‘Grassroots’ oil and gas advocacy group Canada Action received $100,000 from ARC Resources

Carol Linnitt

Documents obtained by The Narwhal reveal Canada Action, an organization that promotes the natural resources industries while criticizing the environmental movement, receives funding from the oil and gas sector

Canada Action, a non-profit organization that bills itself as a “grassroots movement” in support of the country’s natural resources industry, received a $100,000 payment from a major oil and gas developer, according to disclosures made to the Government of Canada.

The funding from ARC Resources, a conventional oil and gas company with operations in Western Canada, was listed in a company report submitted to Natural Resources Canada in May.

The sources of funding behind Canada Action and the organization’s prominent founder and spokesperson, Calgary-based realtor Cody Battershill, have been in question since the group began generating attention in 2015 for its vocal support of Canada’s extractive industries — including its t-shirts and stickers displaying the slogan “I love oilsands.”

While our previous reporting identified deep ties between Canada Action, the oil and gas industry and conservative party campaigners, this is the first time industry funding of the organization has been publicly disclosed.

Canada Action is part of a growing chorus of industry advocacy groups that frame Canada’s environmental movement as anti-Canadian and motivated by foreign financial interests. In its early stages, Canada Action was described as a citizen-led initiative. A 2014 National Post article called Battershill a “one-man oilsands advocate” in a “PR war” to defend the country’s energy sector — which was facing growing scrutiny amid evolving social and environmental values, particularly in regards to Indigenous rights and climate change.

These new details about the finances of Canada Action come to light as attacks on the environmental movement are moving from the fringes to the mainstream, with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney facing scrutiny for investing $30-million into a so-called “war room” to combat misinformation, target environmentalists and defend the province’s energy industry.

In response to questions from The Narwhal regarding how much funding ARC Resources has provided to Canada Action, ARC Resources’ senior vice president of finance Kristen J. Bibby said: “This was a one-time payment to support Canada Action’s initiatives to promote Canadian energy.”

ARC Resources Funding Canada Action

A screenshot of a document filed by ARC Resources showing a payment of $100,000 made to Canada Action. Click here to see the report in full.

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Canada Action and Cody Battershill did not respond to multiple requests for comment by publication time.

Bob Neubauer, researcher with the Corporate Mapping Project, told The Narwhal the disclosure of industry funding behind Canada Action has the potential to “shred their credibility.”

“Canada Action has always made their claim to fame by saying, ‘hey, we’re just a bunch of grassroots concerned citizens’ … The fact that they’re receiving a hundred thousand dollars from industry — it torpedoes their own descriptions of who they are and what they do.”

Who is — and who funds — Canada Action?

For years, questions have swirled around the presumed corporate sponsorship of Canada Action — questions the organization has always, in one way or another, successfully dodged. 

In a 2015 interview with the program Conversations That Matter, Battershill offered this by way of explanation for Canada Action’s support: “I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars out of my own pocket.”

“There is nothing astroturf or fake about my passion for my country,” he told interviewer Stu McNish. “I’ve put my money, my time and my actions where my mouth is.” McNish did not directly ask Battershill whether or not he received industry or political funds.

In my own reporting, when I asked Battershill directly about the sources of funding behind Canada Action, he told me: “We accept donations from individuals and we sell Canada Action merchandise to support our campaigns.”

In early 2019, earth scientist Dave Hughes pressed Canada Action to disclose its funding in a column published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Hughes wrote: “When Canada Action was asked for funding sources … it provided no response.”

Yet onlookers have noted Canada Action’s impressive rise since it was formally registered as a non-profit society in 2014 and publicly launched at the Woods Buffalo Brewing Co. in Fort McMurray. 

“The oil crash of 2014 to 2015 created such a massive problem for the industry and such a massive level of unemployment, it created a crisis not just for industry but for communities that are dependent on industry,” Neubauer, who is also a lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, told The Narwhal. 

Canada Action took hold of a broad public narrative — espoused by pro-industry groups across the country — that oil and gas is good not only for these communities but critical to maintaining the Canadian way of life.

Neubauer said that, along with other researchers tracking the influence of pro-industry groups with the Corporate Mapping Project, he saw Canada Action “cultivating factoids and turning that into memes and talking points and promoting the heck out of that online and directing people to take action.”

