Kenn Stright can pinpoint the day he became an activist.
He was a young Presbyterian minister from Nova Scotia at Waywayseecappo First Nation in Southwestern Manitoba. A few years into his ministry, the First Nation’s Chief took him to the Birtle Residential School, which by then was closed.
“We walked those halls and he started telling me the stories of the Residential Schools,” Stright recalls. “This was long before there was any exposure of these schools. At the end of the day he asked me to make sure that people never forgot what happened in that place. I made him a promise I’d do that.”
What followed was a 40-year journey to help bring his national church and Nova Scotia-based congregations and communities into reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. These efforts included watershed protection from major commercial projects like pipelines.
Stright, who lives in West Petpeswick, Musquodoboit Harbour, Nova Scotia, is hoping that young people begin their own journey to help make a difference in their local and broader communities. He is part of a team bringing together fellow activists, young and older, new and experienced, to Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. May 2-5 for an Atlantic gathering organized by KAIROS Canada called Streams of Justice.
“I think we all need to count for something in this life,” he says. “Whatever we give our lives to we should give it with a passion.”
Stright hopes that people can cultivate their passion for social and ecological justice at the Atlantic Gathering, which offers five streams for deepening knowledge, connecting with activist from across the region and taking action. They are: Indigenous Rights, Migrant Justice, Women of Courage, Ecological Justice and KAIROS Blanket Exercise.
While people in Atlantic Canada typically volunteer more than the national average, volunteerism has declined in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, according to Stats Canada’s most recent findings, dated 2013. Volunteerism also declined for Canadians ages 20 to 34.
Emma Seamone recognizes the challenges this age group faces in addressing some of the issues that concern them. Seamone is 31-years-old and lives in St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
“One of the struggles of my generation is tackling the huge student debt we’re saddled with, which means working multiple jobs,” she says, noting that despite this some of her friends, including herself, devote their time to tackling a pressing problem. She discovered her passion for environmental activism growing up in Wallace, a small fishing village in Nova Scotia.
“When the lobster stalks were down it had a direct economic impact on the place in which I lived. I could explain the connection between what was going on with the environment and the community. That is how my activism took form – translating complex information into something people can understand.”
While some friends struggle to make ends meet in her community, she sees others leaving the region for the oil and gas fields in Alberta or the Site C dam in British Columbia
“This makes it hard to navigate conversations with them about climate change,” she says.
Seamone wonders how her province can forge a just transition and create a clean energy economy that encourages people to stay in New Brunswick when the province has typically relied on low-skilled labour. She hopes that the Atlantic Gathering will help create a community around activists willing to discuss and tackle these challenges, finding hope amidst some of the most pressing issues of our time, such as climate change.
Hannah Gehrels views the Atlantic region as an important place for activism in Canada. Originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Gehrels, who is 27-years-old, came to Charlottetown for school and stayed.
Like Seamone, Gehrels was drawn to ecology and nature at an early age. And while she currently overseas a program that connects children with nature, she has worked on a wide range of causes, including migrant justice and impacts of Canadian mining on communities overseas.
“If you look at volunteerism, Atlantic provinces are much higher than the rest of Canada,” she observes. “People are connected to each other here working on different issues, more so than any other place I’ve been.”
For Seamone, the Atlantic region is unique because it offers up a list of firsts from which the rest of the country can learn.
“We’re the place that’s been colonized and gone through boom bust economies the longest,” she says. “There’s lots of things that Atlantic Canadians can teach others because it is part of a country that had to go through ups and downs for so long.”
It’s also taken stage on landmark decisions.
“Almost every major step in Indigenous rights probably originated here,” says Stright. He points to the case on fishery that involved Donald Marshall, a Mi’kmaq leader and Indigenous activist.
“The Marshall case coalesced the claim of Indigenous people to their Indigenous rights,” he says.
KAIROS hopes that the Atlantic Gathering will inspire more Atlantic Canadians to deepen their understanding of these issues, particularly on how they relate to one another.
“KAIROS is one of the few places that articulates well intersectionality, which is now becoming a buzz word,” says Seamone. “I think KAIROS has a long history of doing that well, connecting the dots.”
Stright looks forward to hearing new voices, such as those from Seamone and Gehrels’ generation, and Indigenous voices, that have already changed the conversation since he began his activist journey 40 years ago.
“We need to listen to these voices and move forward with them,” he says.
Streams of Justice: Atlantic Canada Gathering runs from May 2-5 at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. Group rates available. Registration closes April 15. Learn more and register: kairoscanada.org/atlanticgathering
Shannon Neufeldt is the Member Relations and Network Coordinator for KAIROS.