The Optimistic Activist in Canada

By Tzeporah Berman, Alternatives Journal, Canada’s Environmental Voice

“WHAT IS IT about activists that they can’t even be optimistic for one day after a whole decade?” The disgust and disappointment on my 16 year olds’ face is somewhat heartbreaking as he pours cereal the morning after the Canadian election and surfs the comments on my Facebook page.  I can only shake my head sadly and agree with him.

My sons have never known a Canada that was not under Stephen Harper thumb.  For the last decade they have listened to their parents shock and outrage over the weakening of our environmental laws, the lack of transparency, the erosion of democracy, the muzzling of scientists, the attack on environmental groups, the disregard for Canada’s constitution.  Along the way we tried to keep hope alive. We painted a picture for them of a Canada that valued evidence based policy. A Canada that led on the world stage to create critical international agreements like the Montreal Protocol.  We talked about how lucky we are to live in a democracy and how important it was for us to participate, to organize and to vote.

Wouldn’t it be great to be fueled by hope instead of fear as the late Jack Layton urged us in his letter to the nation?  For just a minute could we not take a deep breath and focus on all the things that we know will now change?

Together we watched the election results come in from coast to coast and I watched the hope and optimism on my sons face as he listened to Justin Trudeau’s acceptance speech.  “Sunny ways!” We all yelled, half-hysterical and grinning ear to ear.  “To the end of the Harper Era!” We cheered as we raised a glass in jubilant toast.

Our exuberance made the next mornings conversation all that more painful. “Is he really no different?”  “Why can’t people ever be hopeful?”

Why not indeed. Optimism is a particularly hard place for the activist community.  It is by nature a community that draws from the margins, those that question the status quo are often the same people that the status quo doesn’t benefit. There are also those that are simply hard wired to question authority and then there are those who have immersed themselves in climate science and for whom incremental progress or half measures are simply seen as disastrous and even immoral. In the case of this election and the thorough trouncing of the New Democratic Party there are also those in the activist community who were deeply invested in seeing an NDP or at least a Liberal minority that would give more space for an NDP agenda and with it the potential to strengthen the Liberals position on climate change.

Let’s be clear — the Liberal Party Platform on climate change currently lacks strong emissions reductions targets at a critical moment in history when it is clear that the United Nations Framework Climate Change Conference discussions are undergoing a dramatic cultural shift.  For the first time in over a decade we are seeing a race to the top on climate policy.  Countries are committing to aggressive targets and, like China with the announcement of their cap and trade system, they are putting in place real policies to meet those targets. Canada will have to scramble to catch up after a decade of Federal inaction and there is a considerable amount of fear and cynicism in the activist and scientific community about how our new Liberal government will rise to that challenge.

Prime Minster-elect Justin Trudeau’s support for the Keystone pipeline and the cozy relationship between the Liberal campaign chair and Transcanada has not helped create optimism on the climate file. Of course, there is also the experience of our colleagues south of the border who remind us that without strong public campaigns the Obama administration would never have considered pulling permits for Arctic drilling and certainly would have approved the Keystone pipeline by now. The pull of the oil and gas industry is strong and while we now have the technology to build a cleaner, safer energy system, it is not easy for any elected leader to forego significant short term financial benefits from fossil fuel exploration let alone tell their constituents that the price of electricity and gas needs to go up.

The Liberal campaign slogan during this Federal election was ‘hope and hard work’.  In the coming months we will need a lot of both. 

Not just from our new government but also from ourselves.  Let’s allow ourselves to hope.  For our children and our health and the health of our communities.  Over the past week I have forced myself not to fall into the pit of cynicism and to take a moment everyday to think of one thing that I care about that will change under this new government.  It has had the effect of weights being lifted off my shoulders leaving me feel more spacious, more creative and free. A decade of attacks on our democracy, on those who can afford it the least and on our environment has left considerable baggage and scars.  It will take a while to unpack it all and to trust my own government again.  For my children I will try.  If we allow ourselves to hope, Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau is making it easy for us.  We aren’t getting platitudes and framing devoid of real promises and content.

Within minutes we were getting renewed commitments to a new voting system, an inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and an invitation to Green Party leader Elizabeth May and every Premier to attend the Paris Climate Summit as part of a team. 

We even got a day after press conference where our Prime Minister-elect … answered questions.

A decade of attacks on our democracy, on those who can afford it the least and on our environment has left considerable baggage and scars. The coming months will not be easy as we begin to establish a new relationship with our government and the international community but I am hopeful that we now have a government that will govern for all of Canadians best interests and not simply for one sector.  I am hopeful that we now have a government that will choose science over politics, clean, safe energy systems over business as usual and perhaps even a government that will choose people over polluters.

Photo: Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau gives his victory speech after Canada’s federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

Tzeporah Berman BA MES LLD (honoris causa) is an environmental activist, an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge, published by Knopf Canada and the mother of two boys.