11/25/2013 11:53 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 05:59 EST

Museum Of Civilization Taps Big Oil To Help Fund Canada's 150th Birthday


GATINEAU, Qc - Canada's 150th birthday is being brought to you by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

A $1-million sponsorship of the Canadian Museum of Civilization is a great opportunity to get the oil and gas industry's message out to Canadians, the president of the industry lobby group said Monday as the deal was announced.

"The advantage of partnering with an institution like this museum is it has national presence, it's obviously got significant profile in Ottawa but it also has national reach in terms of travelling exhibits and so on," Dave Collyer said in an interview at the museum in Gatineau, Que.

"It's a way for us to get the industry's presence more broadly identified and visible across the country."

CAPP, along with Canada's Oil Sands Producers, will provide $200,000 annually for five years in return for which the Canadian Museum of Civilization — soon to be renamed the Canadian Museum of History by the Conservative government — will link a number of exhibits to the industry.

The sponsorship is flagged as helping fund "1867," an exhibit that will show in 2014 and 2015 leading up the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

"Through our exhibitions, our research, our collections, our programs and our outreach, we plan to be at the very centre of this national celebration," Mark O'Neill, the museum's CEO and president, said as he welcomed the oil industry to the museum's "ambitious" plans.

In an interview, O'Neill said such sponsorships are going to become more common in future as flat government funding fails to keep up with the rising costs of exhibitions. About 80 per cent of the museum's current budget comes from the public purse.

And after years of steep corporate tax cuts, the Conservative government is tightening those purse strings. Once fully-funded public institutions across the capital are now seeking corporate sponsors.

The July 1 Canada Day shows on and around Parliament Hill this year, for instance, were funded in part by the Chicken Farmers of Canada, Loblaws Group of Companies, McDonald's Canada, Lego Canada and others.

The development is raising questions among government watchers.

"At the very least, even having private funders simply putting their names on exhibitions commodifies what should be a neutral environment," said Kirsten Kozolanka, an associate professor at Carleton University who studies government communications.

"It is also of concern that our cultural institutions may not be able to find private funding for some exhibitions that might be unusual, avant-garde or controversial, but that might be important to us as Canadians to know and understand."

John Bennett, the executive director of the Sierra Club Canada, also worries that corporate sponsors can influence cultural events simply by what public institutions they choose to fund.

But Bennett suggested there's nothing so subtle about the oil industry's current efforts.

"We don't like the fact that the oil industry is engaged in probably the biggest propaganda campaign in the history of the country," he said. "This (museum sponsorship) would only be one part of it."

O'Neill, for his part, showed no inhibitions about accepting corporate cash, or even becoming a pitchman for his museum's benefactors.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and Imperial Oil ran into controversy in 2011 when they sponsored exhibits at the federal Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa. Documents later showed they had exerted pressure to alter exhibit content they felt treated the industry too harshly.

"I'm certainly aware of the controversy, without question," O'Neill said.

"But I'm also aware of the fact that this association represents industries that create 90 per cent of the energy in the country. They directly and indirectly employ some half a million Canadians. This is an extremely important institutional sector for Canada."

O'Neill and CAPP's Collyer both insisted the sponsor will have no say over the exhibit themes or contents.

Pierre Nantel, the NDP heritage critic, said in an interview his reaction to CAPP's involvement is "plain astonishment."

His colleague, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet, later charged in the House of Commons that the respected museum could "become a propaganda machine."

"Is it now the mission of our museums to promote the oil lobby?" the New Democrat MP demanded.

Rick Dykstra, the Conservative junior heritage minister, responded that New Democrats should "stand up and support the museum of history — stand up and support Canadian history."

Ottawa's cultural institutions say they need to seek corporate sponsorships because of the lack of government funding.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Dave Collyer and Kirsten Kozolanka.

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