What I learned at a focus group on the East Energy Pipeline

Firstly – apologies for the long absence. It has been a strange few months, and life has gone in all kinds of frustrating, exciting, weird ways and this blog was neglected.

Now, for last week. I was contacted by a group I signed up for back in university that does focus groups. I’ve only ever done one other, not certain what about. They asked me questions, primarily, about my interest in politics. Strangely, they seemed pleased about my enthusiasm for it.

Last night, I arrived in a polished office, where I and a number of other women (2 of women of colour in a group of about 10). They had sandwiches and cookies laid out. A couple of the women noted with some discontent that the men got the 6pm spot, while we only started at 8.

We’re shown into a room with huge pads of paper which we never used. A nice older guy walks us through the paces. We can say whatever we want, we’re not expected to represent anyone but ourselves, we’re not expected to know much about the subject, but anything we’d like to share we can add. This is shaping up to be pretty darn interesting!

This is where I make a mental note that it’s rather unusual that we weren’t asked to sign any non disclosure stuff.

Next, we’re given 6 statements to read about the East Energy Pipeline. They all essentially say “PIPELINE = SAFETY” but do so in one of two ways:

  1. Trains are dangerous, thus pipeline = safety.
  2. Arabs are dangerous, thus Canadian pipeline = safety.

There are some fairly obvious issues with the logical pathways to the reasoning above, but I commend my fellow participants for their abhorrence at the suggestion that we should use Canadian oil because we’re better than the Middle Eastern countries that we have had business with for decades.

The thing is though, that misleading statements, fluff that means nothing, empty talking points, these are all par for the course. Marketing is a dirty business and I absolutely did not expect a company trying to convince the public of something to make it easier for them to find information that would lead them to disagree.

What drove me into a mouth frothing rage was that lovely man running the show, with a big empty smile, incessant nodding, and a badly hidden agenda.

If you don’t agree, your opinion will be questioned, and you will be discredited. Objectively, of course.

At the start of the session, absolutely every single person expressed concerns about the safety of pipelines and their impact on the environment. BP was brought up multiple times. Each time it was brought up, our objective leader redirected the questions. It was so subtle I didn’t even notice till half way through.

In fact, any discussion about concerns was either not allowed to proceed beyond generalities or was pushed well outside the participant’s acknowledged lack of background.

If a participant expressed concern about the violation of native land, he said that the pipeline wouldn’t go through the “residential areas” of reserves and end the conversation.

If a participant said they were not really sure how the pipelines worked but worried about, say, the distance that the oil would have to travel safely, he would probe asking for more. Why is that a concern? Fear of accidents was an unsatisfactory answer.

If someone pointed out that it felt disingenuous to only discuss Canada’s options with oil, he would begin a tirade of how alternate forms of technology can’t help us now and we need a solution next year not in 30. Objectively.

If they said they were worried about accidents, he’d ask what alternative they’d propose. Yes, energy problems that have been around for centuries are going to be solved by a focus group of people willing to sell their evening for 80 bucks and a gross sandwich.

When I called him out for a leading question, he accused me of reading too much into it before quickly rewording the question. It was not the first loss of composure that led to an awkward silence.

By the end of our 2 hours, no one mentioned the environment anymore. No one mentioned BP. All concerns about public safety were a guarded “well, I’d support it as long as they… You know… Make sure it’s safe… Like… 100% safe… I mean, I know they can’t do that, but they should… Do their homework.”

The most commonly uttered phrase was an anxiously muttered “I’d need to do more research before I can…”

There was no busy chatter on the way out. People just quietly filed out of the room.

Regardless of what you think of the pipeline, this is an insight into how these people get their stats.

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