An oil pump in a field near Calgary, Alberta, in 2014. (Todd Korol/Reuters)
Global Opinions contributing columnist

This month, journalist Vivian Krause delivered a sold-out speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. The event was lovingly documented by conservative columnist Licia Corbella, a longtime fan who once said “everyone” in Canada should learn Krause’s name. A few days later, Krause was sharing a stage with Jason Kenney, Alberta’s freshly elected Conservative premier. In recent months, she has testified before the Canadian Senate, headlined the Saskatchewan Oil & Gas Show, and fundraised for Conservative politicians.

Krause has risen from obscurity to become a folk hero of the Canadian right. Tory partisans share her words with evangelical enthusiasm. She has one big idea: Much of the Canadian environmentalist movement is the illegitimate creation of American saboteurs. For years, she has chronicled the flow of money from American charities such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to Canadian environmentalist groups such as the Canada branch of the Tides Foundation and concluded that this explains the success of anti-oil activism in Canada. Through their participation in pipeline protests, lawsuits and electioneering, these “foreign-funded activists” are preventing pipelines from being built and pro-oil politicians from taking power.

From here, Krause’s thesis only gets more ambitious. Extrapolating from the fact that many of the activists’ most hated pipelines seek to move Albertan oil to the west coast for overseas export, she concludes that the American charities are conspiring to “landlock Canadian oil” and keep the Canadian energy industry captive to the U.S. market. The anxious, anti-American tone of her writing evokes an old-school flavor of economic nationalism.

The problem with Krause’s thesis is that her grand conclusions are reached from relatively thin evidence. Other reporters have documented how the “foreign-funded” groups Krause decries receive only a small percentage of their budget from U.S.-based charities. There is no proof these partnerships form the essential fact of these environmental groups’ existence or success. In launching a Krause-inspired, $2.5 million investigation into the “campaign to defame and landlock Canadian energy,” Kenney, Alberta’s premier, conceded as much, declaring he wanted to learn “why, who and how much” — rather open-ended suspicions.

Yet Krause’s popularity has never stemmed from her empirical persuasiveness. She is popular because many Canadian conservatives desperately want to believe her simple explanation for their present woes: Tories cannot win elections and pipelines cannot be built not because legitimate domestic opposition exists but because outside forces are manufacturing dissent.

Many conservatives find it difficult to accept the reality that given the choice between economic growth and environmental protection, many Canadians will choose the latter. This is because many Canadians, particularly younger ones, believe fighting climate change to be a moral cause with an existential urgency that cannot be compromised by crass material considerations.

Canada’s judicial branch, meanwhile, has been issuing ever more expansive interpretations of the constitutional land rights of indigenous Canadians. Two of the country’s highest-profile pipeline construction projects have been crippled not by U.S. charities but by the judiciary’s belief that affected aboriginal groups deserved better consultation.

Third, Canada’s oil sector remains captive to global market forces that are not always friendly. David Anderson, the former environment minister and ex-leader of the British Columbia Liberal Party, recently argued against the Trans Mountain pipeline not because of any environmental consideration but because he believed the project was not economically rational.

“There is no credible evidence to suggest that Asia is likely to be a reliable or a significant market for Alberta bitumen,” he wrote, dismissing the assumption of pipeline proponents that Asian countries will gladly pay the high costs of refining Canada’s heavy, sulfur-rich crude if only it can be brought to them.

Conservatives are uninterested in confronting any of these challenges. They lack the authority to persuade voters to stop viewing climate change in moral terms. They are too timid to confront the racially sensitive issue of aboriginal land rights. They cannot admit to their many supporters in the oil and gas industry hard truths about the uncompetitive state of the Canadian energy sector. So they salve their insecurities with self-deception that their problems are the fault of a safer enemy — foreign billionaires.

A tight embrace of the Krause thesis will not resolve any of the challenges of a Canadian conservative movement that increasingly embraces oil boosterism as its sole raison d'être. It will, however, inflict a great deal of collateral damage on Canadian democracy.

There is an all-party consensus emerging in Canada that the country needs stricter regulations on political speech and political activism. The left has reached this conclusion through its traditional logic, fearful that an unregulated political arena will bias outcomes toward the right. Like the American left, Canada’s left also drawn exaggerated conclusions from the Mueller report, imagining right-wing populism as mostly a byproduct of unsupervised foreign meddling.

Upon this foundation the Canadian right builds, demanding fresh regulations to curb the power of American-funded progressive activists — a sort of “Russia of the left.” In such a panicked climate, legislatures in Ottawa and the provinces will have little difficulty passing laws that subject political speech and activity to ever-stricter government monitoring and audits. All in the name of protecting the citizenry from shadowy brainwashers.

Conservatives face a crossroads. They can either be a party of free speech and robust democratic rights, or they can be a party offering a muddled and ineffective defense of the oil industry through illiberal policies inspired by conspiracy theories. There is little evidence the party considers this a difficult choice.

Read more:

David Moscrop: Canada has approved the Trans Mountain Pipeline — again. Now what?

J.J. McCullough: Canada’s oil-loving Conservatives bet on climate change indifference

David Moscrop: The Greens’ Elizabeth May outlines her vision ahead of Canada’s election

J.J. McCullough: Jason Kenney is Canada’s rising conservative star. What does he really believe?

Ted Halstead: Here’s how to win on climate-change policy