#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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Moving mountains, one stone at a time

(January 18, 2019)

On Sept. 8, 2018, #RiseforClimate encouraged people around the world to demonstrate their concern over inaction on climate change. The demonstrators urged governments and others to do what needs to be done if we are to avoid a catastrophic climate future.

The response was mostly a shrug from anyone who noticed. A 15-year-old girl in Sweden started her own strike on Fridays against the inaction of the Swedish government. Yawn — though she got some media coverage because of the novelty.

Protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline, Line 3 and Keystone XL continued to pop up, with small numbers and little money. It was nothing that a few slick (taxpayer-funded) ad campaigns from Alberta or executive orders from U.S. President Donald Trump could not counter. Double yawn — though there was some brief consternation when Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green party, was arrested and charged.

When the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint in British Columbia was overrun by RCMP — more considerately, it seems, than how Indigenous land protectors are treated in other countries — Winnipeg was on the list of cities across Canada in which protests were staged afterward in support.

Portage and Main, and during rush hour, no less. That made some people notice. Fewer noticed the kids who joined the global student climate strike the next day and took their protests to the steps of the legislature.

If you are still shrugging or yawning, you might want to rethink your attitude. You can move a mountain by carrying away small stones.

When the fossil-fuel divestment protest movement began, it was ignored, too. Yet the campaign is now global and growing by leaps and bounds. The Irish government just followed through on its promise to sell off its investments in fossil-fuel companies. Churches, municipalities and universities have done the same.

Shamefully, this has not happened here. We should not fund our educational institutions, our communities or our pensions by investing in the very industries that make a livable future impossible.

But as the climate heats up, if our institutions really represent the Canadian public, when will their voices be heard?

As Canadians, we believe in the rule of law, what Abraham Lincoln described as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in his Gettysburg Address. Setting aside the irony that these words were said by a Republican president who demonstrated eloquence, wisdom and strong moral character, I am afraid that the small things happening today could also add up to big trouble down the road.

Canada has a mostly peaceful history, in comparison to the violence, upheaval and deprivation that led so many people from other places to settle here over the past 400 years.

If we were not so peaceful, and if we did not agree to that “rule of law,” however, there would be no good alternative. In fact, there are not enough armed combat troops in the whole of the Canadian Armed Forces to control or suppress an active insurgency just in the city of Winnipeg.

We agree to the rule of law because we believe it is for our collective good, whether we agree with that law all the time or not. But as protests spread, as the idea of government for the people is undermined or overturned by riot squads, it starts to look as if we are being governed by and for elite groups in our society instead.

There are dangerous currents in our lives together these days, currents that we ignore at our peril. A few years ago, the #Occupy movement waxed and waned. It gave us the language of “the one per cent,” the elites who have most of the wealth, and the 99 per cent, who have hope, democracy and the rule of law on their side, at least in places like Canada, but nothing much else.

Over the next two years, provincial and federal political campaigns will appeal not to our better nature, but to our worst. They will play on our fears and anxieties. They will not deal with the mountains that need to be moved.

So when the government talks peace and reconciliation, but then sends in the police; when we are told to obey the law, but the government refuses; when the government buys and builds pipelines instead of finding another, more sustainable way, there is trouble ahead.

When real steps toward a sustainable future are dismissed as impractical or inconvenient, all we can do is carry away one small stone at a time. Each of us.

One way or other, we will move that mountain. Someday, we will have a just and sustainable society.

Whether it resembles the Canada we know today depends on whether our government really is for the people, or not.

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