Remember that time Enbridge spokesperson Larry Springer, in a ham-fisted attempt to dismiss legitimate questions about Enbridge’s practices, described landowners and other ordinary citizens expressing perfectly reasonable concerns as “special interest groups”? That remark had us so worked up that we devoted a whole series to it (part 2, part 3, part 4). The reason we spent so much time on it– and the reason we return to it every now and then– is because it is so emblematic of the way that Enbridge views landowners, responds to criticism, and communicates with the public. Dishonest, misleading, and offensive, Springer’s remark also appears to be deeply rooted in Enbridge’s corporate culture, and is part of a strategy (perhaps?) pioneered, but certainly deployed by Enbridge’s former CEO Patrick Daniel.
Well, Larry Springer can finally rest easy. He has at last been outdone. Meet Graham White.
If you’re paying attention to matters up in Canada– Northern Gateway, the Line 9 reversal– you may have encountered Graham White before. He’s one of Enbridge’s chief spokespersons up there (his official title has something to do with business communications and public affairs or something). He gets quoted a lot, much like Jason Manshum here in Michigan. So what is it that Graham White said that surpasses Larry Springer’s now-classically-infamous “special interest groups” comment? Well, let’s take a look:
This week, The Toronto Star ran a fantastic feature called “All Along the Pipeline,” that highlights the Line 9 reversal project and profiles a number of people, as they put it, “whose lives it passes.” It’s a really wonderful piece of journalism by The Star’s Jessica McDiarmid that nicely balances policy and humanity. We wish some reporter in Michigan (about a year ago!) would do the same for Line 6B (yet another opportunity for Jennifer Bowman!). We encourage everyone to read it.
Then a McMaster University student in geography and environmental studies, Ferguson went to several more. In Halton region, she asked Enbridge for an information package that had been provided to council, which included maps of Line 9’s passage through the area.
Ferguson says a company official asked her who she was working for, then agreed to send a copy — if she showed her driver’s license.
And that’s when Graham White enters the story:
Enbridge offers a different version of events: company spokesperson Graham White says “after an abrupt and confrontational approach from Ms. Ferguson,” an employee asked her who she was but did not request identification.
“We provide our information freely, there is no reason someone would have to show ID,” says White, who characterized Ferguson as “a stringent opponent of the project and an activist.”
There is so much that is wrong and deeply disturbing about this that we hardly know where to begin. But let’s start with the obvious:
Does Graham White really have any idea what Emily Ferguson’s demeanor was at an informational meeting that took place nearly a year ago? Has Graham White ever once met or spoken to Emily Ferguson, anywhere? Was he at that informational meeting to witness her conduct himself? Does he possess such a preternatural memory that he is able to recall every person who comes to every meeting that Enbridge holds all across Canada? Or does Enbridge keep some secret list of “abrupt and confrontational” people that they post somewhere on an internal server, a list that spokespersons are required to memorize so that they can instantly, on command, bring to mind the identities and actions of each and every individual on the list? Or would Graham White somehow have us believe that young Emily Ferguson, college student, was just so extremely abrupt, so extraordinarily confrontational that this incident became a permanent part of Enbridge Line 9 reversal project lore, inscribed indelibly into everyone’s memory, like the moon landing? Or could it be that Graham White is just making things up?
Or, let’s just say for the sake of argument (though we don’t believe it for a second) that Emily was “abrupt and confrontational” that day. What, then, would Graham White’s point be? That those who do not conduct themselves at informational meetings with appropriate deference are asked to identify themselves? Who makes that call and what exactly are the rules of propriety at these meetings? Are they explained before hand? Do you just have to be polite or is some particular form of obsequiousness required? Do you have to genuflect or will a simple curtsy do? Are citizens allowed to make direct eye contact with Enbridge representatives or would that be seen as too confrontational?
If those questions seem absurd, as they should, it’s to point out the absurdity of White’s attempt to mischaracterize Emily’s behavior. There is no good reason for Graham White to describe her as “abrupt and confrontational” other than a desire to cast her, needlessly and gratuitously, in a negative light. That’s clearly what he’s doing. It’s a ploy straight out of the Daniel-Springer playbook: if you can portray your critics in an unflattering way– as “special interest groups” or people who are “abrupt and confrontational”– it’s much easier to dismiss them. White does it again when he describes Emily as a “stringent opponent of the project and an activist.” What is the point of that characterization? Why does Graham White go out of his way to describe Emily in this way? Indeed, why does Graham White feel the need to characterize Emily at all? Again, the answer to that is simple: he thinks that calling her an “activist” is automatically to discredit her– in precisely the same way that Larry Springer thinks that calling people “special interest groups” automatically discredits them. It’s a cheap trick, shabby and lazy.
But if what we have here is just another specimen of what we’ve seen from other Enbridge reps, why dwell on Graham White’s snide comments? What makes White’s remarks so much worse than Larry Springer’s? Well, when Springer made his remarks, he was referring (to the extent that he was referring to anyone real, as opposed to the phantoms conjured by his own corporation’s distorted imagination) to a group of people. Springer might even say he was referring generally to everyone who has ever been critical of Enbridge in Michigan since 2010; heaven knows plenty of people have been, some of them even genuine “special interest groups.” So at least Springer has an out– not a very good one, but an out nevertheless.
Graham White, on the other hand? He is talking specifically about one single individual, one ordinary Canadian citizen. And while we are personally mighty impressed with young Emily Ferguson, who seems to us quite formidable, exceedingly smart, talented, enterprising, and with a very bright future ahead of her, it’s not as if she is, say, Neil Young.
By contrast, when Graham White speaks, he is speaking as and for one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful corporations in Canada, in all of North America, in fact. Yet despite all of its wealth and power and influence, it is also, evidently, a corporation that is so petty, so thin-skinned, so defensive, so stung by even the mildest of criticisms, so unwilling to take responsibility for even the slightest of missteps, so utterly lacking in grace and humility, so stubborn, so ungenerous, and so mean-spirited that it is willing, on the basis of almost nothing, to publicly disparage a single individual for nothing more than saying what happened when she attended a meeting?
That, friends, is just plain crazy.
[Okay. Believe it or not, we’ve got even more to say about this. But since it’s already gotten a bit longer than we planned, we’ll save it for a follow-up post. Congratulations, Graham White! You’ve earned your very own series!]