In times of change


It is never more important for us to be brave and present than in times of change.

This provincial election campaign has certainly shown that Albertans’ political appetites are changing. But that is just the manifestation of larger changes taking place around us. Our province’s population is growing incredibly fast. It is young, it is more urban than ever before, and it is nurturing a generation of young citizens – especially Indigenous ones – who aren’t willing to put up with business as usual. Citizens who are growing restless with being told that we must accept leaving 1 in 6 children in poverty while wealthy corporations plead, “Why is it always us?”

The Progressive Conservatives are saying – as they have said for my entire lifetime – that the time for change is not now. That our economy is too fragile. First of all, they share a good deal of responsibility for crafting it into a frail crystal house ready to shatter when oil and gas prices fall out from underneath it. But also. Also. There is no better time for change. There is, perhaps, no other time at all for transformational change.

One of the profound and simple ideas in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine is that in times of crisis, the ideas that will be used to solve that crisis are the ones closest at hand. For a generation, neoliberalism has risen to that challenge. Time and time again, economists prescribing savage cuts to public health care and education and indulgence to corporate power have put themselves at the centre of power after war, economic shocks, and social shocks. The collapse of oil prices right now is one of those shocks. And for once, the levers of democracy might give us all the chance to be the ones ready with new ideas for this province.

We have a chance to use this moment to remake our society into something stronger, and more resilient. A society that can look at the floodwaters of the Bow River and the generational challenge of climate change, the weakness of pinning all our prosperity to fossil fuels, and say, “Let’s build something that will really last. An economy and a society that acts like it’s here to stay, not here to pillage.”

When I think of Jim Prentice’s pleading that the PCs are the only party that can be trusted with responsible stewardship of this province, I think of Naresh Bhardwaj. Long before he was booted as a PC candidate over allegations of bribing a challenger to drop out, I knew him as an MLA who delivered one of those oversized cheques to the NGO I worked for. A few months later, an NDP MLA invited us to the Legislature so we could be recognized as guests up in the gallery. Bhardwaj ran into us in the lobby, and seemed offended when he found out we had come as guests of a member of an opposition party. He told us that wasn’t any way to make friends in the Legislature. He clearly thought that handing us a novelty cheque from the government meant he had bought our loyalty to his party. [Edit: To be fair, it just seemed like that was the implication]

And I think of a story we worked on at Terra Informa two years ago, about the Alberta Energy Regulator’s response to the bitumen leaks at CNRL’s oil sands site near Cold Lake. The Alberta Energy Regulator, this monstrous hybrid created by the PCs to both regulate the energy industry and approve its proposals for new projects. And how we asked them to explain why people living right beside one of the leakage sites hadn’t heard about it until two months after the it was discovered. And how they told us that they’d posted the information on their website, and if residents didn’t see it, it was their own fault.

I think of the representative I spoke to at Servus the other day, when I called to get an explanation for the $3750 they donated to the PC party this year. And how he said he felt uncomfortable about it, but paying to go to PC fundraiser dinners was the only way to get access to government ministers. And how I asked him whether it struck him as a corrupt situation, having to feed their party warchest before an election to get access to government officials. And how he genuinely pleaded with me to ask what the alternative was.

Massive changes are needed to the way we govern ourselves, to the way we treat the atmosphere, to the way we balance private power with collective prosperity. We’re going to need to move quickly now. The hour is already late. This is not a plea to vote NDP or Wildrose. You can make up your own mind about where to spend your vote. And addressing our generation’s challenges will take more than putting one new provincial government into office. But I am asking you to take Jim Prentice’s advice and look in the mirror. Who is going to shake the earth with a new vision? Who is going to have their ideas closest at hand right now?

As Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya once said, We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Act Out or Opt Out

David Kaczan and Marcus Peterson (middle and right) were two of the Terra Informers who journeyed out to capture voices of locals along the Northern Gateway project route.
David Kaczan and Marcus Peterson (middle and right) were two of the Terra Informers who journeyed out to capture voices of locals along the Northern Gateway project route.

