A pro-industry group that promotes Canada's "ethical" oil sands has sparked an international row with a television ad attacking Saudi Arabia's record on women's rights.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Tuesday slammed the Saudi embassy's apparent effort to kill a 30-second advocacy ad that argues U.S. reliance on Canada's oil-sands production is more "ethical" than buying oil from the undemocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The offending ad ran on the Oprah Winfrey Network in Canada, and is now appearing on SUN TV, but a planned run on CTV's Newsnet was cancelled due to legal concerns after a lawyer for the Saudis wrote a letter of complaint.
The ad was produced by EthicalOil.org, an advocacy group that was the brainchild of Conservative activist Ezra Levant and was founded by Alykhan Velshi, a former aide to Mr. Kenney.
Oil-industry executives and Conservative government ministers, including Environment Minister Peter Kent, have echoed the ethical-oil argument, popularized in Mr. Levant's book, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands. Environmental organizations, meanwhile, have mounted high-profile protests aimed at stopping the expansion of oil-sands imports to the U.S.
In hiring a law firm to complain about an attack ad, the Saudis have thrown oil on the fire.
Mr. Velshi said lawyers from the international law firm Norton Rose LLP sent "cease and desist" letters to the national advertising watchdog, as well as to media companies, warning about potential legal action.
Bell Media, which owns CTV, confirmed it had been informed by the Saudis of a legal dispute over the commercial, and cancelled plans to run it.
"As the ad in question is the subject of a legal dispute between Ethical Oil and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at the advisement of our legal department we will not accept the order until the matter is resolved," the company said in a statement.
Mr. Kenney and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver both condemned the Saudi legal tactic.
"Canada is a country that is a champion of freedom of speech. That is a constitutional right," the Immigration Minister said.
"And we don't take kindly to foreign governments threatening directly or indirectly Canadian broadcasters or media for giving voice to freedom of speech. We think that's inappropriate and certainly inconsistent with Canada's belief in freedom of speech."
Mr. Oliver said Canadians don't "appreciate any attempt by a foreign country to undermine our freedoms."
Mr. Velshi e-mailed the chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, asking that the MPs "investigate this brazen attempt by a foreign dictatorship to censor" what appears on Canadian television. The chair, Conservative MP Dean Allison, promised to consider the request.
Neither officials from the Saudi embassy, now its lawyer, Rahool Agarwal, responded to requests for comment on Tuesday.
The Saudi spat comes as the Harper government is aggressively defending the reputation of the oil-sands internationally. Ottawa has warned the European Union that it will complain to the World Trade Organization if the EU moves forward with a proposed fuel quality standard that would single out the oil sands as particularly dirty.
The federal government has also mounted an aggressive campaign to counter environmentalists' efforts to derail a planned Canadian pipeline that would deliver 500,000 barrels per day of oil-sands bitumen to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The Canadians insist the U.S. would be better served purchasing its oil from Canada, rather than undemocratic suppliers from the conflict-plagued Middle East.
But environmentalists say that argument presents a false choice between Canadian and Saudi crude, when the goal should be to reduce dependence on all sources of oil.
"If Canada's ambition is to be no worse than Saudi Arabia, then the Conservative government should be prepared to defend that before the people of Canada," said Greenpeace spokesman Keith Stewart.
"I think Canadians expect our government to actually improve environmental performance and not simply get better PR."
Mr. Stewart insisted the EthicalOil group is merely a "front group for "Big Oil," noting that it is headquartered at a Calgary law firm, McLennan Ross, that promotes itself as an oil-sands specialist. Mr. Velshi said the group is grassroots and accepts donations from Canadian companies and individuals who support the oil industry.