This article is the second of a two part series written by Guest Blogger, Katie Perfitt, the Canada Divestment Organizer with 350.org. Katie is currently running a campaign calling on the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, QC to drop the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. In this piece, she suggests why the Museum of History is well placed to be on the leading edge of the Fossil Free Culture movement in Canada.
I’m writing this post fresh off the heals of an action organized by 350.org and our friends from across the Ottawa / Gatineau Region. It was an unsanctioned alternative exhibit in the lobby of the Museum of History putting “CAPP on display”. We wanted to draw into focus the Museum’s ongoing partnership with Canada’s most notorious Big Oil lobby group: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).
Our action took place the morning after the Museum of History’s new exhibit, Canadian History Hall, was featured in the New York Times, and it’s clear why. Canadian History Hall is the largest exhibition about Canadian history ever developed, and the content is very unapologetic of the dark times.
It took me three hours to get through just one of the three galleries that makes up this incredible exhibit. During my visit, I walked into a room with the words ‘Idle No More’ in prominent view, and to the Mi’kmaq Honour Song loudly playing in the background. It is a stunning tribute to Indigenous-led resistance to colonial realities like missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and boys and the horrendous conditions on many First Nations reserves.
But I couldn’t help but feel the deep contradictions at play. The massive oil companies that CAPP represents are the culprits of ongoing displacement and disenfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples across Canada. The loss of connection to the land and culture due to the environmental and health impacts on Indigenous communities living near sites of extraction, transportation and refining of fossil fuels is well documented. Not only that, but the Harper-era assaults on environmental protections were aided and abetted by CAPP lobbyists. These attacks were fuel to the fire do the Indigenous sovereignty movement “Idle No More”, which the Museum so prominently displays.
Another display in the exhibit noted the dilemma the Federal government is in by both signing the Paris Climate Agreement and soon after approving two massive tar sands pipelines. They’re referring to Kinder Morgan and Line 3 which, if built, would make meeting the Paris targets impossible. CAPP has been a staunch supporter of both pipelines.
Even with the 1 degree of global warming we are currently experiencing, the impacts of climate change have been devastating, particularly for people in low-lying island nations and in arid regions like sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East. But climate impacts are hitting closer to home to as the crisis intensifies, and CAPP’s fingerprints are all over dangerous climate disasters.
Just this Spring, Quebec and Ontario was slammed with record breaking precipitation, pushing thousands of people out of their homes. In May of last year, the already dry area near Fort McMurray, became drier because of higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow-melt. The resulting wildfires was nothing short of horrific. While we were demonstrating in the Museum there is a wildfire raging in BC.
If our decision makers continue to give in to demands from Big Oil lobbyists like CAPP, we can expect these impacts to get much worse.
I won’t pretend that I didn’t feel discomfort causing a disruption in the Museum. It’s an institution I have fond childhood memories from, and which I have growing respect for as they show intention to decolonizing their content. Not to mention the fact that the Museum has expressed solidarity with Algonquin people opposing the Kitigan Zibi Condominium development.
Besides that, CAPPs sponsorship is a drop in the bucket in terms of the Museum of History’s total revenues. As the most visited museum in the country, it’s visitors like you and me who contribute the most to the Museum’s pocketbook.
More than that, though I believe that the Museum of History has an obligation to show leadership in the fight for the climate and for the rights of Indigenous people. By cutting ties with CAPP, the Museum’s decision makers would send a strong signal that the era of Big Oil polluting our planet and our politics is over.
The good news is, as Museum’s own CEO Mark O’Neil confirmed at their AGM in April, CAPP and the Museum of History have reached the final year in their sponsorship agreement.
What remains now is a commitment from O’Neil that the Museum of History will not re-enter negotiations with CAPP for future sponsorships.
It’s time to make sure that the Museum stands on the right side of history.
If you want the Museum of History to cut ties with CAPP, sign the petition and talk to your colleagues, family and friends about it.
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I think that this is a brilliant action for a number of reasons:
– it keeps its focus on the problem of climate change and the problematic links to hydrocarbons being burned as fuels
– it identifies a central player in the propping up of the hydrocarbon industry – specifically CAPP
– it illustrates how museums continue to use the support of the hydrocarbon industry to finance their work – even though there is values-dissonance between the museums presumed higher goals relating to the ‘common good’, in contrast to the values of the hydrocarbon industry, which are narrowly focussed on economic profit
– the strategy used is one of media event, designed to send ripple effects across the community and around the world – and these are designed to increase public awareness and perhaps even change behaviours.
What I am less clear about is the extent to which this action is one that is truly an initiative of the museum community itself. In many ways it has the feel of a Greenpeace-like event, but organized by 350 Canada . I personally am a big supporter of the work of this sort of non-profit advocacy group, especially when there are big problems in society that need to be understood and addressed, but which are not adequately being addressed politically, economically, socially or culturally.
The question I have is what is the actual learning for the museum sector? Is it that they should be staging many such initiatives to help raise public awareness – perhaps through partnerships with organizations like 350 Canada? What I get from this event is that museums need to find their own approaches to engaging diverse communities on issues of critical importance, in ways that lead to shifts in the culture. This is a discussion, or community-wide brainstorming, that would be great to encourage.
I’m not sure that this form of activism, as created by 350.org is best suited to museum proactiveness. I say this because:
1. it isn’t the museum community that is taking this action – rather it is 350.org, which describes itself as a “global grassroots climate movement that can hold our leaders accountable to science and justice” (I know that there were some museum folks involved, but I don’t think that they were the driving forces)
2. a large part of this event is designed to identify a common enemy, namely “Canada’s most notorious Big Oil lobby group: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)” within a public/media forum. This may be an act that is necessary, but it is not sufficient to move the entire culture into a more positive re-positioning, where human and environmental needs are all being met in both short and long term timeframes)
3. it isn’t clear where the museum goes from here – other than to say NO to the oil industry when it comes to sponsoring exhibits.
I do think that, in the same way that museums take on partnerships with the likes of CAPP, they can also collaborate with organizations like 350.org. However, the museum needs to become a lot clearer on what it is really hoping to achieve, and not simply take on the goals of organizations like 350.org as their own.
As cultural organizations, they have the potential to effectively engage the public in processes of a) reflection, b) dialogue and c) action, that can help weave together the best of human creativity, knowledge and justice to build a better world.
There is no question that the oil industry, with all of its lobbying and marketing efforts that are designed to achieve its self-interested goals, regardless of the consequences, has a large part to play in this wicked problem. Stopping the extraction of hydrocarbons for use in fuels may be central in stopping this crisis, however this gnarly mess is woven together with threads from many sources, including: mindless resource exploitation; social unconsciousness; blinkered, growth/profit-based economics; industrial narrow-mindedness; partisan-based politics; persistent consumption patterns; and more. It is within this broader spectrum of cultural dysfunction that we need to be planning for how best to build a new future. Museums have the potential to play a central role in creating new ways to conjure “the muses” across communities. Through internal reflection, dialogue and innovation, as well as through novel partnerships, museums can help engage individuals and groups to seed a new path of what is meant by ‘the common good’. By embarking on this path museums can weave together notions of wellbeing for individuals, groups, communities, organizations, economies, as well as the natural environment — upon which all life depends.
Thank you for your comment. It has made me consider the initiative in a different light. I appreciated your third point about “it isn’t clear where the museum goes from here”, as this is something I have also seen missing from the discussions.
I am curious to hear what people think could be some actions taken. Would putting out more transparent sponsorship guidelines be the answer? Make public the ways in which the sponsor benefits (naming rights, duration, etc)? Holding public forums or votes of potential sponsors? I hesitate to introduce the idea of creating “sponsorship guidelines”, particularly in world where corporations are so interconnected and multi-faceted.
What other tangible actions could be taken?
The development of an “Advocacy Policy,” as discussed on one of our earlier blog posts, might be one way in which these issues could be raised.