Protesters slam ‘Brand Canada’ as tar sands legacy comes back to bite


Protesters have lashed out at the promotion of ‘Brand Canada’ during the world’s largest tourism fair in Berlin because, they say, it masks the damage being done by Canada’s aggressive tar sands expansion. In an embarrassing turn of events for Canadian officials, activists fronted by a leader of Canada’s indigenous peoples and Friends of the Earth used massive projections, public speeches, and other stunts to disrupt the fair. This is putting the spotlight on the Canadian charm offensive designed to weaken EU laws that clamp down on the dirtiest fuels, as part of a lobbying effort to open the door for Canadian tar sands exports to Europe.


RT @foeeurope anti #tarsands message on the embassy of #Canada in Berlin.Tourists won’t look away #itbberlin


Key Points

  • Protesters have turned the spotlight on Canadian tar sands at the world’s largest tourism fair, disrupting a Canadian charm offensive in Europe. Activists from Friends of the Earth projected oily slogans onto the Canadian Embassy. At the event Chief Bill Erasmus, a leader of Canada’s indigenous peoples, gave a dramatic eyewitness account of the environmental and social devastation from mining tar sands. Guests at the fair have been offered complimentary vials of (fake) tar sands oil, all to highlight the sharp discrepancy between Canada’s clean public image and the dirty reality.
  • Campaigners are angry at the promotion of ‘Brand Canada’ as a beautiful wilderness by a government that aggressively seeks to expand its toxic tar sands industry. Tar sands extraction and production is a hugely damaging process which destroys the regional environment, threatens traditional livelihoods, damages human health, and contributes to climate change. The Canadian government has aggressively expanded this destructive industry at home by trampling over the rights of its indigenous communities and has persistently lobbied abroad to open new trade routes for the highly-polluting fuel.
  • Members of the European Parliament have an opportunity to stand up to Canadian lobbyists who are trying to water down EU climate rules to make more money. Canadian attempts to undermine European climate legislation continue, even though they have exposed and well documented. Fortunately, the European Commission has said it is sticking to its guns in labeling tar sands as one of the world’s dirtiest oils, reflecting the fact that emissions from tar sands are roughly 20% higher than those of conventional crudes. With fights in the US over the construction of a controversial pipeline for tar sands exports reaching a pivotal stage, it is critical that Europe sends a clear message to the tar sands industry – it is not open for dirty business.


Canadian tar sands operations currently occupy an area larger than the Netherlands, situated within the boreal forests and peatlands of Canada, which are a carbon sink that helps to regulate the global climate. Scientific predictions show that expanding drilling to 10 operational tar sands mining projects would destroy enough peat to release 11.4 million to 47.3 million metric tons of stored carbon into the atmosphere. The northwest province of Alberta is planning a major expansion of production – from 1.6 million barrels a day in 2011 to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2020, adding 706 million tonnes of CO2 to global emissions a year. As a result the area swallowed up by mining operations will grow to an area the size of the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria combined.

Due to this rapid expansion of the industry and the technology used in the production process, regulators have been unable or unwilling to keep up, and have failed to provide effective environmental monitoring systems. This has meant that tar sands extraction creates a range of well-documented problems including: health impacts on First Nations communities (e.g. increased cancer rates and immune diseases), environmental degradation associated with toxic tailing ponds, health impacts on regional wildlife, high levels of water use and water contamination, and a widespread loss of land. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2012 shows that toxic chemicals including carcinogens have increased significantly in freshwater ecosystems since tar sands production began around 50 years ago. Some First Nation peoples report that fish frying in a pan smells like burning plastic and one study by the Tar Sands company Suncor concluded that arsenic could be as much as 453 times the acceptable levels in moose meat from the region.

Due to concerns over these impacts and especially over the impact tar sands would have on exacerbating climate change, the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive is up for an amendment that would rank tar sands oil as having much higher carbon emissions than regular crude oil. If it were to pass, this amendment would make tar sands oil more expensive than regular crude and hinder its expansion through the EU market. This would set an important legislative and economic precedent for other regions and markets around the world. However, the Canadian government are concerned that the amended FQD labelling tar sands as ‘dirtier’ than conventional oil will leave tar sands oil landlocked and unmarketable. In response, a major charm and lobbying offensive was kicked off last month, with two ministers from Alberta visiting 11 EU countries between them to argue that the proposed EU law discriminates unfairly against Canadian oil. Europe saw over 110 Canadian lobbying events on the issue of tar sands between September 2009 and the summer of 2011.

Events such as today’s protest, though, are gaining ground in counteracting these lobbying efforts. Documents obtained by Friends of the Earth Europe under access-to-information laws show that Canadian officials have been concerned that their dirty, aggressive energy strategy is beginning to draw negative attention. In one heavily redacted email detailing a high-level meeting between British and Canadian diplomats, Gordon Campbell, the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK, described tar sands as “a totemic issue, hitting directly on Brand Canada”. In order to find a market for oil export, the Canadian government and oil industry know they must maintain a friendly face to their international audience. ‘Brand Canada’ is being increasingly undermined, however, by activists calling out Canada’s misleading lobbying efforts and reminding politicians and the public that tar sands are hazardous to public health, the environment and the climate.


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Key quotes

“The tar sands industry is destroying the way of life of First Nations peoples. On the one hand Ottawa is seeking to sell Canada as a top tourist destination for nature lovers at the ITB while simultaneously destroying kilometers of wilderness.” – Chief Bill Erasmus, head of the Dene Nation in Canada’s Northwest Territories

“If we were to fully exploit this new oil source … concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.” – Dr James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

“If Canada, which recently withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, is successful in watering down EU laws on emissions allowed from fuels it will open the door to oil sands-derived fuels in Europe and seriously undermine Europe’s fight against climate change. Canada through intense lobbying efforts has been trying to scupper EU legislation since it was first mooted. EU law makers know tar sands are the most climate hostile energy source in commercial production today and they should not give in to Canadian pressure.” – Darek Urbaniak, Extractive Industry Expert at Friends of the Earth Europe