Corroding Our Democracy

On September 23, 2013 Democracy Now and Amy Goodman conducted an interview with Tzeporah Berman on the issue of Canada’s government and their extreme over-reach in attacks on science and all manner of environmentalists. Focusing intently on the tar sands, the interview did well to highlight the more than dubious moves of the current Conservative government to promote tar sands in particular at all costs.

I don’t dispute much of what was said during the interview. The title of the interview describes the deeply authoritarian moves of the federal Conservatives in forcing through the interests of big energy: “Corroding Our Democracy: Canada Silences Scientists, Targets Environmentalists in Tar Sands Push.” The tale of Conservative overreach in attacks on even mild, corporate sympathetic environmentalists and almost all scientific research into climate is sordid, and becoming more and more known.

What is less known is that just as democratic rights are at threat from the Federal government’s attempted acts of fiat through elimination of environmental oversight, inside the forces acting in some capacity of environmentalism the greatest threats to democracy come from what is perceived as within. Tzeporah Berman is by no means the only anti-democratic actor, but her own notoriety in her home province for anti-democratic and pro-corporate behaviour makes her a special case.

The corrosion of democracy is near total inside the large well funded environmental NGO structures, as now propped up by “activist foundations,” such as Tides Canada. If Tzeporah Berman is being held forward as a defender of democracy, then her role in establishing secret negotiation processes that have entrenched capital as a steering force in the environmental movement needs immediate discussion.

In mid-August of this year, a lawsuit was launched involving ForestEthics. The case is against changes to the rules for NEB hearings, as set out in one of the Harper Government’s draconian over-reach omnibus bills. The suit correctly alleges that the changes are designed to prevent democratic participation in a public planning process– hearings over the possible reversal of Line 9, an Enbridge pipeline currently receiving international oil at the Atlantic coast in Portland, Maine– to allow further export (and thus, expansion) of tar sands in Alberta through reversal of the flow to receive diluted bitumen from the West. Berman herself was quoted:

“This is not a lawsuit about people opposed to the pipelines. It’s about democracy. The government has gone too far. They’re restricting the content of what Canadians can talk about as well as who can participate in a process that we all fund as taxpayers. This lawsuit is about protecting Canadians’ right to free speech.”1

Unfortunately, denying the public the right to participate in a planning process on behalf of industry is something Tzeporah Berman can recognize, having done far more than the measures in this omnibus bill to eliminate public participation in a planning process. In fact, if the federal Conservatives had followed her established script, people would not be obstructed in participating in a public process– the process would never be public, there would be no hearings, and negotiations would take place without any scrutiny. In fact, the groups involved in such a secret planning might not, in actual legal form, exist.

The leadership of secret organizations designed to engage in sweetheart conversations with industry, no longer treated as an opponent, has taken a dominant role through philanthropy. While it has been community resistance– in particular indigenous-led — that has inspired international solidarity around the tar sands, some years ago foundations moved to centralize donor capital to create dependency and then control the direction of the very willing, largest environmental organizations.

This is not at all a new story, and began quite some years back in the US, but the model has been streamlined and turned into a near total status quo in Canada, in no small part due to the work of the very same Tzeporah Berman. As detailed in “Negotiated Surrender: Outcomes for the Nuxalk and the Rainforest” in a longer report entitled “Offsetting Resistance: The effects of foundation funding and corporate fronts from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Athabasca River,” Anne Sherrod, director of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, explained: “The Great Bear Rainforest was the first place where private collaborations between government, industry and a few environmental groups were able to gain pre-eminence over a public planning process.”

A series of struggles had been ongoing for years for the Nuxalk Nation, and eventually some level of grassroots support from environmental activists (not from Big Green) who were invited into Nuxalk territory culminated with a campaign that involved blockades and other means of simply preventing forestry.

