the U.S. about Canada’s investment in dirty tar sands oil and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration steering energy and environmental policies in favor of fossil fuel companies.

She also hopes to help persuade the Obama administration to reject the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas. Extracting and refining tar sands oil is more energy intensive than conventional oil and comes with a big climate toll. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that constructing the pipeline would increase annual carbon emissions by the equivalent of nearly six million cars on the road.

Recently Canadian PM Harper said that Canada “won’t take no for answer” on Keystone XL, stating, “this won’t be final until it’s approved and we will keep pushing forward.”

This type of rhetoric combined with recent reports of suppressing climate science and doing a bad job of protecting the environment have made the Harper administration look both unwilling to compromise and out of touch with public sentiment, giving activists like James a window of opportunity.

James’ posters are displayed on D.C. bus stops along Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues near the White House and the Capitol. Crowd-funding on Indiegogo paid for the posters. Additional funding for the ad buy came from National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation.

“What most Americans don’t realize is that the Canadian government is so ‘pro-oil’ that they are actively working to silence people who talk about climate change and the negative impacts of the expanding tar sands and the Keystone XL,” James wrote Climate Progress in an email. “The idea that I should not be talking about climate change, or doing art about it, is so ludicrous and so wrong — I mean it is a serious infringement on my right to free expression.”

James referenced a Canadian survey from last month that polled federal scientists to gauge political interference in their work. Fifty percent said they were aware of “cases where the health and safety of Canadians” (or environmental sustainability) have been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work.”

In a September editorial, The New York Times wrote that “over the last few years, the government of Canada — led by Stephen Harper — has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists.”

Andrew Weaver, a climate modeler at the University of Victoria, told Inside Climate News last year that the Canadian government “publicly announce their commitment to dealing with climate change and acknowledge that it is a serious issue, but then they go ahead and do the exact opposite. They’ve closed virtually every funding avenue for climate and atmospheric science. They are deceiving the Canadian public.”

The “Oh No Canada!” Posters

The Canadian Parliament building superimposed over the Alberta tar sands as part of one of activist and artist Franke James' posters.

The Canadian Parliament building superimposed over the Alberta tar sands as part of one of activist and artist Franke James’ posters.

CREDIT: Franke James

“My posters act as examples of how the government is breaking their promises, and how Canada’s environmental reputation as a climate leader has suffered since the glory days of helping solve the hole in the ozone layer and taking action on acid rain,” James said.

Canada is the Dirty Old Man

CREDIT: Franke James

One of the posters features a caricature of Harper as a trench-coat wearing tar sands oil barrel with the quote “Canada is the Dirty Old Man.” James said the poster was inspired by a quote in the Guardian that said, “In stark contrast to its cuddly international image, Canada is the dirty old man of the climate world.”

James said she chose bus stops because it allows the art to “bump up against real people going about their daily lives. Having my art on the street mashes up art, ads, politics, the environment, and social justice.”

The fine print on one of James’ poster came from an internal government email she obtained under access-to-information laws. “In a very Orwellian way it sheds light on why the government secretly interfered in my art show,” James said.

“The artist’s work dealt mostly with climate change, and was advocating a message that was contrary to the government’s policies on the subject.” – Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, Spokesperson, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada

For those interested in a more in-depth, intentional — yet still visually engaging — experience, James also recently published a book called “Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship.” The book tells the personal story of her government censorship and her effort to fight back through eight visual essays.

The Canadian Government’s Media Efforts

As James’ experience and the testimony of adversely impacted Canadian scientists shows, the Harper government is not one to lie prostrate when it comes to getting what it wants. Just as the rhetoric elevated last month when Harper said he won’t take no for answer on the Keystone pipeline, the government is also putting its money where its mouth is, most recently with the announcement of a CA$24 million oil sands advertising blitz last month.

According to Canadian Postmedia News, the two-year ad campaign will target political and business leaders, as well as media organizations and domestic political advocates in the United States, Europe and Asia.

In a request for proposals issued by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), authorities make clear that they blame campaigns against tar sands for proposed regulations — campaigns they argue are based on negative environmental notions unsupported by science. NRCan’s ads allege that the government is promoting responsible development of oil, gas, and other resources.


“Canada has been, and continues to be, the target of intense and sustained public relations campaigns by domestic and international organizations, criticizing our domestic natural resource development policies and companies engaged in resource developments,” the NRCan document reads. “These campaigns have resulted in inaccurate information becoming part of the public debate.”

NRCan spent about CA$8.9 million on advertising in 2012, according to a Postmedia News analysis of Public Accounts of Canada documents.

A recent report on the success of NRCan’s advertising efforts to convince Americans of the merits of their fossil fuel development found it to be mostly ineffective.

The government-commissioned protesting report was based on six focus groups held in Washington, D.C. According to The Canadian Press, participants found that the ads, which launched in the spring during heated Keystone XL debates, lacked a cohesive and direct message.

When asked about the government’s advertising efforts, James said, “we’re in a David and Goliath battle.”

But I would say that the fact that the Canadian government feels the need to pump yet more taxpayer money into greenwashing the tar sands, shows that grassroots anti-tar sands campaigns like mine are making a difference. Rather than solve the environmental and human rights problems caused by tar sands production, the Harper government thinks they can fool the public into believing that dirty oil is clean.

With a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline expected sometime next year, the battle over influence and public persuasion continues both inside government corridors and out on the streets. The Canadian government has the clear financial advantage for advertising and authoritative power for censorship over artists like James who must rely on creative methods and public engagement and support for spreading their message.