Real life became an attention-grabbing class in diplomacy, economics, environmental studies and democracy when Canada's ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer spoke at McCarthy Arts Center on Monday, Feb. 10, about controversial energy issues, drawing vocal and briefly disruptive protests from activists against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry Canadian "tar sands" oil to Texas refineries.
Doer, unruffled by singing demonstrators from the group 350Vermont and one persistent heckler, urged democratic dialogue on the issue and waited out their song until college security escorted about seven singers from the room. The environmental activist group includes Saint Michael's students and alumni as members, according to its Website, though it was unclear if any were among the those singing "we shall not give up… we have only started" at Monday's talk by Doer.
Opponents believe the development of tar sands oil will destroy the environment and release dangerous levels of greenhouse gases. The figure 350 refers to parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere that scientists say can preserve a livable planet. Doer's point was that the oil will be developed regardless of the pipeline decision which is driven by U.S. commercial interests, not Canadian policy, and if the oil is not sent to Texas refineries by pipeline, it will go to other countries via alternative pipelines or by rail or truck to the U.S. refineries, perhaps inflicting even worse net greenhouse effects.
Later that evening the ambassador spoke at an entirely cordial dinner at the new Dion Family Student Center, an event drawing former Vermont Governors James Douglas and Ambassador Madeleine Kunin, plus other dignitaries invited by the college and the co-sponsoring Vermont Council on World Affairs (VCWA) Ambassador Series. Saint Michael's student leaders also had invitations for the rare chance at the exchange of ideas and gifts over dinner with high-level world, state and community leaders. Saint Michael's President Jack Neuhauser also attended, presenting Doer a USA Hockey Olympic Jersey. "This will look good on the silver-medal podium," Doer quipped as he held it up. He also joked that the Polar Vortex is a product of Russia, not Canada.
"I think it was a good college moment," Saint Michael's political science professor and Canada specialist Jeffrey Ayres said of the entire visit. "It had free speech, democracy, alternative perspectives on an issue, protest, but also an opportunity for the ambassador to speak his views, which he had the right to do since we invited him. It was a good learning opportunity for young people in the audience. The pipeline proposal and extraction of tar-sands oil in Canada is a huge issue." He called Canada an "energy superpower" whose positions matter deeply to the U.S. and the world.
Ambassador Doer praised the quality of informed questions that he heard at Saint Michael's -- nearly 45 minutes worth -- during a question-and-answer session after his McCarthy speech, even though many questioners took issue with his talking points. Some of the student questioners had been part of a past service-learning project with Ayres on climate-change education, the professor noted. Another questioner was Richard Kujawa, a Saint Michael's geography professor who, though on sabbatical this semester, illustrated nicely (as did Ayres) the ways that liberal arts educators can show students how to probe beneath the surface of official government positions to understand issues meaningfully.
"I thought the talk was an interesting example of an ambassador doing his job!" said Kujawa, who has research interests "in cross-border investments, the blurring of investment/control of energy, especially in Vermont, and in geopolitics/political geography" which he shares with several other faculty. The geography professor said Doer "offered a broad-ranging set of comments about the mutual and complementary interests of the U.S. and Canada." Kujawa heard no surprises, calling Doer's positions on the pipeline and the complex Alberta oil developments "predictable, but notable." Doer avoided the term tar sands in favor of oil sands, Kujawa notes, possibly a matter of astute public relations. Using specific examples in his post-talk questions, Kujawa demonstrated how much more complex the issues of oil transportation and markets really are than the ambassador was trying to make them sound in his speech.
Kujawa and Ayres both said they scratched their heads when Doer raised what seemed to them a dated specter of Iran and Venezuela as a sort of dire oil-market controlling axis or alliance, from which North Americans only could be unfettered with initiatives like the pipeline. "Chavez is dead," Ayres said of the former Venezuelan Communist leader, who had been a nettle for U.S. policy-makers on oil and other issues in the past.
All evening, Doer stressed that energy conservation initiatives and hydro-electric power were bigger parts of Canada's broader energy policy - and there are many pipelines other than Keystone, he said. He twice thanked former Gov. Douglas for calling hydroelectric power "renewable energy," a fact that he said President Obama has been known to cite.
As a Canada specialist, Ayres said he was hearing Doer in a broader context that he intends to share with his International Relations students, who were at the talk. "What's been happening in Canada for the last five or 10 years, particularly under conservative Premier Stephen Harper, is that Canadian national interests have changed as they've developed the sense of themselves as a more powerful state - and I think power changes your interest," Ayres said. As a result, "they've tried to create a more muscular foreign policy" and are more aggressive in pursuing national interests, which is different from preceding eras under more liberal Canadian governments. But Ayres doesn't think conservatives will form another majority after this government. "There are a lot of things that irritate the Canadians," he said, noting how the U.S. has not had an ambassador in Ottawa for over six months while awaiting Senate confirmation of a candidate, giving "a sense the relationship isn't in as good shape as it's been." He said Obama and Harper are not particularly friendly, at least to the degree seen with earlier leaders like Clinton and Chretien or Reagan and Mulroney. Other irritants are a new Windsor-to-Detroit bridge that Canada wants built and border-crossing issues for labor, along with the pipeline. "I thought it was a good speech" said Ayres, who felt the ambassador's talk fairly reflected many of the key issues between the countries today.