Pointed questions for visiting PM

(January 18, 2020)

If I could ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet one question before their Winnipeg retreat this weekend, it would be: “Would you shoot the children?”

I admit this is a brutal way to start a column. But it does cut away the fluff and go straight to the heart of the problem.

As this is being written, RCMP officers in full tactical gear have barricaded the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, and blocked journalists from entering the area. We don’t know what orders have been issued around the potential use of lethal force against anyone who breaches their lines.

Forget the unresolved issues of Indigenous land claims, the court cases still unfolding, the opinion of human rights tribunals, and any other number of issues. The pipeline goes through. Period.

Forget the climate crisis, the need to keep the oil in the ground, and especially forget we signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming. Ignore the fires in Australia — and ignore that, except for a miracle, the same fires could have burned in dry northern Manitoba this past summer. Spin the issue of carbon tax some more, offer smoke and mirrors, distract the crowds with bread and circuses, and make sure the pipeline goes through. Period.

Around the world, children are staying out of school, by the millions, to strike for the climate. Greta Thunberg became the face of that global movement, but there are many other young people, including right here in Canada, who will fight just as hard for their future.

But what does that mean? Will it mean the kind of civil action that #ExtinctionRebellion has led elsewhere? Does it mean there will be demonstrations, blockades, protests — attempts to block pipeline construction, among other things?

Of course, it will. The global system is not working. We are literally burning up our children’s future and yet somehow still avoid dealing with what is so obvious to them. There are very few predictions of what lies ahead past 2050, when today’s teenagers will only be middle-aged. We don’t even talk about that nightmare, anymore.

Young people can see we are not making decisions that respect the land and all of the children of Earth, as we should. Forget considering the seventh generation — we can’t even manage to care for the next one.

Because of our lazy luxuries, our sluggish and indolent response to the climate crisis, their future — and that of their own children and grandchildren — is going up in flames, as surely as that Australian bush.

Why should we expect them to say nothing, in response? Why should we expect them to do nothing, either?

Thankfully, the protests so far are non-violent — the next generation has learned what happens when popular opposition resorts to violence. The young people march instead.

But when young people take to the streets in increasing numbers, as they will — supported by the adults who care for them and understand their concerns for the future — what will our leaders do?

Will they order out the riot police, in mirrored helmets, to beat them down with clubs? Gas them? Use water cannons? Fire rubber bullets to maim them? Perhaps shoot to kill?

Before you say such things could never happen here, remember how the Harper government dealt with the G20 protests in Toronto a decade ago.

When unjust social or environmental policies are enforced by the machinery of the state, confrontation is inevitable. People may get hurt or die as a result. Situations such as the one on Wet’suwet’en land are the result of our failure to find another, better way forward, one that not only respects everyone involved, but offers ecological justice, too.

Political leaders who raise their own children to respect other people and the Earth they share can expect tough days ahead, because the next demonstration may see their own kids in the front row, walking toward those same riot police.

One way or the other, children are preparing for the future we have created for them. They would be in school, studying, if we had solved the climate crisis. But the fact they are on the streets instead is a sign of our failure, our cowardice, our hypocrisy — and what’s worse, makes me wonder about our apparent willingness even to use force against them rather than change the course of our society toward a sustainable future.

So, Trudeau, as the movement for climate justice grows, do you plan to deploy RCMP tactical squads or the Canadian Armed Forces to suppress Canadians, including children who object to government policies or protest government inaction?

Or will you publicly commit, here in the Heart of the Continent, to finding another way, one without such dangerous potential for us all?

Dance on a cliff, and someone certainly will fall.

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As youth follow Thunberg’s lead, what are the adults doing?

(September 25, 2019)

“The adults have failed us.”

The message Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has delivered clearly and consistently for the past year, from her spot outside the Swedish parliament to the UN, is simple and direct.

We are in a global crisis and the adults in charge of everything have done nothing to solve it.

It’s not about getting more information — we have all we need. It’s also not about figuring out what to do — we already know.

The adults have failed us, she says, because they have done nothing. The future of all the children of Earth is literally going up in smoke.

Every day we don’t act, the situation gets worse and more of that future disappears. Species go extinct, at the rate of 200 per day. The air is fouled, the water is filled with toxins and plastic, the food becomes unhealthy or scarce — this is what her future holds, as the landscape becomes dry, barren and unlivable.

She calmly observes there are no politics to change that reality, just yet.

In Canada, the federal election campaign was launched before the dust of the provincial election settled here in Manitoba. Her observation, unfortunately, continues to be true for us.

You could argue — though I would disagree — that business and industry have no responsibility to care for people or for the planet, that narrow-minded self-interest excuses their lack of social responsibility. But politicians, especially in a democracy, have responsibilities to everyone.

While we could also argue about the details of those responsibilities, clearly one of them should be preventing the end of civilization as we know it. Yet the response of all provincial parties to the climate crisis was pathetic, and I fear the federal parties will do no better.

In Manitoba, we have a renewed majority for a government that made indifference and inaction on environmental issues for the past three years into a perverse point of pride, preferring absence to engagement on those issues during the campaign.

The rest of the parties were no better. The climate crisis was ignored by the NDP in favour of a Throwback Thursday routine on health care, and while it was an earnest (but unconvincing) plank in the Liberal platform, for some inexplicable reason a sustainable future was sidelined even by the Green party, whose climate policies were pale green at best.