There were campaigns of boycott targeting forestry companies as well, for example, in Europe that initially complemented the community struggles. Direct action was partly supported and funded by Greenpeace, then cutoff, to have all the on ground support terminated at the front line. The other finance leverage campaigns targeting investors also became bargaining chips in a secret backroom negotiation.

This financial cutoff paved the way for Greenpeace to join the newly formed ForestEthics (led by now former Greenpeace campaigner, Tzeporah Berman), the Sierra Club of BC and the Rainforest Action Network under the “Rainforest Solutions Project” banner. This grouping finalized a “deal” over the work of others and without respect to the original struggles of Nuxalk territory. The deal was also denounced by the same scientific community today being muzzled on climate and tar sands research. Qwatsinas, respected late elder of the Nuxalk, explained his experiences dealing with ForestEthics around Great Bear Rainforest issues:

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to work with [ForestEthics] because of what happened with the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. If you leave the onus on some group then there’s nothing you can do about it later. And the type of impact that an oil spill would do, it’s just insurmountable looking at the after-effects of an oil spill in Alaska. The impact is still there today. They’re still cleaning up.”2

Scientists objected to a deal that was a guarantee of less than half of what their research indicated needed to be preserved to maintain the vital health of the forest intact. David Suzuki himself used this argument to not sign onto the deal. RAN has since withdrawn from the agreement around the Great Bear Rainforest that resulted from this “Rainforest Solutions Project.”

Given that story, it should be alarming that the same Ms Berman is now being introduced as “member of the steering committee for the Tar Sands Solutions Network,” but what is ever more disturbing is that this is not her main job. She might also introduce herself with the label ForestEthics, though that is also not her primary work these days, or the introduction might highlight her recent book praising green capitalism as the shining light. She has had a few other notable jobs and moments over the past few years, and they too deserve a highlight.

After creation of the Great Bear Rainforest ‘deal’, Ms Berman gained the further enmity of many more of her prior peers in her home province of British Columbia, specifically for being amongst a few others that decided to effectively endorse the right wing BC Liberal Party in a 2009 provincial election, and the re-election of then Premier Gordon Campbell.

Before the provincial election Berman told the Tyee: “I never talk to them. I have no ties to the Liberal Party, anyone can see that.” After the election she was appointed to the Liberal government’s “Green Energy Task Force.”

As part of the media release explaining this position, Berman renounced her NDP membership in a prepared statement. It was later discovered by Garrett Zehr at the Tyee that Berman had let her membership lapse several years prior and before the carbon tax was discussed.

In December of the same year, Berman traveled to Denmark during the Copenhagen COP 15 Summit and conferred a “climate leadership award” on Campbell, the premier who unleashed the breakneck pace of fracking, wanted to construct tar sands pipelines, opened up new coal, nickel and other mines throughout the province and wanted to dam the mighty Peace River yet again and call it “green energy” while covering the coast with salmon farms.

Why? Because of a hopelessly weak “carbon tax” that has since become a joke and has had no appreciable impact on the climate– all quite predictably so, because industry has taken all they can get and development permits have been handed out like T shirts at a Liberal Party convention. BC has seen a standard rise in emissions in the same time frame.

The task force went in tandem with her main employment of the time– proposing the creation of mini dams, “Run of the River” projects that produced hydro energy while diverting waterways across the province. This was also to produce “green energy,” that is energy with a smaller climate footprint, and eventually (under the plan) be able to garner carbon credits as well. Not mentioned in the promotional material for her organization “Power Up” was that tar sands developers such as Suncor are the first ones who would buy licenses to spew carbon, credits that were created by decimating a river in the first place.

It got worse. After Greenpeace International hired her for an international climate director position, a backlash resulted. Many statements were issued by people who historically had helped found the-then feisty and confrontational Greenpeace. The many statements boiled down to two main criticisms– lack of democratic practice and contempt for supposed allied partners, alongside a complete embracing of corporate partnerships as the solution. Put into a sentence, she is perceived as an authoritarian capitalist, contemptuous of democratic input or concepts of solidarity.

