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Keystone XL Pipeline Protests: Are Canadians Growing Apathetic About The Oil Sands?

The recent protests in Washington over plans to funnel crude from the Alberta oil sands to Texas put the spotlight on the growing opposition to the project south of the border. But as activists hoisted placards, chanted slogans and got arrested (police carted off more than 1,200 protesters during the two-week-long “sit in”), the demonstrations also illuminated something else: a conspicuous lack of outrage over the oil sands in Canada.

Though local environmental groups insist that grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline -- and the oil sands more broadly -- burns just as strongly in Canada, the relatively muted reaction to the project thus far raises questions about what’s behind the apparent disparity, namely: Are Canadians as concerned as their U.S. counterparts?

In some respects, the comparatively subdued response on this side of the border can be explained by the nature of the current controversy. Despite the fact that Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. is behind the Keystone pipeline, Washington has the power to stop the project, which will run primarily through the U.S.

But according to author and activist Naomi Klein, when it comes to the broader plan to expand oil sands production, “a lot of Canadians are blocking the issue out.”

“It’s absolutely the case that Canadians have not really come to terms with the moral and ethical implications of that decision and what it means to our standing in the world,” she says. “I don’t think it’s because Canadians don’t care. I think there’s been a lack of leadership and I think that there’s a lot of fear.”

The Shock Doctrine author, who was one of the original signatories on the letter urging the public to descend on Washington, was arrested on Sept. 2 when she refused to clear the sidewalk in front of the White House during a demonstration focused on indigenous issues. After about three hours in custody, she paid a $100 fine, and was released.

(Full disclosure: Klein is also a blogger for HuffPost.)

The political climate may be another factor. As Ryan O’Connor, a post-doctoral fellow at Trent University studying the history of the Canadian environmental movement, explains, the mood in the U.S. is increasingly uncertain, which could be prompting the green movement to pursue more dramatic options.

“Environmentalists [in the U.S.], who had once held out great hope for President Obama, have very little reason for optimism,” he says. “I don't think Canadians have lost faith in the political and administrative channels to the same degree as the Americans.”

Though Canadian groups have in the past played a major part in pipeline protests (O’Connor cites the Toronto-based Pollution Probe’s role in derailing the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in the 1970s as one example), at present, he says, “The perception among Canadians that our environmental concerns aren't as dire as those in the United States.”

The oil industry has a somewhat different take. According to Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), what he calls a “more considered” response on this side of the border illustrates the fact that Canadians have “more access to information about the oil sands” than their American counterparts.

“We’ve been having this conversation longer,” he says. “There’s always going to be an extreme view that is going to be loud, but I think by and large Canadians want to understand what’s going on on the ground.”

He says a recent CAPP poll found that provided it’s “being done responsibly,” three-quarters of Canadians believe that taking the oil sands forward is “the right thing to do.”

And as TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard sees it, the fact that just over 1,000 people were arrested while protesting the project in Washington -- a metropolitan area with a population of about 5.4 million -- doesn’t signal widespread concern in the U.S., either.

“I would suggest that the silent majority has spoken on Keystone yet again,” he told HuffPost.

Howard doubts organizers met their target of 2,000 protesters, but there is no official count of the total turn out.

The controversy, however, is set to continue for at least a few more weeks. Inspired by the demonstrations in front of the White House, which wrapped up on Saturday, environmental groups are planning a similar sit-in on Parliament Hill on September 26 -- proof, say organizers, that the opposition in Canada is formidable.

“For a number of years there’s been many ongoing campaigns targeting the tar sands on a number of levels. We actually have seen a shift in public perception,” says Andrea Harden-Donahue, energy campaigner for the Council of Canadians. “The tar sands has been put on a platform publicly. Much of that is not because of the actions of our government, but instead the actions of concerned citizens and organizations around our country.”

CORRECTION: This article was altered from its original version. It was edited to more accurately reflect the opinions of TransCanada's Shawn Howard.

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