Canada portrayed as ‘dirty old man’ in U.S. anti-oilsands posters

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it's probably a pin-prick compared with the thermonuclear bombshell Sen. Mike Duffy dropped in the Senate expenses scandal, but a Toronto artist is also exacting revenge against the government she believes wronged her.

Franke James has launched a poster campaign labelling Canada a "dirty old man," and depicting Harper as a flasher after Ottawa cancelled funding for a planned tour of her artwork in Europe, according to the Huffington Post. James claims the 20-city tour was quashed because she's spoken out against oil sands development.

The posters have shown up in Ottawa, Halifax and, perhaps most significantly, Washington, D.C., where the U.S. government where a debate is raging on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would ship Alberta oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries.

The Toronto Star reported last spring that Franke uncovered a 2011 email from Foreign Affairs and International Trade, explaining why government funding for her show was cancelled.

[ Related: A Canadian artist takes on the Harper government ]

“The artist’s work dealt mostly with climate change, and was advocating a message that was contrary to the government’s policies on the subject," the email said, according to the Star.

Her first counterblow was a book about her experience: Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship. The book included information James obtained under access-to-information legislation, such as that email.

“As a Canadian citizen, to know that the government is interfering in private business is really shocking. It’s undemocratic,” James told the Star at the time. “If art has to agree with government policy, then art is government propaganda.”

The next step was an Indiegogo campaign to crowd-source $5,000 to fund her poster campaign and an advertisement in the Hill Times, Ottawa's political weekly, the Star said. The campaign was over-subscribed.

Some of the posters feature cartoon images of Harper as the devil and what appears to be the prime minister in a trench coat flashing a barrel of tar-sands oil, along with the a quote attributed to the Guardian from 2009 that "in stark contrast to its cuddly international image, Canada is the dirty old man of the climate world."

A shot on James' web site shows her standing beside a Washington bus shelter displaying that poster.

James' effort to torpedo the Conservative government's oil sands strategy is the latest piece of bad publicity for the industry and for Canada.

[ Related: Ellen Page, Mark Ruffalo, Daryl Hannah protest Alberta oil sand pipelines ]

Last summer, Travel Alberta, the province's tourism authority, demanded that YouTube yank a video from a channel called Heavycrudevideo.com. The Calgary Herald reported the video was a trailer for an unproduced U.S. film called "Welcome to Fort McMoney – Remember to Breathe." The slogan "Remember to Breathe" is used in Tourism Alberta's campaigns.

“Our position is, we’re here to protect our brand,” said Travel Alberta CEO Bruce Okabe told the Herald. “We’ve invested a lot of time and money and resources into it, and we’d just like them not to use our marks, our brand.”

California filmmakers Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis challenged the action as intimidation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco, called the move "a crude attempt at censorship," adding that use of the Tourism Alberta slogan fell within U.S. copyright law's "fair use" exception.

Last year, the Sierra Club released a video animation that labelled oil sands crude "the dirtiest oil on earth," warning of the impact of its production on climate change and the environmental threat of spills.

And last summer, hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, a key backer of President Barack Obama, funded a commercial lambasting claims about the economic benefits of the Keystone XL pipeline, depicting an actor portraying TransCanada Corp. chief executive Russ Girling gleefully admitting the claims were bogus.

The Financial Post reported the ad was supposed to air on the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8 to coincide with Obama's appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But the station refused to run it. It lives on via YouTube.