The environmental movement in Canada just got bigger – and so have the movements for Indigenous rights, migrant justice and anti-capitalism.
From Oct. 26 to 29, over 1,000 youth from across the country — including almost 100 from Nova Scotia — gathered in Ottawa for Powershift 2012. It was a conference that had climate change as a starting point, but it didn’t focus on climate science, government inaction or buying green.
“We can’t talk about the climate and the environment without talking about the people that live on the land,” says Harsha Walia, a South Asian activist, writer and researcher who was a panellist at the conference. “An understanding of colonialism has to be the foundation of everything.”
Powershift’s organizers, facilitators and speakers recognized that it is impossible to isolate environmental catastrophe from the systems that feed it and the people most affected by it.
Any campaign, such as the campaign to shut down the Tar Sands, needs to be placed in a broader framework, says Walia, who spoke on a panel about building a multi-issue movement for climate justice.
“The Tar Sands is about climate justice, it’s also fundamentally about Indigenous communities fight against colonization and extraction on their land,” explains Walia.
“It’s about ensuring that women have safety because whenever there’s resource extraction in boom towns we see high rates of violence against women. It’s about real estate speculation and massive amounts of poverty around those communities. It’s about labour struggle, because we see increasing numbers of migrant workers being brought in to work on these projects.
“When we have an analysis of capitalism, colonialism and oppression we begin to see all the specific issues we’re working on in a broader framework,” says Walia.
The desire for transformation, rather than reform, brought Aaron Beale, a Dalhousie student, to Powershift. Beale was tired of the environmental movement talking about changing lightbulbs rather than changing systems.
“The conference was a lot about uniting people from different movements … There was also a lot of talk about structural problems and capitalism, which I think was important.”
Workshops at Powershift included skill-based sessions on direct action, political theatre, media messaging and website design. They also included panels on the role of the labour movement, green anti-capitalism, how reproductive justice is connected to environmental violence and climate-induced migration.
Indigenous people had a prominent role in all areas of Powershift, from conference organizers to keynote speakers to workshop panellists.
According to Mohawk activist Ben Powless, who helped organize the conference, Indigenous struggles were at the forefront of Powershift because First Nations communities are on the frontline of climate change and it is critical “to support their work, to support their struggles, to elevate their voices.”
Keynote speaker Crystal Lameman from Beaver Lake Cree Nation (BLCN) spoke about the way Tar Sands development is poisoning her community’s water and air. In response, BLCN is asserting its role as caretakers of its traditional territories and taking legal action.
“We have been granted a trial,” says Lameman, “And the law is on the side of Beaver Lake.” BLCN wants recognition of its constitutionally protected rights to hunt, trap and fish; and to protect the ecological integrity of its territories.
A panel of Indigenous youth activists spoke of the challenges of organizing in their communities.
We don’t come from a place of privilege and being students,” says Missy Elliot from Six Nations. “When we go out and organize, there’s always the issues of money and resources and what’s going on at home.”
Elliot says the legacy of residential schools continues. “We see a lot of strength in our people, but a lot of issues, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, suicide.”
Despite these challenges, young people in Six Nations are currently mobilizing against Line 9, a new Enbridge pipeline threat in Ontario.
Vanessa Gray, who spoke on the panel with Elliot, is from Asmjiwnaag First Nation, near Sarnia Ontario in an area also known as Chemical Valley.
“It’s a huge example of environmental racism,” says Gray, whose community is surrounded by factories and oil refineries. “I thought everyone had to live next to Suncor,” she says. “All the kids I went to daycare with had puffers … Growing up there, you can’t just go play in the pond because it’s toxic.”
Gray started an environmental youth group when she was 16. “I want to be here for those youth who want to speak out against what’s not right,” she says.
The prominence of Indigenous voices at Powershift was important for non-naitive participants, says Powless, who works with both the Indigenous Environmental Network and Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. It is important for everyone to hear about the struggles that are happening within these communities and “to meet some of the frontline people and get a real sense for what those issues are about, what people are dealing with.”
Dalhousie students Caitlin Oliver and Andrea Robinson were especially struck by the stories of First Nations being impacted by the Tar Sands.
Oliver, who is in her final year of her Environmental Engineering program, says that she already knew the Tar Sands were bad, but the stories from Indigenous communities reaffirmed that she will not be following her friends to high paying jobs at Shell and Suncor.
“A lot of environmental engineering jobs are aimed at oil and mining,” says Oliver. “I’ve never wanted to work for oil and mining, but [the stories of Indigenous struggles] reaffirms for me that that’s not what I want to do with my engineering degree.”
Robinson, a third-year International Development and Economics student, recognizes that her direct experience of fossil fuel development and climate change has been very limited.
“I’m extremely privileged,” says Robinson. “I grew up in a relatively small town in Ontario, surrounded by agriculture. Food security was never an issue.” Robinson’s personal experience of climate change has been limited to things like not having campfires during dry summers.
“I fundamentally believe that people who are in situations understand them better than people who are not,” says Robinson. “So I have so much to learn. I think that’s the biggest thing I’m coming away [from Powershift] with. About how much I have to learn from Indigenous people and people on the front lines.”
Clayton Thomas-Muller, Tar Sands campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network and conference organizer, sees the shift at the conference and in the movement in general as deeply encouraging. “This social movement’s success is based on being strongly rooted in an anti-colonial, anti-rascist, anti-oppression model of social movement change theory,” says Thomas-Muller.
“Seeing all these young people exposed to the theories of change that were on the table, and really embracing them and many already understanding them and practicing them in their own lives … To me, it represents what is truly a time of reconciliation,” he says. “Whether this government wants to recognize that or not, Canada’s going through its own process of reconciling 400 years of genocidal policies.”
“We live in a predator economy, a linear economy, and we need to live in something that is cyclical, …that is feminine,” continues Thomas-Muller. “I think the time of that white patriarchy, of that patriarchical linear pathway … that time is coming to an end. I see it when I look at the faces of each and every one of these young people here. They want something different.”
Hillary Bain Lindsay is a writer for the Halifax Media Co-op. This story first appeared on the Halifax Media Co-op website.