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Threats after Canadian proposal to ban fossil fuel sponsoring: “The oil and gas companies showed their full power”

Daniel LeBlanc
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Canadian council member Daniel LeBlanc received threats and lost his daytime job after suggesting a sponsoring ban for the fossil fuel industry earlier this year.

In the Canadian city of Regina – in the Provence of Saskatchewan, that is known for its tar sands – oil and gas companies and their allies made themselves heard after it was suggested the fossil fuel industry should be banned from sponsoring cities events and having their names on city buildings.

Council member Daniel Leblanc made an amendement to a sponsoring motion to this end in January. In the days after the amendment had passed a pre-vote, LeBlanc and other city council members received countless petition-like e-mails but also threats with physical violence. Leblanc chose to withdraw the motion when numerous council members announced they would change their vote in city council. Two days after withdrawing the motion, Leblanc got fired from his daytime job as a lawyer.

Earlier this year we wrote an article (Dutch) about the stranded efforts to propose the ban on fossil fuel sponsoring in Saskatchewan. As we are pleading for a fossil fuel ad ban (including sponsoring) in The Netherlands, we were curious to hear the whole story. So we called LeBlanc to learn more about what exactly happened in Regina.

Can you tell us some more about the motion, the amendment that you made and why you choose to make this amendment?
“There was a motion to ban all sponsoring for public property and events by certain industries. Because it could imply a positive relationship between our city and the company. The industries that were mentioned in the motion were tobacco, cannabis, alcohol, sex and guns manufacturers. In Regina we have the goal to be carbon neutral in 2050. So I made an amendment to add fossil fuels companies to this list of industries. Because I think sponsoring of public events by the fossil fuel industry are offside our values. I considered it a modest amendment. Also because it wasn’t like they were funding a lot of city events. And they are not as generous as they pretend to be. So for me it was more about saying: you aren’t going to have control of our governments like you had in the past. It was a signal about the relationship.

In executive committee it passed 7 to 4. We have city council one week later with the same group of people and then the vote at the committee comes as a recommendation. I was surprised about how fast we lost the two votes to keep a majority. Within 12 hours two council members posted on FaceBook that they were withdrawing their support for it.”

How come those council members changed their mind so quickly?
“People had been targeted economically. One council member has an auto body shop. A popular right-winged radio host in Saskatchewan named him and his company the next morning in his show and told people to boycot it. He has several employees in his auto body shop and didn’t want to have people lose their job. Or maybe even lose his company.

Another guy was working for a union, that was mostly made up of pipe fitters for oil and gas. He faced pressure from his employer to shut up and change his mind.

All of us were facing economic pressure, including those two that switched. From there it escalated. We were targeted by lobbying campaigns. Political action was aimed at us as elected officials.”

Who did that lobbying?
“The most significant was done by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Which is essentially a lobbyist group for the industry.
CAPP is well aware that most people don’t care about oil tycoons. So they’ve quite wisely made a spin-off brand ‘Energy Citizens’. They frames themselves as protecting rural and western ways of life. Hardworking men in the oil and gas industry. They are very visible, with bumper stickers saying ‘I love Canadian Oil and Gas’. And they say how clean Canadian oil and gas is compared to other parts of the world.

They used the predictable lie that our motion would have been bad for oil and gas workers. It’s propaganda: claiming that the oil and gas workers have common interests as the oil and gas companies they work for. Unfortunately even union members believe this.

The other group that lobbied was the local Chamber of Commerce. They are a lobbyist group for business interests in each city. They frame themselves as part of government and politically neutral. But they are not.”

But some responses went further than just lobbying?
“Yes, we got some threats, even physical. ‘I know who your spouse is. I know where you work.’ That spooked some people who have spouses and kids. And that was a big determining factor for me, in the way I voted. I motioned to withdraw the amendment I put in. Because I wasn’t interested in having somebody or their spouse get beat up, because at that point we were going to lose anyway. That had an effect on me and some of the other progressive council members.

A lot of oil people, including oil tycoons, said we should resign from our elected positions, which obviously we were not going to do. But they also called our outside employers and tried to put pressure on them. That was the more common feature, leverage over us indirectly.
The threats were on Facebook. Also at my law firm I got some emails: ‘Fuck you, we know where you work.’ Which led me to believe they have also sent things to my employer.

The law firm didn’t support me in an overt way. They agreed to let me draw a line by emailing to people who mailed me at my work address to say: ‘Hey you got the wrong email address looks like you meant to send this to Dan LeBlanc, the council member.’ They didn’t defend my right to make a choice as an elected official but I don’t think anyone’s employer did.”

Did you expect this kind of backlash?
“Actually, I did. We are in a rural area, with a lot of farming. It’s a large province but we only have 1 million inhabitants. That we are oil and gas producing people is a core identity piece that is deeply engrained in the Saskatchewan narrative. A lot of people here think it’s 50% of the jobs that are in oil and gas related industries, when it’s actually only 2,4 % procent of Saskatchewan jobs.
People in the centre of Canada think of people on the west and the east as educated elites who all have desk jobs and who don’t know what hard work is. The thought is that we give them oil and gas to run their homes and cars. And then they get mad at us for being unethical. That made the backlash kind of expected.

I think quite a lot of people were surprised about the amendment, but in my view it flows very naturally from the commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050. The motion to be carbon neutral passed with 11-0 at city council. No oil and gas companies stood up to resist it. I think that that was politically wise of them. Because it would look so transparent to say: we are not committed to sustainability.
But as soon as we start to put some meat on the bones and start talking about how we are going to get there, we hear from them. And I expect we are going to hear from those people going forward, as we actually take steps to reach that goal.”

And also the premier of the Provence made himself heard?
“The premier Scott Moe send out a tweet: ‘This is ridiculous. The city is out to lunch.’ He framed us as the elites I just mentioned. And that we aren’t really Saskatchewan people, because we would know about the importance of oil and gas.

In his tweet the premier threatened to pull 35 million from the city. We had people who were not from a lobbying campaign approach us and ask us: ‘How are you going to make up for that 35 million that the Provence is going to pull? Are you going to raise taxes?’ But the threat was totally baseless for legal reasons. There’s no way that would have been done. And it was totally inappropriate clearly.

In the winter of 2019/2020 700 oil refinery workers were calling on the premier to help when they had been locked out because of contract negotiations. The oil company said: ‘You don’t have jobs or a salary until we finish these negotiations.’ He didn’t help. And suddenly when oil and gas bosses are ‘under attack’ he comes in claiming solidarity with the workers. When you’re not with the workers when they are picketing in ice cold weather, you can’t claim solidarity with the workers now.”

We at Reclame Fossielvrij (Fossil Free Advertising) were actually surprised to hear about this motion in ‘tar sand country’.
“It may look surprising in a historically conservative province like Saskatchewan. But I think Saskatchewan people – we are people of the land, we farm, we work outside – and we know the climate is changing, we know that the growing season is changing. So I think Saskatchewan people are ready for change. But they need to be informed by progressive people that we are not going to leave them behind in the new economy. They are not going to be left. Or just being left to rely on social assistance once the oil industry goes away. We have them in mind. We are not lumping them in with their employers.”

Tell us about the evening of the vote. People were allowed to come speak and the oil industry came, right?
“We had 21 people come to talk to us. Mostly management of oil and gas companies. More millionaires than usual. They were saying: ‘Won’t somebody think of the workers.’ They know they are not sympathetic. They appropriate the voice of oil and gas workers to defend their opposition to this motion. One person who identified as a worker, actually supported the motion.

And I want to say to all workers: the interests of your employers don’t line up with your interests as workers. They don’t have your best interest at heart. So let’s have a serious conversation about what it looks like to help transition you to a sustainable economy. Because your employers are going to lead you right up to that cliff and then abandon you without the necessary skills for the new economy, so you shouldn’t trust them.”

One city council member even reached out to the oil companies on that evening, saying she wanted a tour of facility, right. Wasn’t that a contrary effect to what you wanted to reach with the amendment?
“Yes, there are some risks. On two fronts.

One, we have emboldened people who want to act irresponsible on climate by withdrawing this motion. We have shown them that we can easily be influenced by powerful interests. And that they are very likely to continue trying to reproduce their very good result here. So any time we will do something I think we will hear from the Chamber of Commerce, right wing lobbyist group and CAAP and others. And they will try to force our hand again.

Second, at that council meeting, where oil tycoons came to talk to us, it really was like a piece of propaganda. They were saying like: ‘We are the real leaders in sustainability. We need green energy technology. Scientists, those people aren’t the lead people. The lead people are oil and gas owners.’
Which is of course a complete inversion of the truth, to say that oil and gas companies are those who are most concerned about getting off oil and gas. It’s Orwellian double speak. But it’s a narrative the oil people pushed very hard and I think it was persuasive to several of the council members and some people listening. So it can lead to this dangerous spot where we say: there is no path to sustainability, except the one the oil and gas industry tells us exists. And so actually our path to sustainability would be to get closer and closer to oil and gas. And to let them influence us more and more. I think that’s what you saw in the suggestion that we get a tour and that they can lobby us unimpeded for hours on end. Or other council members asking for an apology for the oil and gas industry and actually asking ‘How can we make it up to you?’”

Tell us about what happened with your job.
“I withdrew the motion on a Wednesday evening. And Friday morning my job at the law firm was terminated. Nothing was said about the motion. But people draw their own conclusions. I had certain conditions before I started working for them. I told them I wanted to run for city council and be a parttime lawyer. And they agreed with those terms. I didn’t hear anything, no complaints. But then my job was terminated without cause within two days after withdrawing the motion.”

Do they have oil and gas as clients?
“My clients weren’t oil and gas, but some lawyers had clients like that I think.”

Why did you choose to become a city council member?
“I was raised in poverty. We had a bad go under the legal system. So I though in the province there was a lot of good work to be done for families like mine. So I entered law school here in Saskatchewan. And after that I did constitutional cases, people protesting for indigenous rights, for how prisoners are treated, climate activists.

I believe law is a very good socials change tool, but it’s very one by one. City council can be good for changing the rules for a whole community, a whole city. My focus remains on poor and working people. I think most politicians are like most lawyers: principally concerned about wealthy folks. But I think it’s about seeing if we can make a change for the majority of people who are usually unrepresented.”

How is fossil fuel sponsoring present in Saskatchewan?
“A clear example is the air ambulance. Because Saskatchewan has a low population density, a lot of people live far from a hospital and have to be picked up by helicopter if something happens. The air ambulance that runs these is called Stars. A lot of oil sponsors this air ambulance, like Co-op, who have an oil refinery here in Regina. When people are defending Co-op, a lot of them point to that helicopter where Co-op’s name is on the side. Stating things like ‘So Co-op is doing good things. Healthcare is going to drop off if Co-op stops doing that.’
So I think that company has got their money’s worth out of that sponsorship. It insulates them from a serious conversation. We should really stopping relying on corporate funding of these necessary means. Maybe we should tax them properly so we always have enough money to stabilize what we need for healthcare.”

Dr. Emily Eaton investigates sponsoring by the fossil fuel industry of the University in Regina. Are you familiar with her work?
“Yes, her research is an interesting example of how the fossil fuel companies try to influence public policy. Sometimes they do that in very open ways, like with the sticker on the side of a medical helicopter. And sometimes very private or indirect by funding research that supports their interest but not wanting anyone to know. She filed a case recently, I was her lawyer, to find out who is funding the University’s research into fossil fuel companies. And she won and now the University has to hand over the information. This recent decision is interesting to peel back layers a bit and get a better sense of how these industries are operating in our communities.

I know dr. Eaton has also received threats and personal insults, much like I did, for her research as an academic. Just researching where these companies put their money leads to threats. I think it highlights some of the difficulties in the road ahead and supports the idea that this is sort of a front-line place to be doing this work.”

Some council member wanted to invite the oil and gas industry to council meetings from now on. What are your thoughts on that?
“I think it’s very strange to have elected officials publicly say: ‘We think the oil and gas industry should have more influence on how we make decisions.’ That’s an absurd proposition to say out loud and we heard that said out loud on council. And I think the reason is because we saw their full power. Or the full extent of the power they were willing to show us. And that’s really scary but I think inviting them to have more influence over how we make decisions is a step away from sustainability rather than one toward it. So I think we have to work hard to resist it.

I don’t think the fossil fuel industry will go down without a fight. And sometimes it makes strategic sense for them to sort of show their full power and try to ball over a local group of democratically elected folks. And sometimes it makes sense to have backroom meetings and try to influence us that way. One thing we know is that they are always trying to influence us.

They will try to dictate their relationship with the democratically elected government. And that’s the least responsible thing we could do: grow closer to them instead of keeping the necessary distance.”

Daniel LeBlanc has now started his own law firm, LeBanc Law.

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