When Tzeporah Berman arrived at the protest on Burnaby Mountain, a friend handed her a bullhorn and said, “Do what you do.”
She looked out at the crowd "with a tremendous sense of hope" and told them to prepare for arrest if they crossed the police line at the site of the proposed Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta.
"It was a very powerful day for me," she told National Observer. "It was the first protest on Burnaby Mountain."
Five years later, a photo of Berman on that hopeful day on the outskirts of Vancouver is being used to foment hatred against her.
A poster showing the photo of Berman with a red circle around it, and a diagonal line through it, is labelled “TZEPORAH BERMAN ENEMY OF THE OILSANDS.”
A man representing a group called Oil Sands Strong held the poster and Berman’s CV up for the cameras and denounced her as he introduced Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at a June 7 news conference to announce a $30-million government “war room” against oil and gas industry critics.
The next day, hate messages arrived on Berman’s Twitter account, phone and email. She received death threats, anti-Semitic messages and threats of sexual violence.
‘Un-Albertan activities committee’
Berman, international program director at Stand.earth, later watched that and another news conference “in horror.” At the other one, Kenney announced an inquiry into foreign funding of groups which criticize Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
Berman is among those who call it Kenney’s “Un-Albertan activities committee,” a play on the House Un-American Activities Committee and the anti-Communist witch hunts of U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s and ’50s.
Based in Vancouver with her husband and children, Berman is one of Canada’s most accomplished environmentalists. She was pivotal in landmark agreements to protect B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest, Canada’s boreal forest and in the previous Alberta government’s climate change and energy policy development.
Tzeporah Berman has received threats of violence and sexual assault over her opposition to the oilsands and pipelines. She worries the organized demonization of her and other activists is putting a chill on open dialogue in Alberta on climate change.
She has been a leader since volunteering in the early ’90s at age 23 as a cook at a Greenpeace camp at Clayoquot Sound, which drew some 12,000 people over four months to blockade clear-cut logging.
Her achievements were recognized in 2013 with an honorary law degree at the University of British Columbia, “a big and proud moment” for her.
The citation for the degree hailed her strategic, articulate and balanced approach, and her ability to foster dialogue among business, government, environmental and aboriginal communities. It said she is “equally effective in the boardroom as on the front lines of peaceful demonstration.”
Since @jkenney announced his $30 million warroom to attack environmental advocates & this poster of me was held up at his press conference I have had death threats, misogynist & sexual attacks on social media. This is what that kind of fear mongering & hate does #cdnpoli Thread. pic.twitter.com/VdIEj1VCMT— Tzeporah Berman (@Tzeporah) June 9, 2019
Today, Berman is concerned that the organized personal demonization of her and other activists is putting a chill on open dialogue in Alberta about climate change and fossil fuels.
Environmentalists are clearly targeted. Energy companies are silent, unwilling to “break ranks” and encourage dialogue about policies, such as a cap on oilsands greenhouse gas emissions, that they helped create under the NDP government of Rachel Notley.
“And it also puts a chill on citizens, people who were speaking up,” Berman said.
Berman hid in a bathroom stall
In 2017, when she was co-chair of the Oil Sands Advisory Group appointed by Notley, Berman endorsed the B.C. New Democratic Party. It plunged her into controversy. Notley’s government badly wanted to get the pipeline going while the B.C. NDP opposed it.
Notley had already defended Berman’s appointment against opposition calls to fire her after she spoke against the pipeline when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government had purchased the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and the expansion project.
The 18-member advisory group had been set up to make recommendations on implementing the oilsands emissions cap and other elements of Notley’s 2015 Climate Leadership Plan.
Amid opposition outrage in the legislature and some media that an anti-pipeline activist was advising the government on the oilsands, Berman was assaulted at the Edmonton airport.
“A huge man came toward me, yelling at me, and then he grabbed me and started shaking me and there was spit flying into my face. I was scared. I twisted away from him and ran into the women’s bathroom and hid in a stall for a long time.”
She ventured out in time to board her flight. The man had gone.
Young women have told Berman they don’t think they can participate in environmental activism if that’s how they may be treated. “That’s really sad,” she said.
‘Public humiliation’ campaign took a toll
Clean-energy expert Ed Whittingham similarly endured a “public humiliation campaign” that took an emotional toll on him and his family. He told National Observer he is “profoundly disappointed” that more people and organizations are not stepping up to call out the abuse.
“We need people to claw back the middle ground, and to do that, they need to stand up and say this is wrong,” he said. “They may disagree with Tzeporah's perspectives or my perspectives, but this kind of personal invective is going too far."
Whittingham is a former executive director of the Pembina Institute, a widely respected Alberta-based energy think tank founded in 1985.
When he was appointed to the board of the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) in February 2019, the Calgary Herald labelled him an “enemy” of the oil and gas industry. “Whittingham’s appointment is Tzeporah Berman 2.0 — only worse,” the paper said.
