My expectations coming into PowerShift 2012 were quite high: I’d already been to three US PowerShifts (two regional, one national), and I knew some of the key organizers had also been part of the hell-raising (and highly-effective) Canadian Youth Delegation to COP 17 in Durban, South Africa last year. But that weekend in Ottawa surpassed even my standards for a successful environmental youth conference – and made me reevaluate just what the hell we’re doing back in the States.
Friday night saw hundreds of youth from across Canada gathered in the Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization for the conference kick-off. Totem poles towered over the keynote speakers and presenters as tribal designs from First Nations communities in the Pacific Northwest served as the stage’s backdrop. Clayton Thomas-Muller, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation and co-emcee of the evening, proudly announced that we were on unceded Algonquin territory; Algonquin elder Annie St. George opened the conference with a traditional prayer and burning of sage.
Keynote speakers that night, as well as Saturday evening, had a fair balance of men of Euro-American descent (some French-speaking, some English-speaking) and women of Canadian and/or indigenous descent. Translation devices were made readily available to participants who were not bilingual; if those ran out, facilitators called for volunteers to do “whisper translation” for those who needed it.
Many of the indigenous presenters also doubled as representatives of frontline communities, tragically-classic cases of environmental racism. The following is a powerful excerpt of Saturday’s keynote speech from Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation:
I didn’t come here to sell you anything, unlike our pro-industry government representatives [who] travel on an international level – who say tar sands land is uninhabitable by human beings. That land he’s talking about? It’s the Beaver Lake Cree Nations’ traditional hunting territory. And as far as I can tell, we’re still there – we haven’t gone anywhere.
Five hundred years of oppression and colonization – the cyclical abuses that we’ve endured as people – we’re still here. How I know that is because I live there, with my children. … I have an obligation to my children because I brought them into this world. There’s probably parents sitting in this room; and those who aren’t parents, someday you might be. … As an indigenous person, as a woman: we are the keepers of the water. We have that obligation as women.
Because without water, we don’t have life. It’s not by chance women carry in water. Without water, as indigenous people we lose our ceremonies – we lose our way of life. There’s one thing that connects us in this world, and that’s water. And we have a basic human right to drink clean water. My children have that right and … the government has a fiduciary responsibility to give us clean drinking water. And it’s not okay that … when I walk past that [invisible line between municipalities], our drinking water is different than others. It’s not okay that my 14-year-old niece have an asthma attack, that my son got a bleeding nose – that’s not okay. And that’s what we’re living every single day. It doesn’t matter if you’re indigenous or not – it’s not okay. [But] this is what our future looks like, because they have desecrated a site the size of Switzerland – and they want to expand it ten times. That’s what they want.
I think about our people back home: they’re terrified [to speak out]. Nobody wants to talk about it. I’m scared of what’s gonna happen to me the more people get to know who I am. I fear for myself because of the way we’ve been instilled with this fear – we’re afraid to talk about these issues.
Colonization was one c-word folks at the conference weren’t scared to say; the other was best framed Friday night by Quebec student activist Gabriel Nadeau Dubois: “It’s easy to identify the cause of our environmental crisis: capitalism.” Individual acts of emissions-reduction, such as driving a hybrid or switching to CFLs, can falsely lead us to believe we’re making a difference. Really, Nadeau Dubois said, we must act as a collective to make major interventions in our business-as-usual economy.
Naomi Klein also counted capitalism as our cultural identity and the root of the environmental crisis:
Climate change demands we consume less; this is coming at the triumphant moment of shopping where you create your identity through [your purchases]. … it seems an attack on [the individual’s] identity. Climate change plays out in local ways, intensely local landscapes. Noticing these subtle changes requires a connection with a place; local knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next. But this knowledge is increasingly rare: the mark of a capitalism success. We leave our homes light for a new job … and thus we are severed from the knowledge amassed by our ancestors.
As a woman of color I felt proud and overjoyed that those parts of my identity were so highlighted throughout the weekend; I realized that was something my previous PowerShift experiences lacked. Sure, I’ve seen Al Gore and Bill McKibben – but what do they know about environmental racism? They’ve been in Washington too long; they’ll never suffer as Lameman and members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations do every day. These are the struggles that must be at the forefront of the environmental movement because ending them is the only way we will achieve climate justice.
We in the US must do more to reach out to historically marginalized communities. We must create a space in the movement for those who aren’t middle-class college students; who don’t speak English as a first language (or at all); who aren’t afraid to identify as an anticapitalista. They must be core organizers, not just a name on a list of allies – they must play a role in where we go from here.
Because we’ll never move forward unless we move together. A successful movement will take all of us to stand up to the true oppressors: the corporations, the fossil fuel industries, the upholders of colonialism and environmental racism.
And this is where Canadian youth are getting it right: they’re moving forward together to stop these injustices and fight for a sustainable, just future. Hope echoed throughout each speaker’s sentiments, and it will spread back to the farthest corners of the country when the youth of PowerShift return to their homes.
I hope to bring a little of that with me back to the States as we continue to brace ourselves for Hurricane Sandy and all future disasters. St. George said it best: “We must speak from the heart … so future generations of our people can survive.
“We are here because, in our time, there is no time.”