So, not surprisingly, many Manitobans ignored their own responsibility and stayed home. But there is no point to calling a society democratic when the people don’t vote.

The single biggest reason I heard for this dereliction of duty was, “Why vote, when nothing ever changes?”

There is truth in that reaction. Against the apathy and environmental inaction of the Progressive Conservative party — which once again garnered about 40 per cent or so of the vote — the other parties postured their 60 per cent share into inevitable defeat.

The politics of a sustainable future requires a coalition for the planet, where the best and brightest members of all parties — or none — find a way to work together for the radical transformation that our world so desperately needs.

Thunberg also reminds us individual choices matter, that what each of us does changes the world, in one direction or another.

On Friday, children will be following her lead and striking for the climate in more than 100 countries.

In Manitoba, they will be at the legislature from noon onward, to try to convince this next group of provincial politicians that — together — they must do what needs to be done, so these children can grow toward a future in which they are able to live.

But on that day, and in the aftermath of that global climate strike, where will the adults be? Will they be standing with the children, or standing against them?

Where will you be? Will you change how you live, the choices you make, every day? Or will you instead look into the eyes of your children and grandchildren and tell them you simply don’t care what happens to them?

We are faced with that kind of black or white choice. If nothing else, at least be honest — follow Thunberg’s example and be clear and direct about what you think and what matters most to you. Have the guts to tell the children, to their faces, that you intend to let their future burn.

If you can go on making those same choices as before, after you watch the children strike on Friday, then my Canada — and my world — really is upside down.

Thunberg and others have wondered whether the climate crisis is too important to be left to the politicians to solve. They must also be wondering if the climate crisis is too important for the adults to be left in charge any longer.

We will see what they decide.

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My Canada is upside-down

(July 2, 2019)

My Canada is upside-down.

What I see around me is not the country I knew, not the one I have experienced, and certainly not the one I had hoped for when I was younger.

Something has gone seriously wrong. Given that we are now facing a premature provincial election as well as the expected federal election in the next four months, it’s time for an equally serious conversation.

Not a conversation numbed down to bumper stickers and political attack ads, but one that gets to the heart of what is wrong.

Not a partisan conversation, either, in which brains seize up at the thought of crossing party lines, but one that thinks about the children and their children, out to the seventh generation, and then decides what to do.

I know just how long a time that is — as long as my white ancestors have been in Canada, arriving as United Empire Loyalist refugees after the American Revolution, after already spending 150 years as settlers and builders in New England.

My Aboriginal ancestors met their boats — in the 1630s and the 1780s — and were assimilated well before anyone thought of the concept or what it meant.

Colonizer and colonized, bearing both privilege and loss, my family history hints at the patchwork quilt of new and old that Canada became — and should still be.

But this Canada Day, I wore my Canada flag pin upside-down. Inverting a flag — flying it upside-down — is a traditional maritime signal of a serious problem, of a ship requiring assistance.

As the Arctic warms, the sea levels rise, and forests across the country burn, our governments dither about what to do in a warming world. They lack the wisdom to act, however, not the knowledge of what to do. They subsidize fossil fuels, instead of a sustainable future, more concerned about their own comfort than our children’s survival.

Seventy-five years after the D-Day invasion, we can do much better. Back then, in six years, Canada went from being a Depression-era pauper in 1938 to a modern industrial powerhouse that helped to win the Second World War in Europe. Today, the rich get fewer and richer, the poor grow in number and in poverty, and we are told this is the way things must be.

My Canada used lines of iron to forge a nation with a railroad that brought people from both coasts together in a common interest. Our current federal government approved more lines of pipe that will guarantee both division and environmental destruction — right after declaring a climate emergency.

My Canada would not have allowed a handful of unelected Conservative senators to torpedo legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Worse, this happened at the same time as a long-overdue report condemned the genocide inflicted on Indigenous Canadians, especially women and girls.

My Canada would be ashamed of turning away migrants and refugees, having learned its collective lesson from the way it treated Jewish refugees from Nazi-era Europe. My Canada would not put up barriers to the reunification of families today, or limit the private sponsorship of refugees.

The face of my Canada would not normally be white, nor would its leadership usually be male.

My Canada would offer an alternative to the world of how to embrace diversity and live together in peace, countering the tensions, distrust and hostility that are too often found elsewhere. When I ask my international students “What does a Canadian look like?” they puzzle over the question and hesitate to answer… before I tell them to look in the mirror. I point out that the diversity they experience here will be found nowhere else on the planet, and that they should embrace it as the most important part of whatever education they will receive.

Yet today we have political leaders, or would-be leaders, either embracing or excusing racism, claiming to speak for the fearful in a rapidly-changing global society, justifying exclusions and arbitrary rules that would have left their own ancestors on the outside, looking in.

My Canada would provide health care for everyone, not only those who happen to have money and privilege and live in large urban centres. My Canada would also find ways to fund disease prevention, not just its treatment, instead emphasizing the health of all local communities, good food everywhere, and an active lifestyle for everyone.

My Canada would be led by politicians whose lives were enriched by the experience, not by the office, who demonstrated humility and responsibility instead of flaunting privilege and power.

But right now, my Canada is upside-down — is yours?

Join the conversation on Twitter and tell me about your Canada — what it is, and what it should be.

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