“Once you're called an enemy, it's a very short step to being called an enemy of the state, or as I say, a ‘Kennemy of the state,’" Whittingham said.
Whittingham never opposed the Trans Mountain pipeline, but his career as a clean-energy adviser was reduced to an internet meme smearing him as anti-oil and gas industry. He was treated as a punching bag in the Alberta election campaign, along with Berman.
Kenney got thousands of likes for a tweet announcing he would fire Whittingham from the AER if he won the election.
He read a few comments on Kenney’s Twitter feed “and figured that this was going to be very bad for my mental health."
Whittingham quit the day before the incoming premier planned to fire him.
Vilification won’t deter Berman
"Twitter, unfortunately, has become a platform for anger where people say awfully hateful things that they would never say to someone's face," Whittingham said.
He says Berman has had it worse than him.
"Tzeporah has endured horrific abuse,” he said. “The fact that I'm a man and not a woman means it's not as bad, because there's a lot of misogyny wrapped up in the abuse directed at her."
Notley had defended Berman’s appointment for months, on grounds that diverse voices were needed. But in June 2017, she let her go. Berman had become a political liability.
When Berman travelled to deliver a speech to the Alberta Teachers’ Association titled We’re better than this, she went nowhere unaccompanied and booked a hotel under another name. She had consulted the RCMP.
It is not the first time she has been labelled an enemy. But it is by far the worst.
The first time was during a backlash to campaigns by Greenpeace, where she was prominent, and other environmental groups to reform forestry practices in B.C.
“I was run off the road. I was refused to buy groceries or fill up my car. I was spit on when I was waiting in the lineup for coffee at the cafeteria on the ferry. I received death threats. We don’t know if it’s related, but my apartment burned down and the police confirmed that it was arson.”
The details are chronicled in her 2011 book This Crazy Time.
In 1997, then-NDP B.C. premier Glen Clark called her and other protesters “enemies of British Columbia.”
He was reacting to a campaign calling on companies to stop buying products from the three largest logging firms in the province. But he never whipped up fear and hatred, she said.
And eventually, legislation was put in place to protect the Great Bear Rainforest and reform forestry practices identical to what they had proposed. “We were called environmental heroes,” she said.
The vilification today sometimes makes her sad, frustrated and frightened. But she said it will not deter her.
“I know why I do what I do, and I have a strong sense of purpose around it,” she said. “I believe stopping the expansion of the oil and gas industry and reducing pollution, developing cleaner alternatives, at this moment in history, is the only moral choice.”
Making enemies lists is ‘infantile’
Avrim Lazar, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada 2002-2012, worked with Berman for two years to negotiate the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement of 2010.
“If anybody thinks the solution is making enemies lists, that's just infantile,” Lazar said in an interview with National Observer. “Demonizing the voices of the other side is just a cop-out.”
The environmentalists’ main aim in the boreal forest talks was a halt on logging in all 30 million hectares of caribou habitat in Canada.
“Everyone said that it was impossible,” Berman wrote in her book. “Everyone hadn’t met Avrim Lazar.” This was a learning moment for Berman. She said it showed her the importance of seeing people, not positions. It’s a lesson she embraces to this day.
The agreement brought together 21 large forest companies and nine environmental groups to protect threatened woodland caribou. Most of the companies and groups are still on board.
“I worked in government for 25 years, industry for 17 years. Tzeporah is a Canadian hero,” Lazar said.
“Am I going to say she was always reasonable? No. Am I going to say her judgment was always sound? No. But is she a force for good? Is she a force for positive evolution of the Canadian economy and Canadian environmental protection? Absolutely.
“We're better off as a country, and we should be grateful that we have our Tzeporahs.”
Lazar said the energy industry’s challenges now are basically the same as in the forest sector.
“The essential dilemma, how you protect biodiversity and how you protect climate, while at the same time trying to protect Canada's competitiveness and our standard of living and our economy — it's exactly the same issue,” he said.
“If you win for the oilsands, you haven't won anything and if you win for the environment and the economy gets trashed, it's not going to be a sustainable win. So it is the same fundamental dilemma.”
Berman sees parallels, but big differences, too.
“In the ’90s, forestry and conservation issues had reached a tipping point where people were sitting around their kitchen tables talking about them,” she said. “I think that’s true today of the pipeline debate.”
The big difference, she said, is that the aggressive nature of the attacks on people concerned by climate change and fossil fuel expansion “is magnitudes greater than what was happening during the ‘war in the woods.’”
“The reason is the fossil fuel industry is fighting for its life,” she said. “These companies can see that as the price of renewables drop, as more and more countries set dates for banning the fossil fuel car, as new technologies emerge, the days of oil, gas and coal are limited.
“They’re trying to hold on for their lives. This is their last gasp.”