FORT ST. JAMES, British Columbia -- The prime minister is talking about being "held hostage" by U.S. interests. Radio ads blare, "Stand up to this foreign bully." A Twitter account tells of a "secret plan to target Canada: exposed!"
Could this be Canada? The cheerful northern neighbor, supplier of troops to unpleasant U.S.-led foreign conflicts, reliable trade partner, ally in holding terrorism back from North America's shores -- not to mention the No. 1 supplier of America's oil?
Canada's recent push for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the nation's West Coast, where it would be sent to China, has been marked by uncharacteristic defiance. And it first flared in the brouhaha over the bananas.
Responding to urgings from U.S. environmentalists, Ohio-based Chiquita Brands International Inc. announced in November that it would join a growing number of companies trying to avoid fuel derived from Canada's tar sands, whose production is blamed for accelerating climate change and leveling boreal forests.
Then in January, President Barack Obama abruptly vetoed a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada's $7 billion project to deliver oil across the U.S. Midwest to the Texas Gulf Coast, which environmentalists have long opposed.
Mix in a touch of nationalism, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's view that Canada needs to hedge its oil bets by diversifying its export markets, and the fight was on -- not only with the neighbor to the south, but also among Canadians.
"Canada is not what it used to be," said Todd Paglia, executive director ForestEthics, an environmental group that has been calling for the international boycotts on tar sands oil. "It's hard to believe, but it's tilting toward becoming more of an authoritarian petro state, positioning itself as a resource colony for China."
On the other side, a lobbying group pushing Canada as an alternative to unstable and sometimes unsavory oil producers in the Middle East ramped up a boycott of its own, this one targeting Chiquita bananas.
"Stand up to this foreign bully. Don't buy Chiquita bananas," said a radio spot by the group, which calls itself EthicalOil.org, complaining about what it called Chiquita's record of supporting terrorist groups in South America. A Twitter profile was set up for "bloodbananas" to expose the allegedly hypocritical campaign against Canada.
Over the last few weeks, a two-agency review panel has convened the first in a long round of hearings on Northern Gateway, pointedly described as a pipeline that won't deliver much oil to the U.S. Instead, it will allow Canada to end its sole dependence on American buyers for its most important export by opening up markets in Asia, and allow it to attract the badly needed foreign investment to develop the sands.
"I think what's happened around the Keystone is a wake-up call, the degree to which we are dependent or possibly held hostage to decisions in the United States, and especially decisions that may be made for very bad political reasons," Harper, whose government has labeled pipeline opponents as foreign-funded "radicals," told CBC television in January.
The $5.5 billion Northern Gateway project, which would carry 525,000 barrels a day of crude 731 miles from a town near Edmonton through the Rocky Mountains to a new port on the British Columbia coast, has long been in the works as a companion to Keystone XL.
But with Keystone's recent turmoil in the U.S., Northern Gateway has risen to new prominence as a defiant Plan B for a nation increasingly aggressive in combating international hurdles, whether it's greenhouse gas treaties, low-carbon fuel standards or U.S. presidential politics.
"There has always been very strong support by the Harper government, by the province of Alberta and by the oil industry for the Northern Gateway pipeline. But there's no question that for all three of those entities, that urgency increased dramatically with the apparent defeat of Keystone XL," said George Hoberg, a political scientist and professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia.
"The Harper government's view is that, especially in the Obama years, the U.S. is becoming a less reliable partner for the oil sands."
Officials at Enbridge Inc., which is proposing the western pipeline, say it has been in the works for nearly a decade, though its need has become more apparent as the economy in Asia has boomed while the American one, which until now has consumed 99 percent of Canadian oil exports, has slowed. By some estimates, Canada has the third-largest proven oil reserves in the world, with 175 billion barrels.
"It's an attempt to respond to the reality that the geographical location of the demand is changing," company spokesman Paul Stanway said, though he said the U.S., which imports more than 2 million barrels a day of Canadian oil, will remain the country's biggest export market. Chinese state companies have more than $16 billion invested in Canadian energy development and are helping fund Northern Gateway to ship their oil.
The Northern Gateway pipeline faces its toughest opposition in Canada. More than 4,000 people have registered to speak at hearings over the next several months -- more than for any project in the nation's history.
Debate is especially intense here in British Columbia. Although some residents are eager for the tax revenue and thousands of local jobs the pipeline could bring, many who live along the corridor and in many First Nations territories, homelands of Canada's aboriginals, are mobilizing to fight it.
Crucial are the streams and tributaries of the Fraser and Skeena rivers that lie in the pipeline's path -- possibly the greatest salmon rivers on Earth.
Along the coast, there are fears that piloting more than 200 oil tankers a year through the fiords of Douglas Channel and then southward could jeopardize the spectacular coastline of the famed Great Bear rain forest, full of azure waters and rocky waterfalls.
"We truly live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We live right at the start of the Fraser River watershed, and if we have a spill, it will devastate everything from here straight to the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver," said Bev Playfair, until recently a municipal councilor in Fort St. James, where a hearing on the pipeline this month was preceded by dozens of townspeople marching down the main street with signs such as "Say No to Enbridge."
The most formidable opposition comes from the First Nations of British Columbia, most of which, unlike those in other provinces, have never signed treaties with the federal government and thus have never relinquished title to their historic lands.
"We have the ability to go to court in Canada and say, 'What you are proposing violates the Constitution of Canada.' And that's the trump card in all of this," said Art Sterritt, director of the Coastal First Nations' Great Bear Initiative.
On the Saik'uz Reserve, near the town of Vanderhoof, schoolchildren spent part of the afternoon before the pipeline hearing making signs and sitting quietly as tribal leaders explained the project and why it must be stopped.
"You've got to understand that it's a huge, multibillion-dollar project that they're trying to put through our lands. And it's going to be a tough fight, because they have so much money. They probably have 10 lawyers to our one," Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, the Saik'uz First Nation's liaison on the Northern Gateway issue, told the students.
Tribal Chief Jackie Thomas has held meetings and written letters pointing out Enbridge's record on accidents, including the spill of 810,000 gallons of oil from a pipeline in Michigan in 2010, much of which flowed 30 miles downstream into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge has spent $700 million so far and workers are still trying to clean it up.
"It's going to be a war," she predicted of the fight ahead. "The only question is, who's going to draw the first blood?"
Enbridge has provided assurances that modern pipelines are assembled with thick steel construction, rapid shutoff valves and constant inspections that make big spills unlikely.
The company has offered 43 aboriginal communities along the route of the pipeline the chance to buy into a 10 percent equity share, a deal that could net them an estimated $230 million over the 30-year life of the project.
About half the communities have signed, company spokesman Stanway said. Many nonnative residents say they are supporting the project because of its potential for a long stream of revenue, including more than $30 million a year in local tax revenue for British Columbia.
"The doomsayers, the merchants of misery say it will leak and it will destroy the fishing industry," said Colin Kinsley, a former mayor of Prince George, who now heads the Northern Gateway Alliance, a group championing the pipeline.
"Nobody can say it won't leak at some point. You know, things happen. Who would've thought a billion-dollar cruise ship would run into a rock in Italy in the middle of the day? But every bit of risk management and redundancy and mitigation has been put into this plan. I'm not worried about it."