Canadian Oil and Soil: Romantic Nationalism and Eco-Fascism

February 16, 2022

Adam Carlson

Pro Canadian oil signs in Edmonton, AB, 2021. Photo Courtesy of the author.

Among Alberta’s ubiquitous “I ♥ 🍁 Oil and Gas” hats, hoodies, stickers, and lawn signs, keen observers may have noticed stickers proclaiming “I ♥ 🍁 Soil and Grass.” The Soil sticker, created by an Edmonton agriculturalist as “a nod to Canadian food, forestry and agriculture,” and “those who don’t ‘heart oil and gas’ all that much,” cleverly satirizes the Oil slogan’s simplistic equation of nationalist sentiment with support for fossil fuel extraction, offering an important rebuttal: save the grass from the gas! But I want to discuss how both slogans articulate the troubling stakes of current environmental and economic discourse in Canada, discourses which ground the purportedly unique spirit of a “race” —in this case, that which “loves”—in a concrete, local resource—the “Canadian” “Soil” or “Oil.” To my mind, each sticker begins from a potentially-authoritarian, romantic-nationalist premise underlying contemporary common sense: ecological nature and the economy are inseparable parts of an essential Canadian identity, and each needs protection. 

We typically think of eco-fascism as a view that employs a rhetoric of sustainability to endorse authoritarian politics. But I want us to think about how even the extractivist authoritarianism we see today in Canada is at base a form of eco-fascism. The very idea of the nation derives its force from the slippery referent oikos, the etymological root of both economy and ecology. And, indeed, Canadian development discourse derives its legitimacy from a romantic-nationalist concept of “nature” that makes the economy impossible to distinguish from ecology, claiming that for Canada to survive, we need to sustain and nurture our “nature.” In other words, as the stickers suggest, protecting resources means protecting the resource economy. 

It is important to understand how romantic nationalism works in Canada today because such thinking subtly sanctions increasingly authoritarian actions and public discourse under the guise of protecting nature, especially in current proposals for infrastructural projects like the Canadian Energy Corridor. When economic and ecological interests are seen as the same thing, defending Canadian soil or oil becomes indistinguishable from defending a privileged, white-supremacist, and extractive way of life: one that then requires seeing those who resist extractive practices as threats to the nation. 

It is important to understand how romantic nationalism works in Canada today because such thinking subtly sanctions increasingly authoritarian actions and public discourse under the guise of protecting nature...

When a peoples’ identity and values are understood as inseparable from the land, then those who support the development of these values naturally appear to be responsible stewards of the land. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ 2015 “Energy Citizens” marketing campaign is an example of such claims to stewardship. It represents a nationalism based in developing the land’s value that conveniently puts foreign extractive capital on an equal footing with citizens and casts those who criticize extractivism as foreigners, or xenos, to the “home,” or oikos

Once nature is framed as belonging to a specific people, and protecting nature is identified with sustaining economic interests, xenophobia is never far behind. Eco-fascist political rhetoric and policies crop up to challenge certain peoples’ or groups’ political belonging on the grounds of sustainability. Such rhetoric simplifies complex relationships into a virtuous but vulnerable “us” and a threatening, foreign “them”—a xenophobic manoeuvre employed by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he warned of Canadian environmentalist groups backed by “foreign money” trying to “hijack” the Northern Gateway pipeline review process in 2012. The romantic-nationalist relation of us vs. them is also on full display in the increasingly fascistic glorification of violence and the discourse of military mobilization in Alberta. In February 2020 former federal justice minister Peter McKay tweeted his support for Edmonton vigilantes breaking up a protest held in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline. In 2019 Alberta Premier Jason Kenney established the “War Room” to defend the supposedly vulnerable oil industry from foreign influence, a defense that has amounted to government tweets villainizing Greta Thunberg. The display of xenophobic state power puts the taxpayer-funded War Room in league with oil company X-Site, whose 2020 pro-oil sticker depicted child-sexual-assault against Thunberg. 

The thinking that allows Canadians to be identified with resources has roots in 1970s infrastructure proposals. When former Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer announced during Canada’s 2019 federal campaign his plans to pursue an energy corridor that would “unite our country,” he was drawing on a 1970 proposal by the eccentric businessman, military airman, inventor, and prolific novelist Richard Rohmer. Rohmer’s “Mid-Canada Development Corridor” called for a chain of resource-based towns to be built across the boreal treeline to protect Canadian industry from foreign ownership and to protect the Canadian landscape from foreign indifference to national ecological concerns. 

