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Young Canadians Are Hurting the Oil Sands Debate

10/17/2014 09:05 EDT | Updated 12/17/2014 05:59 EST

The typical young Canadian professional's engagement with the oilsands is like this: You pull your smart phone out and skim through your social media feed. You see post after post about the Canadian oilsands and its negative impact on the environment. You see countless re-posts about celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio protesting Canada's poor environmental standards. After a quick read you "like" the post or possibly share it with a short comment to the effect of "This needs to change!" You lock your smart phone and head out the door with a new sense of accomplishment, thinking to yourself "I just effectively contributed to the debate on the oilsands." But what exactly did you really accomplish?

Young professionals in Ontario need to effectively engage with the Canadian oilsands. Ultimately, what is missing from this equation is an effective platform, vehicle, or collaborative voice, where young Canadian professionals can come together to discuss the future of the Canadian oilsands.

Popular opinion suggests working in the oilsands or supporting its expansion creates a stalemate between resource extraction enthusiasts and environmental purists. This draconian assessment leaves little room for actual dialogue for young professionals regarding the oilsands and its future. Either national energy regulation is lackluster or environmental fundamentalists resist acknowledging the needs of the global economy.

For the majority of us we feel disconnected from this issue partly because we do not live in Alberta nor do we work in the oil industry. We believe our daily schedules are too demanding to devote time to thinking and talking about the future of the oilsands. Additionally, if one finds themselves in the middle of the polarization bridge they feel too ill-informed to be effectively engaged and cannot disseminate truth from myth.

In order to respond to this need, a group of young professionals in Toronto started the Future of Canadian Oil Sands (FoCOS) with the mission of creating a collaborative voice to bridge the polarization gap while bringing young professionals together to have effective and constructive dialogue. We held our launch event earlier this month with a strong panel of experts which included experts from the MaRS Discovery District, Conoco Phillips Canada, and the University of Calgary.

Bob Mitchell, the sole oil industry representative at our event, began his presentation praising the need for cross-sector collaboration and stating that he will not work with extremists on either side when developing sustainable solutions to the oilsands. In an ironic twist, the event was interrupted by protesters who entered the room and stood in front of our panel armed with stern faces and high-arching signs calling for an end to the oilsands industry. My fellow team members pleaded with our unexpected guests to take a seat and wait until the end of the event where we would gladly give them a chance to speak and present their position. However, they would not accept our invitation and proceeded to occupy the front of the room for several minutes until we retrieved security and the protesters promptly left without incident.

After the show I was asked if the opening demonstration was staged? My response was quite frank: "No it was not staged," I sighed. In fact, I was disappointed that the group did not seek practical engagement in the event as was the main purpose. Their demonstration followed by a reluctance to actively participate in the conversation was in the end -- really a disservice to themselves. A protest that refuses to engage, listen and work with the other side will continue to lead to stagnant conversation. In retrospect, the actions of these demonstrators are essentially the same as liking a post on your social news feed. It passively assesses the situation without providing effective commentary and has no actual impact. Fortunately, the other 75 people who attended our event was a testament to the fact that young professionals in Ontario do indeed want to be part of conversations with an actual impact on our country.

I joined the Future of Canadian oilsands because I believe young professionals in Ontario want to be part of a constructive conversation about the future of Canadian energy; they just need the right venue and voice. Fortunately, the city of Toronto and its surrounding municipalities boasts the largest pool of post-grads in Canada, eager to make their dent in the professional world. Armed with extensive education, a plethora of exposure to multiculturalism and a vibrant civil society, these young professionals have the necessary tools to make positive and sustainable change.

Today's young professionals need to not only have the skills obtained through post-secondary education, but also the capacity for empathy, mediation and resolution management skills. In retrospect, passivity and practiced ignorance has always been and will always be a roadblock to success. We are the main stakeholders of the Canadian oilsands since its management will affect our generation the most. We have an obligation in shaping Canada's public policies and National Energy strategy while also working with the private and non-profit sectors to build the bridge towards collaborative engagement surrounding the oilsands.

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