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Ethical oil argument is ludicrous

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What I find galling about Ottawa is that John Baird, the foreign affairs minister, struts around the globe, with his unique gold-embossed calling cards, repeating some dumb arguments about dirty oil.

Baird says the world should not worry about our oilsands producing "dirty oil" because Canada's government is ethical and those of other big oil producers are not.

The argument is ludicrous in so many ways it's difficult to know where to start.

First off, instead of countering the dirty oil argument, he abruptly changes the subject. Think of two children in a sandbox: One says, "You're putting too much sand in your truck." The other replies, "Our mother uses botox."

Not answering the dirty oil argument and changing the subject could be construed as Baird accepting it.

Baird's flaunting of the ethical government argument is a sweeping generalization that is invalid. He's saying we're ethical, but Middle Eastern oil producers are not. That's not true. I'm no lover of the 500-strong Saudi royal family, but it has made reforms when it thinks it can; it has helped America hunt for terrorists and, through OPEC, it has moderated oil prices.

Baird's argument is a cheap political shot. Don't talk about the issue, make some personal attacks -- ad hominen arguments, as the ancients used to say, which are also invalid.

Finally, as my mother used to say, people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Baird seems to be saying we're more ethical than other major oil producers. You just have to consider the sorry state of our aboriginal peoples to know that's not true.

A quick trip around the Prairies this summer found aboriginal people are at the end of nearly every lineup of people waiting for government services.

Their lands are often the first to flood because governments gave some of them swampy land. A well, some of them are among the last to get help with flood damages.

Manitoba has to spend millions every year to make up for Ottawa's underfunding of its responsibilities for First Nations health and safety services.

This summer, an evaluation of the federal government's involvement in First Nations reserves showed Ottawa's support for housing is getting worse. Housing is often substandard and quickly falls apart. There is not enough funding to pay for upkeep.

A Winnipeg Free Press investigative report showed many reserves have no running water. A federal report, released subsequently, says more than one-quarter of Manitoba First Nations have water systems that are a high risk to human health.

Suicides plague some reserves.

The federal government underfunds First Nations schools, compared to arrangements the provinces have with their schools. As a result, aboriginal people coming to cities have a massive problem adjusting.

Obviously, the relationship between our ethical government and the aboriginal people is broken.

Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says First Nations want to significantly change their relationship with Ottawa and take steps to scrap the Indian Act. So far, our ethical government hasn't come up with much of a reply.

Nor has it said much about an audit by Scott Vaughan, the federal government environment commissioner, that found Ottawa's knowledge about greenhouse-gas emissions and oilsands pollution is so spotty that key decisions are made without fully understanding the environmental consequences.

Ottawa's approach to climate change is "disjointed, confused and non-transparent," he says.

Vaughan's report was released this month. At the same time, the European Commission decided to treat exports from the oilsands as dirtier than conventional oil, despite much lobbying by the Harper government.

It is rumoured in Calgary that federal Environment Minister Peter Kent is going to introduce some strict targets on greenhouse-gas emissions at an upcoming climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.

B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan are worried.

Let's hope Kent doesn't trot out Baird's specious arguments about ethical oil and sticks to the issue at hand -- protecting the environment.

Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2011 A10

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