The corridor concept is a romantic-nationalist project that imaginatively unites economic and ecological activity in the figure of the natural Canadian spirit. Rohmer argued that the “very existence of Mid-Canada is […] the greatest single resource Canada has.” And Canadian investment in the corridor would ensure that development expresses Canadian values, unifying the territory and the people: the “Canadians who live in Mid-Canada today […] are the greatest resource of all—the human resource.”[1] Scheer echoed this simplistic understanding of human resources when he promised “a Canada fuelled exclusively by Canadians by 2030,” expressing what “Ethical Oil” slogans have long insisted—resources are themselves manifestations of the Canadian spirit of ethical and rational development. By equating the ecological preservation of the land with the economic preservation of a people, romantic nationalism allows for complex relationships and inequalities to appear as easily resolvable technical matters. 

The current corridor plan—backed by the Calgary School of Public Policy (CSPP) and endorsed by the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, as well as various industry associations—calls for a zone in which all energy-related ecological reviews, interprovincial, and Crown-Indigenous negotiations are settled in advance and in perpetuity. The CSPP’s Jennifer Winter highlights the corridor’s simplifying function when she argues the plan will “minimize […] environmental impacts because it’s a set-aside right of way rather than […] one-off projects where we have environmental assessment after environmental assessment.” The corridor here acts as an infrastructure for resolving complex realities, where minimizing assessments will, somehow, minimize environmental impacts. [2]

Such imaginary resolutions for complex issues also cast social and racial inequalities as merely technical matters. Examining the romantic-nationalist premises behind technocratic plans shows just how easily settler-colonial expropriation and violence can be translated into a language of resource development. In August 2021, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole suggested that structural racism and cultural genocide can be addressed by moving more resources. Asked about the legacy of residential schools, he responded “Wouldn’t it be great if for the first time we could have intergenerational opportunity and wealth transfer, not trauma?” Behind this fantasy that problems generated by state-racist infrastructures can be solved by simply replacing what moves through them lies the premise that those who challenge such development must be in some way foreign to Canada’s national and natural interests. The premise that an energy corridor will solve Canada’s problems sidesteps nation-to-nation complexities, offering instead the romantic-nationalist simplification of us vs. them. 

Protecting “us” from “them” requires the technocratic elimination of those who do not “love” the soil or oil in the correct way.  Indeed, before writing the Fraser Institute’s pitch in support of the energy corridor, Tom Flanagan (mentor to Ethical Oil zealot and Rebel News founder Ezra Levant) long agitated for the elimination of reserve lands through privatization. Michael Fabris and Thomas King have each exposed Flanagan’s work in terms of eliminating resistance to resource projects.[3] Flanagan began his career arguing that Louis Riel ought to be understood not as an enigmatic leader, but rather as a prototypical welfare recipient;[4] and he has defined his later work as “a heat-seeking missile aimed at the emerging orthodoxy that Indians were sovereign ‘First Nations’ capable of dealing with Canada on a nation-to-nation basis.”[5] For Flanagan, the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island should be viewed as nothing more than “the first immigrants” to a multicultural Canada.[6] What unites Flanagan’s work with that of the energy corridor that would permanently solve sovereignty disputes is the goal of technocratically eliminating Indigeneity as a meaningful identity—in effect denying that Indigenous peoples exist, and affirming that the ecosystem in need of protection is the white-supremacist extractive economy. 

Without even being built, the idea of the energy corridor makes an under-examined romantic-nationalist fantasy visible, one that determines exactly who counts as Canadian, and who is foreign. This imaginary solution to protect Canadian Soil by moving Canadian Oil constitutes an essential part of the conceptual infrastructure of ongoing settler-colonial dispossession.

[1] Richard Rohmer, The Green North (Toronto: Maclean Hunter, 1970), 24, 50.

[2] On the topic of consultation and environmental assessments, see Angele Alook's pîkopayin (it is broken).

[3] Michael Fabris, “Decolonizing Neoliberalism? First Nations Reserves, Private Property Rights, and the Legislation of Indigenous Dispossession in Canada,” in Contested Property Claims: What Disagreement Tells Us About Ownership, eds. M.J. Brunn, P. Cockburn, B. Risager, and N. Thorup (New York: Routledge, 2017); and Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Anchor, 2013), esp. p. 199.

[4] Tom Flanagan, “Louis Riel: Insanity or Prophecy,” The Settlement of the West, ed., Howard Palmer (Calgary: Comprint, 1977), 15-36.

[5] Flanagan, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Signal, 2014), 18-20.

[6] Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).

Adam Carlson teaches at the University of Alberta in the department of English and Film Studies and Campus Saint-Jean. He is co-editor of Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture (2017), which has just entered its second printing from McGill-Queens University Press. He is also a contributor to After Oil (West Virginia University Press, 2016).

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