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Oil-sands advocates, opponents need to meet Canadians in the middle

Dan Ouimet is vice-president for Western Canada at Environics Research, and a past government and oil industry adviser. Tony Coulson is the agency's group vice-president for corporate and public affairs.

The oil sands have had a turbulent year. U.S. President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for an oil tanker ban on British Columbia's North Coast. Oil prices have plunged. It is timely, therefore, to take stock of where the public stands on issues of resource development and market access. The tension between potential billions of dollars in benefits and heightened concern over the environmental impact of oil sands development sets an interesting – and tense – context.

Only about 3 per cent of Canadians consider themselves to be full-fledged supporters and advocates for oil sands development. Another 15 per cent are strong supporters but not advocates. On the other side of the debate, 3 per cent are fully opposed and advocating against the oil sands, and 16 per cent are strongly opposed but not advocates against. Minorities on either side dominate the debate, creating the impression of a national impasse. But where are the majority of Canadians?

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Canadians on either end of this debate differ in many ways, as you might imagine. At one end are those who are highly concerned about climate change and who avoid companies they believe have poor environmental records. They lack confidence in big business and are unlikely to see economic development as a key function of government. They believe strongly in the protection of aboriginal rights and sovereignty.

By contrast, strong supporters of oil sands development express little concern about climate change, believe pollution is a fair tradeoff for economic development and think science will solve the environmental problems. This group expresses confidence in big business and believes that promoting business growth is an important role for governments.

People who feel strongly about an issue often end up talking to other people who feel the same way – environmentalists bump into environmentalists, industry people bump into colleagues, and so on. The attitudes common in their group come to seem normal, and they end up failing to see where the majority stands on a given issue. Convinced that they are in the mainstream, true believers lose sight of how many people they yet need to persuade in order to succeed.

Not only is the oil sands debate in Canada taking place within two camps, each comprising about 20 per cent of Canadians, it is also largely failing to gain traction with the six in 10 Canadians who are neutral, undecided or hold softer positions. These six in 10 hold values and attitudes that are different from those on the extremes of our oil sands continuum. Many are conflicted: They would like to see economic benefits from the oil sands, for example, but they worry about the environmental impact, and the health and safety of their families.

For any movement to occur on these issues, it is this "quiet" majority who must be understood and engaged. The first step is listening seriously to this group's concerns, fears and aspirations. What motivates people to lean one way or the other on the oil sands? Which arguments or assurances might address their concerns? Making existing arguments more loudly is no substitute for understanding and truly engaging this quiet majority.

Based on our work studying Canadians' opinions over several years, we see three main themes as keys to understanding and gaining the trust of the "average" Canadian: confidence in the regulatory process, environmental protection, and economic benefits and jobs.

Within the 60-per-cent mainstream, there are subtle variations in how subgroups respond to these themes; soft opponents have a different combination of concerns from soft supporters, for example. But the levers for shaping views on these important issues reside mainly in those three areas.

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Not only must those with the strongest views on oil sands development, both pro and con, acknowledge the existence of the quiet majority, they must also come to understand that majority deeply in order to advance their agendas.

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