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How U.S. pranksters hoaxed the world at Canada's expense

For a brief, shining moment, the world loved Canada's new commitment to the environment.

A statement released online yesterday morning and publicized through a Twitter account in the name of Environment Minister Jim Prentice outlined Canada's ambitious new plan to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions.

Canada's "Agenda 2020" set a goal of a 40-per-cent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. It was a dramatic change from the current goal of 3 per cent. It also created a new fund, for which Canada pledged a whopping $13-billion next year, to help developing nations deal with climate change.

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"We believe all people will benefit from an equitable climate deal that truly energizes the world economy," read a quote attributed to Mr. Prentice.

The news lit up the Bella Center, the vast Copenhagen convention hall where the climate-change negotiations are taking place. A story popped up on an apparent European affiliate of The Wall Street Journal. In a video on what looked to be a UN site, a Ugandan official congratulated Canada for its change of direction after "holding a loaded gun to our heads."

Soon after, "Canada" renounced the announcement, saying it was a fake. Though this second statement was correct in identifying the first so-called announcement as false, it too was a fake. As were the apparent WSJ article, Twitter account and the UN video.

Lost yet?

The hoax was an elaborate series of fake statements and articles meant to draw attention to Canada's lagging emissions-reduction targets. It left Prime Minister Stephen Harper's staff scrambling to set the record straight.

The spoof news releases were set up on replica websites - cop-15.org instead of cop15.dk, for instance - and were all the work of notorious American spoof artists the Yes Men.

"The idea was to confuse the Canadian government, which set up a war room to positively spin their position in the debate even though everyone here knows that their position is a cruel joke," Yes Men member Mike Bonanno told the Associated Press.

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Canada was the natural target because its carbon-reduction proposals are low compared with most other developed countries. The spoof came only a week after Greenpeace activists embarrassed the government by climbing the roof of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

As the dominoes of the elaborate hoax fell, Mr. Harper's top spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, alleged one of the prank's masterminds was Equiterre, a Quebec environmental group whose cofounder Steven Guilbeault was in Copenhagen with Mr. Soudas and Mr. Prentice.

That set up a faceoff between the pair in front of the Canadian delegates' office at the Bella Center.

"You think it's a game but it's not a game. It's a serious issue," Mr. Soudas told Mr. Guilbeault, waving a hand dismissively in an exchange captured by the CBC. "You can criticize from the bleachers, Steven."

Mr. Guilbeault fired back.

"You're playing games. I'm not playing games. I don't go blaming people personally, publicly. It's unacceptable. It's unacceptable. And I want an apology," Mr. Guilbeault said as Mr. Soudas walked away.

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In a statement put out later in the day, Equiterre took a swipe at Canada's emissions targets.

"We also deeply regret Canada's position on climate change is nowhere near the one presented on [the fake]Environment Canada's website," it said.

Mr. Prentice refused to discuss the issue at a press conference yesterday, saying only that the hoax press release was "undesirable."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called it "damn clever."

To top off a bad day for Mr. Prentice, Canada yesterday won yet another "Fossil of the Day" award handed out by a coalition of environmental groups to the countries "doing the most to obstruct progress in the global climate change talks." The award brings Canada's tally so far to six.

With a report from Josh Wingrove in Toronto

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About the Authors
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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