What is problematic?

I read an article about the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and want to put into words what is problematic. Here is the article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/18/conservative-us-network-undermined-indigenous-energy-rights-in-canada. What is problematic about astroturfing and industry shills or troll? How do we even know who is a troll? Is everybody with ties to the industry a troll? Is “collateral damage” when talking about industry trolls acceptable?

Julian Barg https://jbarg.net

MLI states its goal as making “poor quality public policy in Ottawa unacceptable”. Its news section shows no clear line, but a clear conservative bias. According to their own report the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) recruits indigenous people to “create free-market change”. Its network acts as “a shield against opponents [to] allow Canada’s Indigenous population to benefit from mining and energy development”. One header in particular caught my attention: the “lack of indigenous data available”. At least within universities, data collection would take place only after extensive consultation with indigenous groups as data is essential to power and control and can easily be abused. But of course MLI has indigenous memebers within its ranks, so the situation is not quite black and white. The bottom line is–is MLI problematic because the organization is an industry allie, or is it problematic because it supports values that I disagree with?

So what is problematic about MLI according to the report? I will go through the issues raised in the article one by one and discuss how these talking points could inform research.

  1. Hayden King of the Yellowhead Institute calls the campaign “a contemporary expression of the type of imperialism that Indigenous peoples have been dealing with here for many, many years”.
  1. MLI has ties to Atlas Network and refers to Atlas Network for questions. Atlas Network has numerous problematic ties, for instance to the Cato Institute. Atlas Network has also received at least $1m from ExxonMobil and over $700,000 from the Koch Family Foundations.
  1. MLI and Atlas Network have been pushing back against the implementation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
  1. MLI board members have problematic ties to industries and lobbying firms.
  1. Atlas painted their collaboration with MLI on UNDRIP as a success and also mentions first nations organizations such as the First Nations Major Projects Coalition as supporters. A spokesperson of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition disputes this.
  1. The rest of the article mostly talks about UNDRIP and its importance for indigenous communities in Canada.

Two important notes here regarding money and goals. There is very limited data regarding the flow of money from and to organizations such as the Atlas Network–these kinds of information leak once a decade maybe. By the time we receive these information, the damage has already been done. Considering the size of the network, the specific sums mentioned here are also not very impressive. Not even two million dollars, and that money was flowing to Atlas Network which is then maybe offering grants or prize money after paying its own employees. How does MLI pay the salaries for its dozens of fellows? The foundation has its own money for that. On the other hand, what if these $2 million are just the tip of the iceberg, and we were to learn ten years from now that Atlas Network had maybe $50 million in funding? And what if we learned more about MLI’s goals from leaked internal emails ten years from now?

Industry money floating around is a problem, especially since environmental grassroots do not have access to the same kind of resources. The question is how to convince an audience today that this is a problem? The most promising way is hard work focusing on specific issues. For me, learning about the ties between MLI and Atlas Network is helpful, but it is only a starting point, not an end point. We still need to do the legwork of looking into people and issues. And there is no way around focusing on culture, too. Oil and gas are part of Canadian culture, especially in Alberta. Unsurprisingly, industry shills and trolls can have indigenous people among their midst, too. In the end, we cannot escape the culture war. It is not self evident who is good and who is evil. There are contextual factors, but we still need to look at contents and actions (even if industry shills and trolls may not).

Barley, Stephen R. 2010. “Building an Institutional Field to Corral a Government: A Case to Set an Agenda for Organization Studies.” Organization Studies 31 (6): 777–805. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840610372572.



For attribution, please cite this work as

Barg (2022, July 19). Julian Barg: What is problematic?. Retrieved from https://www.jbarg.net/posts/2022-07-19-what-is-problematic/

BibTeX citation

  author = {Barg, Julian},
  title = {Julian Barg: What is problematic?},
  url = {https://www.jbarg.net/posts/2022-07-19-what-is-problematic/},
  year = {2022}