Alberta environmentalist Tzeporah Berman is facing a torrent of online hate after she was branded an “enemy of the oilsands” by an oil and gas advocate at Premier Jason Kenney’s news conference Friday.
In less than a week, Berman said she’s received upwards of 100 messages on social media, including misogynist threats of violence, and half a dozen hateful and disturbing phone calls. A strategic climate change advisor to First Nations, environmental and philanthropic organizations and York University adjunct professor, she advocates for Alberta to invest more in renewable energy and move away from fossil fuels.
Robbie Picard, founder of Oil Sands Strong, was welcomed to the podium by Alberta’s premier as part of an announcement for a $30-million so-called war room to counter what Kenney said is an “international campaign of lies and defamation” about the oil and gas industry. Picard held up a poster he’d made, and also displayed what he said was Berman’s resume, saying she’d made a career of undermining the sector. She was appointed to the province’s oilsands advisory group in 2016 to help develop a climate plan for Alberta.
“I made her enemy of the oilsands, that’s just my thing,” Picard said at the announcement.
It’s not the first time Berman has been singled out by Kenney or one of his supporters.
Last October, Kenney, as the United Conservative Party leader, took to Twitter to say Berman’s appointment to the advisory group was “outrageous” and when she was slated to speak at a teacher’s conference, demanded her speech be cancelled.
That’s when Berman said she experienced a flood of negative and sexualized social media comments, but she didn’t stop publicly speaking out about climate change and the need to diversify Alberta’s economy.
“Democracy only thrives if we have transparency, participation and accountability, and Kenney is trying to destroy that,” Berman told HuffPost Canada. “What he’s doing is not only irresponsible, but it is also unethical and immoral and is completely divorced from the conversation globally.”
Office of the Premier spokesperson Christine Myatt said the province did not intend for Berman to experience harmful backlash online.
“While we disagree Ms. Berman’s public record of opposition to Canada’s energy industry, and specifically the Alberta oil sands, personal threats and abuse are never acceptable in politics. We urge those who disagree with Ms. Berman to do so respectfully,” said Myatt.
Picard also said it wasn’t his intention for Berman to be threatened, but he will continue to “stand up for what’s right.”
“When you put yourself out there, you have to expect people to challenge you, but I never encouraged anyone to threaten her,” the Fort McMurray, Alta. resident told HuffPost Canada. “But please, don’t play the victim.”
Picard said his main concern is getting Alberta oil to market so the economy can recover. He has friends who are facing a shortage of work and are about to lose their homes and has seen how the slump in oil prices has impacted his community.
“The amount of bashing Fort McMurray and the oil industry gets is insane,” he said.
The goal of the war room, Kenney said at the news conference, is to tell the world proactively and assertively that it needs more Canadian energy.
But the war room will also target any voices critical of the oil and gas sector, particularly environmentalists, and is an “egregious waste of public revenue,” said Laurie Adkin, a University of Alberta political science professor. The energy industry already uses many millions of dollars to launch widespread advertising campaigns and lobby at all levels of government, giving it enormous power.
“To think on top of that they need Alberta’s public revenue to support campaigns and their interests is irrational,” Adkin said. “We have a huge need for investment in climate adaptation, but by using $30 million to hire staff … to silence their critics — it’s very anti-democractic.”
Experts say the province is vilifying Berman and other environmentalists to distract frustrated and angry Alberta voters from falling oil prices, faltering pipeline plans and disappearing jobs. Naming Berman explicitly and using the word “enemies” is troubling, said University of British Columbia Prof. Kathryn Harrison.
“These are Canadian citizens engaging in peaceful disagreement as a matter of public policy,” the political scientist said. “They aren’t trying to overthrow the state or start a war. They’re lobbying, protesting peacefully, organizing voters and using the courts.”
Watch: Pro-pipeline activists protest in Calgary. Story continues below.
Berman has enlisted friends to help her quickly delete and report the comments on Twitter and Facebook, and went public Monday in hopes it would discourage people from continuing.
“(Kenney’s) primary focus is to stop people like me who he says threaten Alberta, but here’s the bottom line: I have a lot of compassion for people who work in the oil and gas sector and fear for their families and future jobs,” Berman said. “This is a difficult moment in history, and by denying what’s happening and the need to change, Premier Kenney threatens our future more than anything else.”
Berman is a “moderate environmentalist,” said Adkin. “Only in Alberta is her brand of environmentalism considered extremist.”