Ardern, Notley represent different kind of politics

(April 4, 2019)

There is a sign making the rounds on social media that reads, “You know it’s time for a change when children act like leaders and leaders act like children.”

In a long string of recent childish behaviours from leaders, the one exception was Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand. She won public admiration for her response to the mass shootings in Christchurch, even from countries where female political leadership is a rarity.

Countries like Canada, in fact. While we celebrate our own Nellie McClung and the other four women who won the “Persons” case, there are far too few women in politics. What’s more, most women who are in politics still seem to hit the glass ceiling when it comes to the top roles.

So as Ardern’s picture was cast on the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, headscarf and hug, I thought of another oilpatch thousands of kilometres away where Rachel Notley is trying to become the first re-elected female premier in Canadian history.

In 2018, it didn’t turn out so well for Kathleen Wynne and the people of Ontario. Wynne’s Liberals were not only erased at the polls, but the combination of anti-Wynne sentiment and stay-at-home voters meant Doug Ford was elected premier instead. It will take the province at least a generation to repair the damage Ford has already done, especially on environmental issues.

That’s a generation we don’t have, as the slide toward 2 C global warming continues.

It was a replay (on a smaller scale, with fewer tweets) of what happened in the last U.S. presidential election. Hillary Clinton would have been the first female president in that country, but similar attitudes (and perhaps a bit of Russian meddling) put Donald Trump in the Oval Office instead, with much worse consequences for the planet and for America’s role in global affairs.

Yet when you consider that men (of all colours) inflict military, economic and sexual violence on victims everywhere every day, and that none of the high-profile shooters who have killed children in schools or people at prayer have been female, it is hard not to wonder whether female leaders would do things differently than their male counterparts.

At the very least, women in political leadership deserve to be judged for their character and competence, and not ruled out simply because of their gender.

So, while I have frequently criticized Rachel Notley for her decisions as premier, she has brought a new and different tone to politics in Alberta — a place that previously had one-party rule for longer than anywhere except the Soviet Union, with about as little social tolerance for dissent. In 2015, Albertans not only elected a woman as premier, but one leading an NDP government, and (contrary to predictions) their world did not come to an end.

For the record, Notley is tough and smart, driven by a concern for her constituents and not pulled along by the ideological golden nose ring that her Opposition counterparts (such as Jason Kenney) wear so proudly.

Like many leaders before her, however, she is unfortunately still addicted to doing lines of pipe, instead of finding other and more sustainable ways to make Alberta great again.

But I remember the days of the Heritage Fund, those billions of dollars squirrelled away to ensure Alberta’s future, even occasionally paying dividends. As a native Albertan, living elsewhere for most of my life, I was envious of those who still lived in the Land of No PST.

For years, however, money that should have helped build that fund has been squandered. It could have been used to transition the province away from being a one-cow operation, but it wasn’t. There was no vision at all, as the old white guys in leadership instead wallowed in their bank vaults like Scrooge McDuck.

It was the One Party that made those choices, pulled along by its own nose by financial interests from offshore. It had no concern for future generations — in a pirate economy, focused on plundering public resources for private profit, how could there be?

Certainly, Alberta politics and this election campaign have been marred by the kind of juvenile behaviour that the social media sign deplores. Canada needs leaders like Jacinda Ardern, including female ones, but we don’t need to import them from New Zealand.

I am not saying Notley should win re-election in Alberta because she is a woman, however. That would demean the significant contributions she and her government have made to the province and to Canada in the past four years.

But I am saying that, in 2019, she certainly should not lose the election because she is a woman.

If the misogynists join forces again with the people who don’t vote, it would mean the dinosaurs still rule the Alberta badlands after all.

And, just like in Ontario and the United States, that could spell disaster for everyone.

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#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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Watch your tongue:children are listening

(August 30, 2018)

There are good reasons behind the admonition “Not in front of the children, please!”

Children are little sponges, soaking up information and what it means in ways even their parents barely understand. Other people are oblivious to the ankle-biters running around them at social events and elsewhere.

What the chronologically adult members of our society say and do in public affects the next generation, whether they realize it or not.

When it comes to racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and all-around cultural misery, therefore, the “dinosaur dismissal” of waiting for the old nasty ones to die off so things will get better just doesn’t work.

Adding the internet to the mix, anything that appears on Facebook or Twitter these days will also be overheard by the next generation.

This is not a new thing. I remember, as a young teen, overhearing many negative comments from adults I otherwise respected, about “immigrants,” “refugees,” people from other places coming to Canada and taking “our” jobs, “our” land, not accepting “our” culture, bringing with them the attitudes and politics of “their” country to Canada and causing trouble.

But I was also smart enough to realize that all these comments were being delivered in Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian and Hungarian accents, by people oblivious to the irony that they were denying to other needy people the same opportunities they had been given.

The waves of “boat people” from Southeast Asia, followed by other waves from Central and South America, then Africa, soon swamped such attitudes, at least officially, but lately there has been an increase in public comments too much like the ones I overheard in the 1970s.

I don’t think there are more racists or bigots in Canada now than before. Anyone who walks around the streets of any Canadian city or (increasingly) in small towns, too, knows that they will find a cross-section of the whole world living together in a kind of harmony that other countries envy. The negative comments these days just go farther and faster, thanks to social media.

Fascism, especially, has always depended upon technology since microphones, loudspeakers, movies and radios were used to spread the propaganda that helped create Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The real problem, for me, is not the nastiness of some of these “adults.” The real problem is that the children are listening. As adults, we can console ourselves by saying that there will be an election soon, and the government will have to change for the better, but that is not good enough. There may not be another election, or the change may make things worse instead.

The children, however, look at what is being said or done in public, and then observe how the adults they respect in their lives choose to respond. The schoolyard is society in miniature — kids experience the same range of attitudes and emotions as adults, just on a smaller scale, though (as we know from problems with bullying) one that can be just as lethal to the victims.

What happens at home, or is spread through social media, sooner or later will surface at school and will influence the rest of their lives.

I have always felt, however, that trying to keep things just between the adults has never really worked. Instead of trying to hide the nasty things in society that you don’t want the kids to see, we should embrace the opportunity to shape the lives of the next generation in a positive way.

Public proclamations against racism and prejudice are necessary, I suppose, but kids learn from what we do, not what we say. The single most powerful tool to shape their lives (and our world) for the better is something that is easy for everyone to use, every day: compassion.

What I heard, behind the bigoted and racist comments the adults made in my childhood, was a lack of compassion for people in the same situation as they once were.

In a world where millions of people are refugees, and before climate change makes things even worse, we need to demonstrate the same compassion for others that we would want for ourselves if we were the ones pleading for help at the door.

We will never have enough money, enough resources or enough time as the needs around us continue to grow.

But if the children watch us and learn what compassion is and what it means, those life lessons could change everything.

Compassion creates possibilities that were not there before.

Best of all, compassion is not only free — it is priceless.

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