Every time I go to Calgary recently, people ask me what I think about the red skeletal swoops of the new Peace Bridge. I don’t have strong feelings about the bridge itself, but I was reminded of its pedestrian crossings this week when the Joint Review Panel decided to recommend building the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Two years ago, I remember debating the objectivity of the Joint Review Panel process assessing the proposal to chug Alberta’s bitumen out to Kitimat. In early 2012, Terra Informa released a two-part radio documentary called Rough Waters & Divide Valleys: Voices from the Northern Gateway Pipeline. We sent a team of independent radio journalists out from Edmonton in the summer of 2011, and they travelled the route of the proposed pipeline, having conversations with locals along the way. I remember being surprised to hear how widely opinions diverged, especially in towns like Prince George where some talked about fearing for their forests, and others spoke plainly about hoping the pipeline would bring jobs to town.

What I also remember from discussions around that time is that many people in BC felt that the whole consultation process was rigged. Thousands of Canadians were fired up enough about the issue to apply to speak at the Joint Review Panel’s hearings. The Federal Government reacted by writing a new law to severely restrict how many people can have their say in future consultations.

It’s easy to see how this led to two main reactions among opponents of the project when the panel released their final conclusion that the proposal’s benefits outweigh its risks: complete apathy, and anger. This is where I’m reminded of Calgary’s Peace Bridge.

Say what you will about the aesthetics of the pedestrian crossing, or its cost, or how close it is to other bridges crossing the Bow River downtown (and Calgarians have said a lot about those things). What struck me when I first visited it is that when you cross over to its north side, you’re dropped off right onto Memorial Drive, with no obvious way to cross the four lanes of busy traffic to get to your destination. I watched for a while to see how other pedestrians reacted.

Shots of three bridges over the Bow River
My whole family assumes that I love the long red Peace Bridge, for some reason. (Photo: daveblogs007)

Most people looked earnestly for a safe place to cross, or a button to press. Then they saw how far away those were, and did the logical thing: they jay-walked. At no small peril to their lives, I might add!

It demonstrates a basic principle I heard outlined by a guest on CBC’s The House a while back: when people believe they have meaningful, fair choices, they’ll go along with one of them. When they feel like the choices are unfair, they’ll either act out or opt out. If you need to cross the street and the nearest crosswalk is unreasonably far away from your path, it’s understandable to act out and jog across the road. Not safe, but understandable.

The Joint Review Panel’s work was supposed to be an objective evaluation of the Northern Gateway project, weighing out the jobs, royalties, impact on local First Nations, risks to salmon-bearing rivers, risks of tanker spills, and adding it all up into one sober conclusion. But the Federal Government has been screaming its support for this project for years, passed a law limiting public participation in similar reviews in the future, and asked the National Energy Board to work with the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service to spy on environmental groups and First Nations participating in the public hearings. Under these circumstances, what reasonable person opposed to the project would believe it was a fair process? As ForestEthics Advocacy’s Amanda Follett says, it seems like the Panel wasn’t even at the same hearings as everybody else.

This is why you’re not likely to see many opponents shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Well, we did what we could.” BC First Nations, community activists, and environmental groups are gearing up for a fight if the Federal Government ends up approving the pipeline next year. When the game looks rigged, reasonable people will likely make the choice to act out or opt out.

If this thesis is right though, it offers hope to those fighting for genuinely participatory decision-making. When we see that our choices are meaningful, we’re more likely to jump in and help make them. That is something worth fighting for.

Gym is Cancelled


This morning I woke up early, packed my lunch, and strolled down to the old Academy at King Edward school a few minutes before 9. I went in through the side doors like always, and lined up behind a half-dozen seniors. An intercom buzzed somewhere behind us, announcing that gym class would be cancelled. It’s Election Day in Edmonton.

I don’t know why I love this ritual so much. I’ve been telling people for the past week I couldn’t bear to go to the advance polls. It’s like opening Christmas presents early, I said.

As the crowd started to multiply around the gym doors, a couple people tisked about being asked to wait, and I found myself getting territorial about my four square feet in line. “If they want us to vote,” one woman scoffed, “they should open at 8.”

Finally the elections staff pressed the doors aside and asked us to line up single file. As we inched forward from one line to another, I began to sympathise with the woman behind me, wondering why they didn’t just simplify things so she could rush off to her errands.

But somewhere between watching an elderly woman point her cane back and forth between the voting booths, the registration clerk overly annunciating the electoral oath, and colouring in little navy circles on my ballot, my eyes got watery and I remembered why I love this whole slow, sometimes-maddening, rarely-idiotproof day.

Just for a moment, all of us have something to say about who’s in charge, and damn it, we’re all going to fill out that scrap of paper come hell or high water.

Thanks for cancelling gym, King Edward.