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Alberta Has Spent $23 Million Calling BC an Enemy of Canada

Tyee FOI reveals pro-pipeline PR strategy, spiraling costs.

By Bryan Carney 15 Jan 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Bryan Carney reports for The Tyee and is director of web production.

The Alberta government has spent more than $23 million — twice as much as previously revealed — in a campaign designed to turn the rest of Canada against B.C., The Tyee has learned.

The “KeepCanadaWorking” ad and PR campaign’s top “principle” states, “This is not B.C. vs. Alberta, this is B.C. vs. Canada,” according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request.

The documents show how an “ethnic campaign” targeted residents of the Lower Mainland, Toronto suburbs and Ottawa who speak “Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Filipino, Punjabi.”

Work first began in January 2018 to create the campaign that promotes expanding the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which would triple the volume of Alberta bitumen sent through the port of Vancouver.

As recently as Nov. 14, 2018, Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP government stated it had spent $10 million on the campaign.

On Jan. 7, 2019, the Alberta government told The Tyee the amount had reached $23,040,463.90.

The province’s self-described “full-service” public relations arm, the Communications and Public Engagement (CPE) department, named that figure in an email responding to Freedom of Information requests filed by The Tyee.

In the past two months, Alberta has dumped more than $13 million into its pro-pipeline public relations push, a provincial government spokesperson confirmed to The Tyee.

What did $23 million in taxpayer money buy?

Internal Alberta government documents obtained by The Tyee reveal the top “principle” of the so-called “KeepCanadaWorking” campaign: “This is not B.C. vs. Alberta, this is B.C. vs. Canada.”

Having pegged their effort on driving a wedge between one province and the rest of the country, the CPE team lists two more principles: “It’s senseless to pit the environment against the economy,” and, “This is a good thing.”

The campaign’s “objectives” are to “strengthen and equip advocate base,” and, “persuade the less engaged,” and also “frame the national conversation.”

582px version of Alberta-campaign-slide.png
Slide from an Alberta government internal presentation on how messages would be framed for its campaign in support of expanding an oilsands pipeline to B.C., obtained by The Tyee via a Freedom of Information request.

The documents show a campaign with several arms. One is a “national” campaign. There are also separate campaigns specifically targeted at Halifax, B.C., and Ottawa — mainly in English. An “ethnic campaign” is designed to focus on residents in the “B.C. Lower Mainland, 905 and Ottawa” who speak “Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Filipino, Punjabi.”

Media buys included print, online news and magazines in the various languages, billboards in neighbourhoods associated with the targeted demographics, and channels on “WeChat” a social media site widely used in China that has been criticized for the state government’s ability to monitor and censor users, including accessing deleted messages.

Emails included in the response to The Tyee’s freedom of information request describe two phases of advertising and place the cost of the “ethnic campaign” at a minimum $425,000.

Modest beginnings

The email trail in the FOI documents shows how early plans called for the government to contract an agency to build a simple $10,000 website and also launch a $2 million dollar ad campaign, which was awarded to a media buyer identified as “DDB, a division of Omnicom Canada.”

Paul Bellows, head of Edmonton-based agency Yellow Pencil (and a $500 personal donor to the NDP Party in 2017) assured the Alberta government in a Jan. 31, 2018 email that the agency could create the original “Keep Canada Working” site — a simple petition website — for $5,000, “all in.”

A price tag assembled in response to a Feb. 13, 2018 media request (most likely for this CBC story) put the cost of the petition site at a still-modest $10,000. The final bill came to $10,237.50, not including the $500 for monthly web hosting.

A few weeks later on March 22, 2018, in the midst of heavy media coverage of protester arrests at two Kinder Morgan work sites, Alberta’s CPE division requested $2 million to pay for marketing, creative and project management with a goal to “develop a national advocacy campaign to support market access in general and the construction of the Trans Mountain expansion (TMX) in particular.”

The request noted the campaign would emphasize a cost it expected would resonate with the pro-pipeline cause. Every day the pipeline expansion is delayed — the campaign would claim — Alberta’s treasury would lose $4 million. This, of course, assumed that’s how much the price of bitumen would rise if more could be shipped out of B.C. rather than piped south to the United States.

The request does not indicate where CPE got this number, but it matches a Kinder Morgan estimate cited in a document studying the pipeline expansion.

The campaign website and advertisements would later proclaim an estimate 10 times higher — $40 million per day. The source cited was a February 2018 Scotiabank report, and the figure was said to be what “Canadians” are losing.

Scotiabank was a major underwriter of Kinder Morgan’s public offering in May 2017. The bank’s assumptions about the boost in tax revenues Trans Mountain might deliver was a “concocted narrative that does not exist,” according to a detailed breakdown of the report by independent economist Robyn Allan, former head of B.C.’s insurance crown corporation.

Later still, the claimed cost to Canadians of not expanding the pipeline would double again to $80 million per day.

Costs rise

A June email described an expansion of the national portion of the campaign, the budget for that portion rising from $1.2 million to $5.7 million after the federal Liberal government announced it would purchase the pipeline for $4.5 billion ahead of Kinder Morgan’s stated deadline for approval.

The increase, citing the need to maintain momentum, boosted radio spots in B.C. and ads on national TV as well as digital channels, including YouTube and Instagram.

A nationwide poll in July 2018 showed Canadians were split evenly on the Trudeau government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion and expand its capacity. About one in seven Canadians had not made up their minds. In B.C., 46 per cent of those polled supported the purchase.

In August last year, Holly Hardeman of CPE requested $18.5 million more from the Alberta government to pay for a surge in B.C.-versus-Canada themed advertising called “Market Access Wave two.”

In response, an email from Notley communication staffer Jamey Heath proclaimed, “That is an aggressive TV buy! It really is quite a national buy. I imagined it would be more B.C.-focused.”

The marketing director of Alberta’s CPE branch, Catherine Lee-Hanley, responded that her team was already spending over $226,000 per week during the month of August on TV alone — a pace that would tally $11.7 million in a year.

Work on the pipeline construction sites in Burnaby was slated to resume in late August after a summer lull.

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A month before an appeals court blocked progress on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the Alberta government dramatically upped ad spending, earmarking $18.5 million for a national buy, as shown by this form obtained by a Tyee FOI request.

A planning document describing an additional September campaign called “KCW Bridge Campaign” budgeted an additional $3.5 million for “applying firm pressure on the federal government” by allowing supporters across the country to send messages to federal Members of Parliament.

The plan mentioned “full-page print ads in all major markets weeks of Sept. 10, 17, 24 and Oct. 1,” including in English, French and “ethnic” divisions as well as digital channels.

On Sept. 1, 2018, responding to a Star Edmonton newspaper story, the Alberta government confirmed it had budgeted $31 million to promote the Trans Mountain expansion, but said actual spending did not reflect that figure.

In mid-November, the Notley government pegged spending at $10 million so far.

By then, according documents from October 2018, the campaign website proposed back in June at a cost of $10,000 had morphed into a far more expensive version of the “microsite” for Keep Canada Working, built for $368,000.

Today, the cost of the site stands at more than $700,000, an Alberta government spokesperson told The Tyee yesterday on Jan. 14.

The $23 million Albertans have spent on the campaign so far was “worth every penny,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Views divided across Canada

During the B.C. provincial election in the spring of 2017, the New Democrats led by John Horgan campaigned on a platform that included opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion. B.C.’s Green Party held the same position. After a close election, the NDP formed government with the support of three elected Greens.

Critics of the project include those in B.C. and beyond who said the pipeline places too much risk on salmon, orcas and a complex eco-system along Canada’s west coast, and that First Nations consultation has not been adequate.

In filing its official opposition, the City of Vancouver maintained a spill in its port would cause billions of dollars in damage to its economy and that Alberta’s estimates of jobs and tax revenue from the pipeline expansion were “fatally flawed.”

What the internal documents obtained by The Tyee show is that the Alberta government has greenlighted spending at least $23 million in the past year to sell the public a story of lost tax revenues based on contentious and vastly varying figures. From the outset, the campaign was designed to unite Canadians against British Columbians, treating concerns about economic, legal and environmental risks as peculiar to B.C.

But the federal Liberal government’s decision to take extraordinary steps to get the pipeline built has revealed deep divisions across Canada.

After the Liberals opted to buy the pipeline from Kinder Morgan for nearly eight times what the company paid for it in 2007, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer blasted Prime Minister Trudeau for “forcing Canadians to pay for his failure.”

On Aug. 30, a federal court of appeal overturned the Liberal government’s approval to expand Trans Mountain. Work ceased on the project.

In turn, Premier Notley has pulled Alberta out of Prime Minister Trudeau’s nationwide carbon tax plan unless the pipeline goes forward.

Some analysts say chances Trudeau and his Liberals will be returned to power in this year’s federal election have been seriously wounded by the pipeline fight and the connected unraveling of his climate change plan.  [Tyee]

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