Canada Action is prolific in its production of memes disseminated through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It has published more than 150 posts on Facebook since the beginning of the year, and while many feature photos of individuals sporting the group’s for-sale t-shirts, the vast majority are sleekly designed and branded graphics that emphasize some specific benefit to Canadians from industry while stoking a sense of national pride.

The group has more than 100,000 followers on Facebook, 18,000 on Instagram and nearly 27,000 on Twitter. Yet some of Canada Action’s proxy groups, which include Pipeline Action and Oilsands Action, have gone on to overshadow the original audience — Oilsands Action now boasts more than 315,000 followers on Facebook and close to 70,000 on Twitter.

Canada Action Instagram

A screenshot of Canada Action’s Instagram page.

Starting around 2015, there was a proliferation of advocacy groups organizing industry support both online and offline, Neubauer said, using familiar tricks of political campaigning that are “kind of close to the environmental movement’s ladder of engagement,” he said. 

Many of these groups, such as Canada’s Energy Citizens, which is a project of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, were easily identified as “astroturf” or fake grassroots organizations manufactured by the oil and gas industry to have the appearance of citizen-led initiatives.

“But with Canada Action, we didn’t have any proof of industry funds so we didn’t call them astroturf — but they were playing the same game,” Neubauer said.

The ‘about us’ section on Canada Action’s Facebook page says the organization was first conceived in 2010 and “is dedicated to changing the narrative about our world-class natural resource industries.”

“Canada is a leader in protecting people and the plant [sic] — we should be proud of our record from coast to coast,” the statement reads.

“Our mandate is to encourage Canadians to take action and work together through fact-based, non-partisan and positive conversations to get the message out far and wide in a proactive manner.”

“The world needs more Canadian energy.”

But beyond the pro-industry mantra, Neubauer said, Canada Action has played a very vocal role in criticizing the environmental movement and furthering conspiratorial narratives about how the environmental movement is funded.

In a 2019 opinion piece published on EnergyNow.ca, Battershill said his organization responds “rapidly and regularly to false statements of many activists,” including David Suzuki, Tzeporah Berman, Bill Nye, Leonardo DiCaprio, Neil Young and Jane Fonda.

“Writing a false or misleading narrative attacking the Canadian oil and gas industry might cause some initial confusion in the minds of the public” and can have long-lasting effects in the “political consciousness,” Battershill wrote.

Neubauer said the new revelations about Canada Action’s industry funding paints their criticism of the environmental movement in a new light. 

“They’ve been spinning the notion that environmental issues in general are a conspiracy by the well-heeled elite and celebrities and the United Nations and trying to destroy the lifestyle of the working class,” he said.

“The fact that they spend a lot of their time talking about shady funding … I think the funding pipeline, excuse the pun, for the environmental movement is far more transparent than what you’re looking into right now.”

ARC Resources funding of Canada Action disclosed unintentionally

Canada’s little-known Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act (ESTMA) came into force in 2015, requiring natural resource companies like ARC Resources to disclose payments made to governments in relation to the extraction of oil, gas and minerals.

According to documents filed by ARC Resources to the ESTMA database on May 27, 2020, a payment of $100,000 was made to Canada Action Coalition under the category of “bonuses.”

The disclosure appears to have been made unintentionally, according to Tommy Morrison, data associate with the New York-based Natural Resource Governance Institute.

“Canada Action Coalition doesn’t fit the description of an eligible payee under ESTMA’s preparation guidelines, and no reporting company in Canada has ever named it as a payee,” said Morrison, who analyzes data disclosed within the database.

“Among all the data we’ve collected as part of ResourceProjects.org, it is irregular to see disclosure of a payment to a non-governmental payee,” Morrison told The Narwhal. “We do not have a position on transparency of industry funding of non-profits in Canada, but generally we recommend greater openness in the sector.”

Non-profits are not required to disclose their sources of funding, even if they are registered as non-profit societies with the federal government, as is the case with Canada Action. 

(The Narwhal is a registered non-profit society in British Columbia and voluntarily discloses all donations over $5,000.)

In the disclosure documents, the Canadian government is listed as the “payee” for the $100,000 amount and Canada Action Coalition is listed as the agency that received that payment. 

