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ANALYSIS: When does an ‘I love Canadian oil & gas’ shirt become political?

WATCH: Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer made a stop in Calgary, where he compared the federal Liberal government to the former Alberta NDP government.

Do you love Canada? Because you should love its oil and gas — or so some people are saying during this election campaign.

A bumper sticker-style shirt promoting Canada’s oil and gas sector has become an early flashpoint in the federal election, as advocates for the oilsands seek to raise their issue in the political discussion.

READ MORE: Senate incidents involving pro-oil and gas shirts highlight lack of clarity in legislatures’ rules

The shirt features the message “I love Canadian oil and gas” with a heart in place of “love” and a maple leaf in place of “Canadian.” It echoes the iconic “I love N.Y.” slogan, and you can buy it on anything from flags and signs to bumper stickers and coffee cups.

The slogan’s designers say it’s a non-partisan message, and the Conservative Party’s top politician, Andrew Scheer, says it’s not political.

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And yet, security guards on Parliament Hill are having trouble discerning whether or not it’s a partisan slogan, and the logo has been turning up on signs at protests against the Trudeau government’s Bill C-69 — even after he bought a pipeline.

Pro-pipeline protesters gather and chant slogans outside a venue where federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau was speaking in Calgary on Nov. 27, 2018.
Pro-pipeline protesters gather and chant slogans outside a venue where federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau was speaking in Calgary on Nov. 27, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Scheer appears to have embraced the shirt as a political tool in his bid to woo voters this week, particularly in Alberta, where the shirts are often seen at pro-pipeline and anti-government protests. Canada Action, the group behind the shirts, has actually organized a few of those protests itself.

READ MORE: Protesters rally for pipelines during Morneau visit to Calgary in March

Scheer seized upon the design on Monday after reports emerged that two men had been told to remove the shirt before entering Parliament on the grounds that it might be interpreted as a political message. Security later apologized for the incidents.

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“Absolutely ridiculous,” Scheer tweeted on Monday in response to a story about the shirts. “There’s nothing ‘political’ about supporting Canada’s energy sector.”

He added: “We should all support these workers. Full stop.”

Climate activists might disagree with that notion, as pipelines and Canada’s oilsands remain contentious issues across the country.

But the shirts appear to have struck a chord with some voters, particularly those who rely directly or indirectly on the oil industry for their livelihoods.

Fighting Disinformation: Energy industry using divisive tactics to defend itself
Fighting Disinformation: Energy industry using divisive tactics to defend itself

Scheer continued to politicize the issue on Tuesday, with a tweet that specifically pitted the shirt’s message against his primary opponent, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer points to a man’s shirt during a campaign stop in Calgary, Alta., on Sept. 16, 2019.
Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer points to a man’s shirt during a campaign stop in Calgary, Alta., on Sept. 16, 2019. Andrew Scheer/Twitter

“Keep wearing those I love Canadian Oil & Gas shirts with pride, Alberta!” Scheer tweeted after a campaign stop in Calgary. “While Justin Trudeau talks down our energy sector, Conservatives will champion Canadian energy workers!”

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Again, Trudeau bought a pipeline last year to ensure that it would be built.

But it’s not political, insists Scheer.

So who is pushing these shirts?

His name is Cody Battershill, and he’s spent the last five years running Canada Action, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the oil and gas industry in Canada. The group sells several other designs based on the same message, such as “I love Canadian oilsands,” “I am Canadian energy” and “I love Canadian pipelines.”

The organization describes itself as an “entirely volunteer-created grassroots movement” that encourages Canadians to “take action and work together in support of our vital natural resources sector.”

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Battershill says the group remains strictly non-partisan and is not registered as a third party in this election.

He says he’s seen a “huge spike” in sales since the first incident in Parliament and since the election campaign started.

Chris Wollin, right, and his fiancée Mallory Hartviksen are shown at Parliament Hill wearing “I love Canadian oil and gas” shirts in September 2019. He claims security stopped him at Parliament over his shirt.
Chris Wollin, right, and his fiancée Mallory Hartviksen are shown at Parliament Hill wearing “I love Canadian oil and gas” shirts in September 2019. He claims security stopped him at Parliament over his shirt. Chris Wollin/Facebook

Battershill says he’s happy to see a high-profile politician like Scheer embracing his group’s message, but he’s hesitant to draw a connection between his group and the Conservatives.

“I can’t really comment on what any political person or leader is going to do, other than to say that our campaign is very positive, very inclusive, wide-reaching and it is great to see,” Battershill told Global News on Tuesday. He added that he’d love to see politicians of all stripes wearing the shirt.

In other words, this isn’t like Donald Trump‘s re-election campaign pushing “Make America Great Again” hats to fund his re-election.

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“We have to always maintain our non-partisan approach, and the more shirts that are out there, the better,” Battershill said.

On Twitter, Canada Action says it’s calling for “informed conversations about our resources and our country.” The group often tweets pro-oil messages and headlines, along with snazzy infographics touting the value of Canada’s energy sector.

Battershill says his group wants Canada to get the most out of its energy sector while the world is still using oil and gas.

“Canada should be the last producer out of the pool,” he said.

Canada Action’s message has won some high-profile support in the Prairies, including backing from the NHL’s Calgary Flames, which featured the logo on their ice last season.

READ MORE: Calgary Flames try to score support for energy industry with on-ice slogan

Battershill says all proceeds from Canada Action’s sales go into promoting its message. That includes selling more T-shirts, tweeting more stats about the oilsands and staging more protests, including several against the Trudeau government’s Bill C-69 over the last year.

Pro-oil and gas supporters protest across the street as federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to the Economic Club of Canada about the 2019 federal budget in Calgary on March 25, 2019.
Pro-oil and gas supporters protest across the street as federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to the Economic Club of Canada about the 2019 federal budget in Calgary on March 25, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Global News asked the other political parties if they consider the shirt to be political. Only the Liberals responded.

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“The Liberal Leader also went to Alberta on Day 2 of the campaign and, as prime minister, has visited the province 24 times,” the party said in a statement without specifically addressing the shirt.

“For 10 years, the Harper Conservatives ignored Indigenous, environmental and legal concerns and, because of that, did not get a single inch of pipeline built to new markets.”

They added: “It was the Liberals who approved the Trans Mountain Expansion.”

So is it political yet?