David Suzuki has been a lot of things over the course of his 85 years: a scientist, a television personality, a grandfather and, through it all, a dedicated environmentalist. But a terrorist? That’s the label some people in Alberta, including the premier and his environment minister, are trying to stick on him in the wake of comments he made at a recent Extinction Rebellion protest in Victoria.
On Saturday, Suzuki suggested “there are going to be pipelines blowing up if our leaders don’t pay attention to what’s going on.” When asked by Postmedia to elaborate on that comment, Suzuki made it clear he wasn’t sanctioning or supporting the idea of people attacking pipelines — merely explaining where the heads of some environmental activists are these days.
That’s relevant in light of what’s unfolding in northern B.C., where the RCMP has arrested journalists as well as protesters at the site of a natural gas pipeline that would feed LNG Canada’s terminal in Kitimat. “The violence is coming from the authorities, from government, from the RCMP,” Suzuki said. “They’re declaring war against those that are protesting.”
But no matter: the UCP government pounced at the opportunity to make a mountain out of this molehill. In the Alberta legislature, Environment Minister Jason Nixon said Suzuki “is so out of touch with the real world that he advocates for eco-terrorism towards the Canadian people and industries.” For his part, Jason Kenney tweeted that “this incitement to violence by David Suzuki is dangerous, and should be condemned universally. In Canada, we resolve our differences peacefully and democratically, not with threats of terrorism or acts of violence.”
Oddly, that doesn’t seem to apply to one of Kenney’s biggest supporters.
W. Brett Wilson, a former “dragon” on CBC’s Dragons’ Den and current climate change skeptic who got a shoutout from the premier at last weekend’s UCP convention in Calgary, has repeatedly threatened environmental activists with hanging for “treason.” He tweeted that Ecojustice, a Canadian environmental law charity with an office in Alberta, should “watch your back.” And when given an opportunity to clarify whether his comments about hangings and treason were just a bad joke, Wilson doubled down. “I didn’t joke,” he tweeted. “I was serious about hanging foreign-funded protesters — undermining our nation — for treason.”
So far, neither Kenney nor his environment minister has publicly criticized Wilson for his comments, much less tabled a resolution in the legislature calling for him to be condemned as they have for Suzuki. Funny, that.
There’s both the obvious hypocrisy here and a bit of irony, given Suzuki and Wilson have an awful lot in common. Both can be self-aggrandizing and arrogant blowhards who at times seem more interested in hearing their own voices than using them for good. Both have large followings and a devoted core of supporters, and both have the ability to make news simply by opening their mouths. Both are self-declared enemies of the kind of pragmatic solutions and common-sense compromises that might actually help us reach our climate targets without blowing the country apart.
And while Wilson remains a member of the petro-conservative inner circle in Alberta, Suzuki is its original bête noire. Before there was Greta Thunberg or Tzeporah Berman (who has been on the receiving end of numerous Alberta-based threats), there was Suzuki, and the apparent contradiction between his personal wealth and more ascetic prescriptions for everyone else that has triggered some Albertans for years. When the University of Alberta awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2018, it provoked a wave of recrimination from donors, students and faculty alike, all of it egged on by conservative pundits and provocateurs.
But here’s the thing: as the National Post’s Tyler Dawson wrote, an attack on energy infrastructure in Alberta “wouldn’t be unprecedented.” It wasn’t that long ago that Wiebo Ludwig, a far-right religious zealot, was convicted for bombing gas wells in northwestern Alberta. “If the oil companies run roughshod over your lives, you have to take defensive action against them, whatever is necessary,” Ludwig said in 1997 after two wells near his home were blown up. “You can’t just let them kill your children.” Ludwig, who died in 2012, was also interviewed by the RCMP after an Encana pipeline near Tomslake, B.C., was bombed six times in 2008-09.
Opinion: If anyone can take the pulse of the North American environmental movement and give governments advance warning about a potential turn towards extremist activity and violence, it’s probably David Suzuki, writes columnist @maxfawcett.
There’s also a growing conversation right now in the more radical reaches of the American environmental movement about the morality of attacking oil and gas infrastructure. Andreas Malm, a Swedish author and activist, published a book this year called How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire that has gotten more than its share of mainstream media pickup. In an interview with the New Yorker Radio Hour, Malm told host David Remnick: “I am recommending that the movement continues with mass action and civil disobedience, but also opens up for property destruction.”
If anyone can take the pulse of the North American environmental movement and give governments advance warning about a potential turn towards extremist activity and violence, it’s probably Suzuki. It doesn’t make sense to ignore these sorts of ideas any more than it makes sense to ignore the threats being made against environmentalists by people with large Twitter followings. But so long as the Kenney government treats one like a capital crime and ignores or even encourages the other, it’s hard to take anything it says here seriously.
And if it continues to raise the temperature on this already heated conversation in the name of its own dwindling political prospects, it risks having it blow up on the rest of us.