Michael Grainger, policy analyst with Natural Resources Canada, which manages and maintains the disclosure database, also indicated the disclosure was made in error. While companies are required to list payments to governments in the form of taxes and royalties, payments to Canada Action would not have to be disclosed, even though the non-profit is a society registered with the federal government. The $100,000 payment appears to have been listed in a case of over-disclosure.

“The Canada Action Coalition is not associated with the Government of Canada, and NRCan may have accepted the report in error,” Grainger wrote in an email to The Narwhal. 

He added that Natural Resources Canada contacted ARC Resources “and asked them to amend their report as soon as possible. An amended version should be posted online shortly.”

Grainger said that any inquiries pertaining to payments to the Canada Action Coalition should be directed to ARC Resources.

On its website ARC Resources describes itself as a “Canadian oil and gas producer committed to delivering strong operational and financial performance and upholding values of operational excellence and responsible development.”

The company was founded by ARC Financial Corp., a Calgary-based private equity firm “specializing in the Canadian energy industry.” ARC Financial is also behind the ARC Energy Resources Institute which describes itself as “dedicated to researching complex, interrelated trends that influence the energy business, including financial, political, environmental, technological, social and economic forces.”

William Carroll, sociology professor at the University of Victoria and one of the leads of the Corporate Mapping Project, said he describes the networks linking industry with Canadian finance, think tanks and so-called citizen groups are called “a regime of obstruction.”

“What we’re trying to reference there is the multifaceted nature of corporate power and influence. It extends in different ways and certainly funding Canada Action is important — as is CAPP’s project Canada’s Energy Citizens — all of these extractivist, populist elements are one kind of initiative that speaks to a certain audience, in terms of mobilizing a kind of grassroots base.”

Industry funding behind initiatives that are positioned as citizen-led or grassroots is often hidden from or not made apparent to the public. 

“It’s not a genuine grassroots initiative and yet it appears that way and I think a lot of ordinary folks concerned about jobs and drawn into this kind of discourse accept it as a kind of people’s movement,” Carroll said.

Canada Action evolves to support more than oil and gas

In recent years, Canada Action has branched out from its base support for the energy industry to champion other major natural resource sectors including mining and forestry as well as pipelines and agriculture. 

T-shirts with the messages “I love Canadian forestry,” “I love Canadian pipelines” and “I am Canadian energy” can now be purchased on the organization’s website.

Canada Action Canadian Industry

A Canada Action graphic taken from an email showing the organization’s broadening support for Canadian industries.

According to Canada Action the organization’s campaign influence has grown steadily, too. According to an end-of-year newsletter sent in December 2019, Canada Action was behind “the largest pro-oil and gas rally in Canadian history” that brought out “some 4,000 supporters.”

The group claims it hosted more than 30 “resource rallies” across Canada and “proudly participated in the first ever Indigenous-led pro-pipeline rally for Trans Mountain held in Vancouver on June 18, 2019.”

Canada Action also says the organization is focusing its efforts on central Canada, “particularly on young Canadians who are keen for credible, balanced and non-partisan information on Canadian energy and natural resources.”

Neubauer said there is a confluence of factors that have led to the current moment, where an organization like Canada Action can dramatically impact public narrative around the natural resource industry.

“The economy is toast, their finances are toast, they’re hurting — but they’re also looking for someone to blame. It’s attractive to blame someone like David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and Greta Thunberg because that’s part of a broader pro-oil, conservative narrative,” he said.

That conservative discourse dovetails with a broad resurgence of populism, especially right-wing populism around the world, Neubauer said, pointing to the work of groups like Canada Proud and Alberta Proud and their efforts to influence elections. 

“I think in some ways people like Battershill and groups like Canada Action are kind of leveraging the popularity of the same types of political forces and feelings of dislocation, and also just resistance against change, that motivates the politics behind Donald Trump and Brexit — you’re seeing these groups using powerful, emotionally charged, populist narratives about who is coming to get you and take your good life.”

Editor’s note: The Narwhal received funding from the Corporate Mapping Project in 2019 to report on industry disclosures made in the Extractive Sectors Transparency Management Act database. That reporting included a feature on the challenges oil and gas communities face when considering a clean energy transition, an explainer on the profits made by oilsands giants even amid oil-price drops and an investigation into shortfalls in oil and gas revenue faced by rural municipalities . As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, the Corporate Mapping Project did not have any editorial influence on our reporting and, as part of our donor transparency policy, the funding was disclosed.