Quoting one of the anonymous Greenpeace associated persons who signed the demand to withdraw Berman as climate co-ordinator for GPI:

“As a founding member of Greenpeace in Europe in the 1970’s, the organisation which went on to become Greenpeace International in 1979, and as the person who signed the cheque for, and gave the name to, the flagship of the organisation – the m/v “Rainbow Warrior”, I feel I must express my deepest sadness at what is currently happening within the organisation, and with other ENGOs, who now seem to be in coalition with everyone from Coca Cola through to the nuclear industry.

A mark of integrity is the blunt refusal to be compromised. The movement we started, based on principles of non-violent direct action, all those years ago, has now been sold out and I insist that you immediately remove the image of the original “Rainbow Warrior” – our ship – from your organisation’s website banner until such day as you earn the moral right to use it. Those of us who chipped the old Scottish trawler by hand from bow to stern, who held the vision for a better world based on caring for our Mother Earth, who have never compromised, will now reclaim our mother ship before it is too late.

-Anonymous Greenpeace Activist or Staff #6

As ifto put an exclamation point on her dismissal of organized environmental and indigenous resistance to corporatism, Ms Berman went so far as to be a part of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola’s Olympic torch run in Greater Vancouver. Adding insult to injury, the highway she brought her “green energy motorbike” to carry the torch for her publicity stunt was the same highway that saw well known BC environmentalist Betty Krawczyk imprisoned alongside the highly respected Nuu-chah-nulth elder Harriet Nahanee.

Ms Nahanee was unable to survive illnesses that complicated and worsened during detention in pre-trial. One of the largest sponsors of the 2010 Olympic Games was Suncor Energy.

Both Ms Nahanee and Ms Krawczyk had been charged with criminal contempt of court for participating in actions to prevent the destruction of Eagleridge bluffs. The bluffs were lost, despite resistance by indigenous peoples working with concerned non-indigenous environmentalists. Big Green, knowing the power of corporate Olympics, never touched the issue of the bluffs with a ten foot pole. Ms Berman then held private seminars for industrial greenwash with large corporations such as General Electric, who just happened to be in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics as another top sponsor. Even other known environmental organizations protested outside while she was taken in through security.

Despite many withdrawn financial pledges, public and private opposition to her hire from many founding Greenpeace members or current staff, and even media scrutiny of the hire controversy with Ms Berman, she went to Europe for the gig as Climate campaign co-director, before returning to Canada specifically to begin a new job that she still holds today. She is the head coordinator of a secret “North American Tar Sands Coalition,” working for Tides.

This organization has existed for several years, long in advance of the “Tar sands solutions network,” and even before Berman was operating in an official capacity within it, to steer an agenda more suited to green liberal capital in the United States and now increasingly Canada. When Berman was hired to head this group it left no doubt where foundations want to see tar sands organizing end up. The fact it remained almost completely secret speaks to the undemocratic convergence of Berman’s politics inside a coalition built on secrecy and financial leverage.

Perhaps most strongly this calls for a genuine demand for accountability, transparency and organizing that respects no right of negotiation on others behalf. First, then, we need to spell out what we know of the structures we are not supposed to see. We can start with some history and form of the “North American Tar Sands Coalition,” as created and run by Tides and now headed by Tzeporah Berman.

It is important to note the importance not of rejecting Berman as the head of the secret tar sands coalition. It is far more important to reject the structures and the co-optation of any negotiating body, not just certain individuals who operate well within them. The very political approach, in part, that must be rejected is one that posits that the most serious problems are solved by having the right people in illegitimate positions.

Instead, we should note her particular position as the ultimate proof that foundations and capital are going to push for a negotiated solution, and they have amassed power and placed trusted corporate environmentalists in position to begin another, more devastating “fireside chit chat” with Suncor and Shell, “beer in hand.” Let us make known our clear intent to resist any such betrayal.

Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 in this series.

Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at

Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at