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Resource sector taking matters into its own hands with PR campaign on trade

OTTAWA - When it comes to persuading Canadians and the U.S. of the merits of oil pipelines and natural resources, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been no Don Draper.

The Keystone XL pipeline appears to be caught in a perpetual American political limbo, and Enbridge's Northern Gateway plan is hampered by strong local opposition, to name just two projects. A cabinet approach that involved attacking environmental groups has been roundly criticized as poor strategy.

Now a variety of Canadian sectors are taking a page from those same environmentalist groups, coming together behind a public relations strategy meant to mobilize the public in a way the feds haven't been able to.

The latest high-level campaign hosted by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, called the Partnership for Resource Trade, includes among its advisory members major oil and gas, mining, forestry, agrifood and transportation associations, as well as academics.

The message, being purveyed through Facebook, Twitter and emails, is not just that the various players want better support for infrastructure such as roads and pipelines, but that they're also committed to the environment and job creation.

"Certainly in communities where there is forestry being carried out, or agriculture, or mining...people see the benefits directly, because they can look out into the fields, or at the port or at the mines and they know people who are employed by these sectors," said Wendy Zatylny, president of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities and member of the partnership's advisory council.

"But there are a lot of other areas and regions and cities within Canada that benefit that are somewhat removed from the actual communities, but still benefit."

The mobilization part of the campaign is key — so that MPs will know that they have a cushion of public support for the policy decisions they make. An online petition by the partnership gets sent to political leaders with one click.

"We certainly see this in the United States with the Keystone issue," said Ted Menzies, a former Conservative cabinet minister and now president of CropLife Canada.

"It's political, but there needs to be political pressure. People who are impacted by this, people who are dependent on this trade, they need to step up and they need to say to their legislators, 'Somehow we've got to get this done."'

Pushing the fact that many natural resource industries are interested in sustainability is part of the campaign. Much of the opposition to pipelines has centred around the notion that not enough is being done to protect the environment.

Even Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has suggested the Conservative government could have done more to burnish its green cred with Washington over Keystone.

"There's frustration that there's an increasing negativity around resources," said one person connected to the partnership, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I think the current government has just done an appalling job."

Players in the resource sector are also abundantly aware of the vigorous domestic campaigns led by the environmental movement, particularly around the pipeline issues.

The Northern Gateway project has recently experienced setbacks, with the community of Kitimat, for example, voting against the pipeline.

The "Defend our Climate, Defend our Communities" campaign, run by a coalition of groups including LeadNow, Greenpeace, Equiterre and the Council of Canadians, helps advertise and organize protests and events across Canada.

Paid staff help volunteers on the ground to host events, and a Toronto public relations firm does some of the coalition's communications.

Jamie Biggar, executive director of LeadNow, compared the debate between the civil society groups and the resource industry to a David-and-Goliath battle.

Biggar argues that despite the disparity in campaign budgets, the work he's involved in is penetrating with the public.

"The feedback that we get from folks is that people can tell the difference between campaigns that have a deeper, citizen-led grassroots support and the industry-funded campaigns that tend to rely much more on paid advertising and those kinds of promotional materials," said Biggar.

"That's part of why we organize these rallies, to highlight the commitment and support of people on the ground."

Follow @jenditchburn on Twitter

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