This week I attended an important rally outside of Osgoode Hall. The David Suzuki Foundation was in court arguing that the government needs to recognize the current climate crisis we are facing. Instead? The gov’t is spending our money, in a time of austerity, on stickers that lie to us on gas pumps.
For a Monday at Noon, the turn out was fantastic. People of all ages and backgrounds were there, students made inspiring speeches, we made some great noise, and it was a good showing of support for the David Suzuki Foundation, who has been doing important and tireless work. The last speech of the rally was even made by my good friend Brody Robin-Meyer.
Afterwards Brody and I spoke with Elizabeth Sarjeant who had been organizing an event with the Blue Dot Movement. She sent me an invitation and when I saw the event featured a panel discussion with Olivia Chow, former NDP politician, Maude Barlow, Head of the Council of Canadians, Dianne Saxe, Former Environment Commissioner of Ontario, and Vanessa Gray, an Aamjiwnaang First Nation organizer who I have seen speak at many protests and rallies, I thought… what an incredible panel, I want to hear these women speak! If anybody has the answers, these women might.
Alex and I excitedly decided to attend, and upon arriving found Brody right away. While saying hello, a man came up and interrupted us. He introduced himself as a conservative lobbyist, a self described “mercenary,” a conservative member for over 15 years. He claimed he was there to help some of the green businesses make a buck. He claimed he had Vic Fedeli on speed dial. “Gotta make that money, right?!”
As Brody put it, our discomfort was palpable. Wondering, “What the hell is this guy doing here?!” I interrupted and said we should go get a drink and find our seats before the discussion started and quickly walked away. I turned to Alex and said, “That guy is confused and lost.”
We grabbed some snacks and sat down, me between Brody and Alex near the front. Beside Alex was somebody’s puffy coat and beside Brody was a man in a colourful suit jacket who, as we sat down introduced himself as the owner of a pulp and paper mill and went on to describe himself as a pretty staunch capitalist. Alex and I exchanged a frustrated look.
We arrived critical of the event.
The Blue Dot Movement’s goal is to have the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms express the fact that all Canadians have the right to a healthy environment. They’ve been tirelessly working on it, I actually remember attending Toronto’s City Council meeting to discuss this right to a healthy environment in the spring of 2014. Most councillors were not paying attention and pushed the motion to the fall. I still feel the outrage I felt on that day as councillors were sitting tweeting each other about attendance like school-children instead of paying attention to our right to clean water and air. Actually, that’s an insult to school children, who have been standing up for their education here, standing up for the environment abroad, and actually acting like the adults these days. It’s a topsy turvy world.
We arrived critical of the event because while it is important in an ideal world to have laws in place to protect our environment, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where our laws are in place TO commodify the resources in this country. They are in place to keep others out, and to keep Indigenous people down. Canada is a country built on racist laws, and as we can see in Ontario, any good laws we might have to protect us, like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms can be shot down at any moment on a Conservative whim.
What I did not understand, and what most people do not understand is we are now one Province away from a Conservative majority which would allow them to make constitutional amendments. That means that what happened in Ontario with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms could very well happen nation wide. So… why spend all this time and effort on making a law that the conservatives are just about to make moot all together?!
This was the question we desperately wanted to ask this incredible panel… and couldn’t wait to hear all the things they had to say. Just before the event started, the conservative lobbyist from before walked over and sat down beside Alex. Brody and I lost it laughing as a super serious film featuring David Suzuki about the state of our environment began. Here we were sitting between a staunch capitalist and a conservative lobbyist at a David Suzuki Blue Bot Movement event. The world… is falling apart folks.
Just before the film ended, the conservative lobbyist seemed to finally clue in where he was, and promptly got up and left. After the film, they introduced Olivia Chow as the moderator. Alex leaned over and said, “Oh no… they made the politician the moderator?! Never make a politician in charge of the mic…”
Now, I like Olivia Chow, and we all voted for her for Mayor, but Ms. Chow proceeded to extend that uncomfortable feeling I felt from the moment I walked in the door. The majority of the evening was taken up by her long winded introductions of the panelists, who we all knew, and who very clearly did not want to be introduced. These are women who have written 15+ books and are working on the front line against budget cuts, they have a lot to say and it was not stuff about them. After Dianne Saxe said out loud, “Do not introduce me,” Olivia went on to introduce her.
