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Artist Blacklisted by Canada Over Criticism of Climate Policy Takes Show to U.S.

'American policymakers need to understand just who they will be doing business with if they approve the Keystone,' says environmental artist Franke James.

Oct 28, 2013
Franke James

Three years ago, Franke James was a little-known artist who found herself blacklisted by the Canadian government for making art that lambasted the rapidly expanding tar sands. Infuriated and emboldened by the censure, James churned out a slew of pieces criticizing the government, published a book and in the process became one of Canada's most outspoken environmental activists.

Now, the Toronto resident is embarking on a new mission. She wants to raise awareness in the United States about what she believes are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's continuing undemocratic tactics to squash opposition to his oil agenda.

In doing so, she hopes to help persuade the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The contentious project would carry 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas and open a gateway for the flow of the dirtier grade of oil to export markets abroad. A decision is expected next year.

"American policymakers need to understand just who they will be doing business with if they approve the Keystone and the extreme measures they take to get their way," James said in an interview. "The Canadian government's efforts to silence environmental and scientific voices are wrong."

Through October and most of November, James' poster art criticizing Harper and the Keystone XL will be displayed at Washington, D.C. bus stops along Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues near the White House and the Capitol. The five-figure ad-buy was paid for by three U.S. environmental groups—Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation—as well as through crowd-funding.

SLIDESHOW: 6 Posters by Franke James, Canada's Blacklisted Climate Activist Artist

Earlier this month James and other Canadian environmentalists who oppose the Keystone met with Democratic Congressional staffers and State Department officials. She also gave a speech at Georgetown University about using art to fight the erosion of laws and freedoms.

Since being elected in 2006, the Harper government has shuttered key climate research programs—including one of the world's top Arctic research stations for monitoring global warming—backed out of the Kyoto Protocol and reversed dozens of environmental protection laws, InsideClimate News previously reported. Federal agencies have also muzzled scientists, hidden the publication of government climate reports from the media and the public, and monitored and blacklisted people who publicly oppose unfettered fossil fuel development.

Greg Rickford, Canada's minister of state for science and technology who was appointed by Harper in July, would not respond to questions about James, but said the Canadian government "has made record investments in science."

Origins of a Climate Activist

In 2005, while James was earning a living in graphic design, interactive media and advertising, she and her husband started renovating their two-story home in Toronto. In the process she learned about energy efficiency improvements—and by extension, climate change.  

"All of a sudden I'm stumbling over all this information on global warming," said James, who says only that she is middle-aged. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is the major issue of the 21st century. We've got to do something about it. I need to tell people so we can take action.'"

A year later she launched a blog dedicated to climate change. The posts started as long written articles about the misperceptions surrounding climate change and the risks that global warming pose to the world. Soon she began illustrating them with cartoon-like images and collages.

Gradually, readership on her blog and social media picked up. (She now has about 9,000 twitter followers.) In 2007, James adapted one of her articles, "A Green Winter: Will Global Warming Be Good for Canada?" into an animated short, which was shown at the country's largest consumer show dedicated to green and healthy living. The story and video addressed a common joke in Canada—that because the country is so cold, Canadians would benefit from a warming world.

In 2008, reports began emerging about the Harper administration's efforts to undermine scientific understanding of climate change. It began with a new media relations policy that prevented government scientists from talking to the press or at conferences without minders.

Environmental activists said the changes were designed to restrict the flow of information about the climate and environmental impacts of the tar sands, a charge government officials vehemently denied. Angered about what she was learning, James wrote about the attacks on her blog and depicted them in her artwork. She also wrote an illustrated letter to Harper berating him for not charging fossil fuel companies to emit greenhouse gases and pollute the landscape.

"The tar sands is Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution," the letter said. "Will our kids be angry that Alberta was ravaged? (Less than 1% of the land has been certified reclaimed from the tar sands.) Can't they clean up their own mess? Why are we giving big oil a free ride?"

James mailed a copy of the letter to Harper. Nothing happened, until three years later.

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