#PowerShift strengthens resistance at its roots

(February 1, 2019)

In October 2012, I was a speaker at the second #PowerShift event in Ottawa. It was a gathering of young people, organized by young people, focused on mobilizing and empowering networks to find ways of encouraging change on environmental issues.

Like 350.org, founded by Bill McKibben, the #PowerShift idea was to create an organization with a flat structure, with communal leadership focused on doing things, not just talking about them, letting participants organize and find their own approach to effecting change on local issues.

Apart from one other white-haired guy, I was probably the oldest person there. Given that he had come in off the street for warmth and the food that was kindly offered to him from assorted backpacks, it led to some amusing encounters of mistaken identity involving fresh fruit and University of Ottawa security personnel until people saw my name tag.

It was an inspiration to be there. These were young people not content to let their elders ruin their future; they were determined to find another way. They were working for radical change, but showing respect for each other, for the planet and even for those who blocked the way forward.

In those few days, and in the march on Parliament Hill, lay the roots of much of what has happened since in Canadian movements for climate justice — including the Occupy movement, Idle No More, fossil-fuel divestment, opposition to pipelines and many other smaller, local initiatives that haven’t yet made the headlines.

Those young people got and gave each other an education in social change in just a few days, and it was wonderful to see. I offered to go as a teacher, but spent those days in Ottawa as a student instead.

Since 2012, regional #PowerShifts have been held in Vancouver (2013), Halifax (2014) and Edmonton (2016). From Feb. 14-18, 2019, the third national conference — #PowerShift: Young and Rising — will be held, again in Ottawa.

I won’t be there. Not only am I really too old for the crowd this time, but my generation is caricatured by the old white males whose arrogant, self-serving, cynical dismissals of change, hope or a sustainable future dominate the political and cultural headlines of our day.

You can fill in the blanks with names of your choosing. Some are worse than others, but they share the same dark vision of a future in which things just get worse, because they can’t see any other horizon — or don’t want to.

This is the generation that thinks climate change will not affect them, because they have enough power and money to hold the darkness at bay for themselves, long enough to die in luxury. This is the generation that wants a luxury retirement when the next generation will have nowhere to live and nothing to eat — and their kids will have it even worse.

This is the generation of the one per cent — the rich and super-rich who could change the lives of billions overnight and not miss the money, but who would never consider it.

So whenever I stand up to speak — if ever I am asked, these days — the audience has to see past yet another old white male hogging the microphone, exemplifying power, privilege and patriarchy, if they are actually to hear what I have to say. I don’t blame them for seeking out other voices, and for listening to wisdom offered from other perspectives instead.

#PowerShift seeks to build alliances and to network in ways “The Man” can’t stop or undermine, to develop relationships among people and the planet that grow in silently unstoppable ways. It is the spirit of hope and resilience in action. It is awe-inspiring when you catch a glimpse of how despair is transformed in the lives of individuals and, through their efforts, in communities that otherwise could see no possibility of a better future.

I could fill in the blanks with the names of those young people I know who are living for each other and the planet in ways far wiser and more responsible than I ever could at that age. If you look carefully at the youth in your community, you could do the same, if you have the eyes to see the possibility and the potential that is there.

To be fair, you don’t have to be old, white or male to act like an enemy of the future. It’s a question of attitude, not of age, ethnicity or gender — and especially of what you do, more than what you say. Young, growing plants can be uprooted, trampled, scattered and burned, however. My generation counts on this, to maintain its selfish privilege in the face of common sense, compassion and ecological justice.

But #PowerShift strengthens the roots of the struggle among the youth. Like the prairie grass, their hope is resilient.

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Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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4.5 billion reasons not to vote Liberal

(June 6, 2018)

Despite their perpetual bleating that “there is no more money,” governments always seem to find the money they need to buy whatever they want.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered spectacular evidence of this, finding $4.5 billion in his sock drawer to purchase the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, present and future.

Jim Carr is now not just Minister of Pipelines, but owner, operator and CEO, as well.

The addiction continues. Canada will not only deserve Fossil of the Year awards at future climate conferences, but risk being kicked off the guest list entirely for its national hypocrisy.

So much for “sunny ways,” optimism and visionary environmental leadership. Trudeau has just provided 4.5 billion reasons for you not to vote Liberal in the next federal election, if you have any thought for your children and grandchildren’s future.

To be clear, the Conservatives are no better. While Andrew Scheer is laughing all the way to the pollster’s office today, the Kinder Morgan scene was set by the Harper government, which repeatedly made the worst environmental management decisions in Canadian history, across all sectors. Scheer’s leadership offers a smiley version of the same serial disasters.

As for the New Democratic Party, they are still straddling the picket fence — a painful position, with British Columbia Premier John Horgan on the one side and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the other. National NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been conspicuously absent all along, making it hard to evaluate his leadership when none has been apparent.

Only the Green party’s Elizabeth May has demonstrated concern for something beyond the needs of the fossil-fuel industry. After receiving a hefty fine for her public support of the protest, she spoke to following higher moral principles than those expressed in the law — an unusual position for a politician to take.

So, that $4.5 billion — plus another $7 billion for construction, it seems — will be another bad investment in a future no thinking person wants to happen. There will be jobs, but the main employment opportunities will be cleaning up the inevitable spills. Given the fact those spills will happen in B.C., there won’t be many extra jobs for Albertans, despite Notley’s flailing efforts to engineer her re-election with a variety of pipe dreams.

Her threats against B.C. are as desperate and absurd as they sound, moreover. Land-locked provinces should not threaten trade wars against the provinces with ports, rail lines and highways — and Horgan has shown restraint by not escalating the situation, despite holding the stronger hand.

Given their apparent desperation, since re-election trumps common sense among Alberta’s NDP (or concern for the planet’s future), they might take a lesson from other developing economies in the global South equally dependent upon natural resources.

Some countries are paid not to cut down their rainforests, paid to preserve wetlands, paid to preserve habitat, wildlife and so on.

Perhaps Alberta should ask the rest of the world for money not to dig up the tar sands, which alone are big enough to push the planet over any survivable carbon limit if the rest are developed.

I remember in the 1970s when prairie farmers in Saskatchewan were paid not to grow wheat. Perhaps it is time to pay Albertans not to produce bitumen.

Still, I wish I had the prime minister’s sock drawer. Perhaps there might be more money in it for the host of infrastructure, health care, education and development needs that have been sidelined until now.

But I expect the drawer is empty again, just like the promises that were made about truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, environmental protection and whatever else sounded good during election season.

This decision satisfies no one except Kinder Morgan shareholders.

The protests and blockades will continue, as will the legal challenges. The economics of this pipeline will never make sense — and the environmental devastation of its construction and use will be forever.

The Trudeau government, however, bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for the same price it would otherwise have had to pay Kinder Morgan for damages had the project been cancelled (under the same NAFTA rules that just awarded Bilcon millions of dollars in damages for having its Digby Neck quarry in Nova Scotia denied as an ecological menace).

Perhaps it now can snatch disaster from the jaws of catastrophe and just shut the whole thing down — and put the other $7 billion needed for constructing the Pipeline-to-Nowhere back into Trudeau’s sock drawer for something else.

On top of the wish lists that other people have made for the federal government, that same money could subsidize a carbon-free future for future generations of Canada, instead of buying more obsolete technologies of mass destruction.

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