Then it was finally time to ask Vanessa Gray, the incredibly tireless Aamjiwnaang First Nation activist who grew up in Chemical Valley her opinion on all of this, and this was the one person Chow did not introduce…she jumped right into questions by asking, “Where did you find the strength to overcome everything (we) did to you?” And also, “What would you say to Justin Trudeau if he was here right now…” which is a fundamentally awfully racist thing to ask an Indigenous person at this point in time.
I was in shock by the inappropriate questions asked and upset for Vanessa and Beze. These people should not be asked to recognize someone like Justin Trudeau who has looked their communities in the faces and bold faced lied, and whose Father oversaw the writing of the Indian Act in 1976 which opened up a new and ugly chapter in Canada’s racist history that continues to this day. We need look no farther than Unist’ot’en for proof there. They should not be asked to recognize this government or our laws which have done horrible, awful things to their communities and their sacred spaces.
Their answer to us was that this government doesn’t work. This structure, doesn’t work. They didn’t build Chemical Valley, we did. Yet our laws keep them right beside it. They told us stories of how their community had to move their daycare to the very centre of the reserve so that the children wouldn’t be right beside the refineries, or the “cloud makers” as they call them.
These are heartbreaking truths that most Canadians don’t care to empathize with…if they even know about them. We are not taught to think about how lucky we are every time we turn on a tap. We are not taught to think about what we’ve done to these communities, we are actually taught the opposite of empathy. Our government puts billions of dollars into professional sports and legalized tailgating, to keep us tribal and distracted from connecting with one another, and so when these people tell us that they want Justin Trudeau to suffer, when they want Canadians to suffer, how can we possibly blame them?
Those two were essentially the only questions Chow asked them. The third was, “How would you want your communities to look your environment to feel?” Which was ridiculous because we all know the answer, it would look natural, with no industry designed to hurt them. Duh.
So here we were with two Canadian law makers on stage, Dianne and Maude saying that laws and government are good and we need them, and two First Nations people on stage saying that laws aren’t going to help us. Feeling very confused and ready to ask for clarification, Chow decided to upend the schedule and said, “Instead of questions, we are going to take action instead! Let’s take all of the rage our First Nations brothers and sisters are feeling and take action! Let’s go out into the communities and tell everybody what we learned!!!”
I was so unbelievably frustrated I stood straight up in the middle of the audience and said, “What did we learn?! What are we bringing back to our communities?! Because we had two experts over here telling us that we need laws and laws are good, but then we had two people from the front lines telling us that they do not work… so I mean I am confused. I think a better question for Vanessa and Beze than, “how would your environment look if it was up to you,” is how would the structure of our governance look better to you? Is there a council of Indigenous elders that our government actually has to answer to, is it decolonization?! What is it?!…”
Maude and Dianne were nodding at my words but Vanessa and Beze seemed startled by my interruption.
Olivia Chow, utterly unaware how unaware she was the entire discussion said, “What? No, they said the same thing!” But then Dianne Saxe took the mic away. At this point my ears were ringing from just standing up and essentially shouting at Olivia Chow, which I did not expect myself to do. I had also wanted to hear from Vanessa and Beze at this point, not from Maude and Dianne. Vanessa took the mic next and essentially said that it’s not up to them to come up with a solution for us. She said that if our activism is coming from a place of selfishness, then nothing will change, but if our activism is coming from a place of empathy for these communities then that’s where change will happen. At this point the on screen panelist, David, came back on in response to my question and spoke to the amazing politicians he has out in his riding. He said that if a politician will not explicitly support indigenous and environmental rights, then don’t give them your support, your vote, or even your respect. This was, in my opinion, the most important and constructive take away for all of us.
Chow then began pulling people to the front to begin organizing the next events, when we got up to speak to Maude Barlow. As I approached her she looked at me with recognition as the impassioned interrupter. After thanking her for all her tireless work I said, “I’m sorry for interrupting…” and she put out her hand and held my arm.
She said, “Don’t you be. We need passion like that.” And then I started crying. She then hugged me tight and told me, “Margaret Atwood says that the facts of this world seen clearly are seen through tears.” Which of course made me cry more.
She went on to thank me for standing up and asking what I did, as did several other attendees who had been feeling the same dissonance from the information we were getting from the event.
I think the biggest takeaway from this experience is that our laws, in their current state, were made by and for our oppressors. We need to realize that the people who are commodifying our land do not care that people are dying from it. They do not care that Aamjiwnaang children breathe in poisonous clouds, or that Unist’ot’en has been brutalized by the RCMP. They do not care that we have 11 years to turn this planet’s course around. They do not care if they poison our water or our air.