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As websites go dark, ministers sell Tory vision of resource exploitation

OTTAWA -- In a show of organizational strength from both sides of the debate, the Conservative government squared off against its environmental opponents Monday in duelling cross-country campaigns about proposed changes to Canada's environmental protection laws.

As hundreds of websites went "dark" in a show of protest, the Harper government dispatched 10 of its ministers across the country from St. John's, N.L., to Surrey, B.C., to sell its vision that having fewer checks on resource exploitation isn't necessarily bad for the environment.

Canadians logging on to the David Suzuki Foundation website, along with many others, encountered a mostly black screen with a bilingual message expressing support for the so-called "Blackout Speakout" campaign.

"We're still here, doing what we do every day," the Suzuki site declared. "But today, we're joining hundreds of organizations across the country as a single voice for Canada's nature, for human rights, and for democracy."

More than 400 organizations had committed to blacking out their websites Monday, along with a number of Canadian celebrities, including author Margaret Atwood and singers Bruce Cockburn and Sarah Harmer.

Environmental groups also staged a small rally on Parliament Hill.

For the government, the counter-campaign was led by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who gave a short speech at the Quebec branch office of PCI Geomatics, a geo-imaging company.

It was an unusual launching pad for the government's campaign to defend provisions included in the federal budget designed to streamline the approval process for natural-resource projects.

The minister spoke in a small cramped room in PCI's fourth-floor offices in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa. The handful of company executives in attendance were outnumbered by the news cameras.

The intent of the cross-Canada news conferences, Oliver said, was to counter the "exaggeration, distortion and outright falsehoods" of critics.

The new provisions give Ottawa greater say in which resource projects would be subject to environmental assessment, sets strict time limits, and bans dual reviews at the federal and provincial levels in favour of a single process.

Environmentalists argue that the changes would gut environmental protection. Critics have also asked that the changes, including those to the Fisheries Act, be separated from Bill C-38, the general budget implementation bill, so they can be properly reviewed by parliamentary committee.

Resource development is too vital to the Canadian economy to be tied up in unnecessary red tape, government ministers countered.

In a release, the Department of Finance said planned energy and other major resource projects would generate more than $500 billion in new investment over the next decade. The sector already represents about 10 per cent of the country's output, the department said.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the critics are misrepresenting the issue by depicting it in black-and-white terms.

"I think most Canadians realize that we can have environmental protection -- reasonable steps, reasonable processes on a timely basis -- and at the same time have significant economic growth," Flaherty said at an event in Toronto.

Oliver said the government would be open to compromise, but not on the substantive issue.

"We're always open to improvements," he said, "but if people are wanting to gut the legislative change then we're not going to be impressed by that."

Julian Beltrame reports for The Canadian Press.

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