The climate crisis is BIG, no argument, but New Brunswick is a province of small rural communities. VOICES for Sustainable Environments and Communities (VOICES) met May 27 to talk about how rural communities might implement policy change and local environmental action. Many of the 32 participants — from Jemseg, Cambridge-Narrows, Gagetown, Hampstead, Codys, and the Belleisle areas — were unable to attend school or work during last month’s historic flooding.
Colleen Wagner, one of the meeting’s organizers, explained: “Our voice is important. The more we’re divided, the weaker our voice is. We have to talk to each other to create a collective voice.” She began the meeting by screening Swedish student activist (and Nobel Peace Prize nominee) Greta Thunberg’s address at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in December 2018. Thunberg, speaking on behalf of Climate Action Now, declared: “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing from them their future in front of their eyes.”
The evening’s speakers included students Spencer Thorne from Cambridge-Narrows Community School and Isabel Francis from Gagetown Community School, and Margo Sheppard with the Fredericton chapter of the Council of Canadians.
Education was put in the spotlight many times during the meeting. Thorne, whose presentation began with: “We can’t get young people [to participate],” said: “We shelter kids. Children need to make mistakes. They need to learn from their mistakes, to eat dirt.” Thorne, Francis, and their peer Paige Mason all stressed the need to make climate action “fun.” To counter the lack of youth participation, they proposed a youth-organized climate caucus. “Parents have a voice,” Thorne said. “Students need to have a voice and to voice their opinions freely.”
Francis’ hand-painted t-shirt read: “‘It’s only 1 straw’ said 8 billion people.” Referring to her own participation in recent climate strikes, she said: “We need to act now.”
Marilyn Merritt-Gray, VOICES Co-chair, echoed Wagner’s call to create a collective voice. “Nobody has all of the answers. We’re going to need to find our way through this together.”
When entering the Gagetown Legion Hall, participants identified on their nametags one issue they were there to discuss: “Tom, flooding,” “Bonnie, climate change,” “Garth, energy efficient homes.” Their issues were copied onto neon Post-It notes, placed at the front of the hall and discussed throughout the evening.
For much of the meeting, participants considered Canada’s Green New Deal (GND) and how small towns, villages, and rural communities factor into its proposed policies.
What is important for a rural-minded GND? Suggestions ranged from corporate responsibility and infrastructure upgrades, like regional mass transit and electric vehicle charging stations in rural and remote areas, to cutting waste and needing the government’s help for climate crisis preparedness and planning. Canada Post’s “Delivering Community Power” initiative was mentioned as an example of an organization driving the transition to rural sustainability. Most importantly, “I want the word ‘rural’ to be visible,” said Merritt-Gray.
Sheppard’s presentation: “Why we are where we are and what the heck is the Green New Deal?” covered the GND history, its U.S. and global counterparts, and Theodore Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.
“Green as in colour,” Sheppard began, distinguishing the nonpartisan proposal from the political party. The GND facilitates nation-wide conversations about the climate crisis, and she mentioned the many town hall meetings (THMs) taking place across the country to give people the opportunity to discuss what they want to see in the GND. In New Brunswick, GND THMs have been held or will be taking place in Fredericton, Saint John, and Fort Mills.
Sheppard also mentioned rural options for “pointy stick brigades,” including the newly-formed New Brunswick chapter of Extinction Rebellion. According to their website, the international group is: “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to achieve radical change in order to minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse.”
Participants stressed the importance of altering climate crisis discourse. Sue McGibbon, a resident of Gagetown, noted, “The way we talk to children about climate change has to be more than catastrophizing.” Merritt-Gray added, “don’t traumatize; mobilize. We need to give people the language to educate.”
But, as Thunberg reminds us, “We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
Pleasant Villa resident Alexandra Stewart-Francis reminded everyone that rural communities do not need to rely on their larger neighbours for amenities. “We need to change people’s mindsets about what ‘local’ means,” she said. “People need to take advantage of local assets. We need to make buying local affordable.”
VOICES members acknowledged the meeting raised an overwhelming number of issues about the role of rural communities in crafting and implementing climate crisis initiatives — too many to take on at once. “Obviously, we have a lot of work to do,” admitted Merritt-Gray. “But we don’t want to be left behind.”
The proposed Gagetown area youth caucus will be limited to participants aged 20 years and under and will take place in June. For more information about the youth caucus or VOICES, contact co-chair Marilyn Merritt-Gray at email@example.com.
Lauren R. Korn is a research assistant for the RAVEN project and a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick.