This could be bad: federal Conservatives posted a Twitter meme Wednesday showing a Photoshopped Justin Trudeau with a very brown face – making the Prime Minister look Middle Eastern and presumably Islamic – and a pro-oil message, something conservative radio host Charles Adler described in a tweet as “dog whistling” to the party’s base. Is this a foretaste of the fall national election campaign?
The claim that the Liberals plan to phase out the oil and gas sector at least contains a grain of truth. Here’s what he actually said at a 2017 Ontario townhall: “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy. We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time.”
The comment predictably provoked outrage in Alberta – which was just emerging from a two year-old oil and gas bust – where it was understood to mean, phase out shortly. Reasonable people can disagree about what Trudeau actually meant, but Canada is in a run-up to an election so we can hardly feign surprise about a little rough-and-tumble social media campaigning.
The real problem is the deliberate darkening of Trudeau’s face and the dog whistle, as Adler calls it.
Twitter account @binanimals found the original Getty Images Stock photo of an American oil refinery worker. Former Calgary Herald graphic artist Edwin Mundt explained to Energi Media that the cut-and-paste job left “vestigial digital remnants (pixelated edges). Then some sort of Photoshop plug-in (or playing around in colour curves) increased the red and blue in midtones making the skin tones and shadows darker and ‘hotter.'”
A few Energi Media readers wondered if the meme was created by a third party, perhaps a Russian troll farm, which isn’t an outrageous possibility these days. We don’t know who created it, but we certainly know who posted it to their official Twitter account, where it still resides as of Wednesday morning: the CPC.
An Energi Media email request for an explanation and comment about the meme was not answered.
For some reason, Scheer’s party not only attracts that angry, disaffected sub-culture steeped in racism, Islamaphobia, and conspiracy theories but actively courts it, as per this meme. Even more disturbing, the Conservative leader talks out of both sides of his mouth, simultaneously uttering the expected narrative of tolerance, while at the same time blowing furiously into his dog whistle.
For that hypocrisy, plenty of pundits are waggling their finger at Scheer today, but my concern was voiced by an Energi Media reader who remarked that “I didn’t think they could do it, but the CPC just linked immigration to the suppression of oil and gas.”
That linkage has already been made at the grassroots level by the Alberta yellow vest movement, which, depending upon your point of view, was either involved in the leadership of the trucker pipeline rallies from the start or infiltrated them later on.
What does it mean for Canada that the only national political party capable of defeating Trudeau and the Liberals may be falling down the same anti-immigration, conspiracy theory, xenophobic rabbit hole?
Well, it could mean one thing: Canadian energy narratives become corrupted and instead of talking about energy issues that matter – how Canada should pivot low-carbon future, the climate change crisis, digital technology like artificial intelligence destroying tens of thousands of energy jobs over the next decade, and so on – we’ll be debating whether or not to ban 108,000 barrels per day of oil from Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia.
Or how “ethical” Canadian oil is compared to Middle Eastern dictatorships. Or any one of the dozens of parochial, anti-science, nonsensical tropes beloved of Alberta and Saskatchewan oil and gas boosters.
Jason Kenney has already driven the Alberta energy narrative down a screwy rabbit hole that includes energy policy based upon debunked conspiracy theories about foreign-funded activists, boycotts of a European bank because it demanded that oil sands lower emissions before being considered for financing, and all but dismantling a climate policy that was everything the oil sands producers – which account for 80 per cent of Alberta crude oil production – had asked for.
Are Scheer and the Conservatives trying to drag Canada back into the 1980s, as well?
The Trudeau meme hints that they are. Scheer’s climate plan that isn’t a climate plan at all, announced last week, makes the case even stronger. Scheer’s strong links to Rebel Media, the fake news and Islamaphobia engine of grassroots conservatism, leaves little doubt as to what the Conservatives are up to.
This is a critical time for Canada, when it must press forward with policies, investments, and innovations that speed up our country’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Get it wrong now and in 2030 it will be too late, the rest of the world will have passed us by and we will have missed the golden opportunities that come with the kind of restructuring underway in the global energy system.
If that happens, look back to 2019 when a national party dog whistling to its political base hijacked the national energy conversation and blame Andrew Scheer.
“We’ll soon see if and how Canadians respond to the ad,” says Adler. Over to you, Canada.