talking about the activist blues

Activism can be an invigorating practice, kicking up adrenaline that keeps you going, going for the win. But what does this mean for our minds? Thinking about the same thing and moving on it all the time can mean lead to not having time to eat well, to stress, tension and tightness, malaise, anxiety and so on. These things similarly occur in politics, community organizing and other kinds of work where the stakes are high and the work doesn't stop.

Many environmentalists and those working on social justice long-term get periods of despair and even depression. Others in this work may happen to be susceptible to depression and other forms of mental illness - and this kind of life can act as a trigger. Different issues in life may also be pressing as well. The state of the world bearing down can add to the feelings.

At a time when austerity measures are proposed for already reduced social programs, and environmental targets are being weakened with little hope of reaching necessary climate or biodiversity goals, things look grim. On the other hand, much strength and possibility can be found in a rising up of movements - I've seen this all over recently, at many levels. Though a particularly sad time, in the wake of Jack Layton's death, a new possibility of citizen leadership may bring what we need.

I've also noticed friends getting more into creative activism. This work needs more than protest, it needs positive motivation, song, food and community.

‘Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear.’

...Let's arrive at that together. If you're not feeling it, don't feel worse about yourself. Talk about it and see what strategies you can take to get on the right track. I've become very used to seeing signs of depression in people - it is truly very common - and talking about it openly with those who want to. As Dave Meslin wrote in a blog that struck a chord last year, we need to be open about talking about depression, suicide, therapy and medication.

I have been stressed and overworked before, but I am lucky not to have reached depression. I luckily have learned how to balance more, to take some weekend breaks from work, figured out mindfulness and meditation, and learned to chill out with a couple friends who are much better at that than I am. A great advisory which I've oft turned to and share, comes from the late Tooker Gomberg, a visionary of modern activism in Toronto and Canada. His "letter to an activist" shares this hope that you will take up a diverse, enjoyable life that it will keep you in it for the long haul. Please take a look.

A balanced life is the way to go. But it's important to share more ideas, because I think we've just scratched the surface of this - please share thoughts and experiences to help us figure out how to keep going and winning "sustainably" and "resiliently". Do it for Tooker and for Jack, but do it for yourself as well.

Recommended reading: The World We Have, Thich Nhat Hanh


Blame the system, please, and fix it

Boy do lefties know how to beat up on each other. Maybe it was the deep moments of frustration, but I haven’t heard this much blame game thrown around this country since the early Chr├ętien years, by conservatives.

The facts we have include that the Conservatives ran a really strong campaign with a focused message (like, extremely focused), and picked up a majority of seats. The Liberals ran the wrong campaign after being pummeled by the Tory machine and their seat count collapsed.

Jack Layton described the platform of the Liberals as largely the same, the main difference being that they couldn’t be trusted in getting it done. The NDP took advantage of Ignatieff's poor showing and Layton's popularity and approach, and rose to strong opposition, the likes of which have never been seen.

Yes, if this and that happened, votes could have added up in different ways to defeat the Conservatives. I've seen people blaming parties, leaders and candidates, organizers and volunteers, and Canadian voters as a whole. But the problem is deeper than this, and we know it.

The ability of a group of unaligned voters in an election to sway its outcome in a strategic direction across the country is very small. It seems in fact, the stronger the effort toward strategic voting, the worse the result ends up for the strategists (though I won’t blame their attempt, either).

There are many explanations for this. Individuals and groups come up with their own methodologies for voting strategically. They aren't relying on complete and sound information; polls are not done locally or made widely available. Support for parties shown in polls also change, and this time the showing for parties on the centre/left at the beginning of the election was highly different than at its end. The momentum of campaigns most often wipe out any small gains here and there for strategic voting.

An individual who believes in a party message shouldn’t be blamed for lending it their vote. Neither should a party be blamed for doing well and gaining seats, that’s their job.

But here we end up with a result that doesn’t suit the 60% very well at all, and perhaps not even much of the 40% who probably thought they were voting for a minority government. It’s a result not caused by individuals making bad choices, but by a system of political and electoral representation that facilitates the pattern.

I've been involved with parties, and their goals are to increase their standing to implement their policies and values. Their goal isn’t to arrive at a Legislature that benefits the most “progressive” voters. Therefore it is the people who must press to get the House they want to see.

Politics is won by coalitions. Coalitions in and and among parties and those that help win movements and policy agendas. Natural coalitions could exist within the non-Conservative parties. I’m not advocating any approach, but there are many possibilities, including issue-based cooperation, formal coalitions, mergers and running or supporting candidates in certain areas. Any of these would have to be pushed by people from outside and inside political parties who want to see a different Parliamentary make-up.

Another approach is electoral reform. It’s too bad this wasn’t a priority by opposition parties in the last Parliamentary sessions, as it may have been easier to do than now. Today, the people of the United Kingdom are voting on one form, although the vote is not looking good. But it's a good place to start: proportional voting is supported by a wide range of organizers on the left.

At this time, it will likely be a theme of greater interest to Liberals (along with the Bloc and the Greens), who have taken the place of the NDP as First Past the Post loser. Even the NDPers who dislike the Conservative majority should be sure to keep up their traditional support for its implementation.

A number of various initiatives, websites and videos aren’t going to cut it. As Dave Meslin wrote on election day, these are band-aids. This time we know we have another election in another four years or so. We don’t have to wait until an election is spontaneously called and run around with our heads chopped off. In addition, an Ontario election lies around the corner.

Whatever the efforts, they should be big, bold and united. No more separate initiatives here and there.

Working together, we can get some good ole reform happening in Canada again. Working apart, Nick Kouvalis wins.


Earth Day time to up our game

Last Earth Day, my friend called and I told him, "it’s my special day.., you didn’t wish me a Happy Earth Day!"
He hit back, "every day is Earth Day!" and thus began our tradition of saying “Happy Earth Day” as the first greeting with every phone call on any day.

And to some extent, our little pattern is accurate. Environmental awareness, if not action, has become so mainstream that for more of the population, environmental consciousness is now built into daily behaviour. But as people have changed attitudes throughout the world, the threat of inaction by government and large industry still threaten us all with global catastrophe. (Wow, that sounded harsh.. wish it wasn’t true).

So today it’s back to the political again as was off to Jack Layton’s house to deliver a set of demands with City-TV and CBC tagging along. I was asked by the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition to join in delivering a call to action on climate change, which is being delivered by young people to political leaders across the country today. I haven’t looked into the other 'plant a tree for Earth Day' type activities happening in the area today, but this action is a good one to be a part of.

Other things are happening in my neighbourhood. At Queen’s Park was a rally to kick of a walk to stop a mega quarry in Dufferin County. One hundred kilometres north of the City lies an application by a US Hedge Fund to construct the second largest open pit mine in North America, on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment - would be almost half the size of the City of Toronto ripping out kick ass farmland.

At the same time in about the same place, a strategic action planned by youth is taking place. It’s U of T’s turn for a vote mob and it will be big, with over 1,000 registered on Facebook as we speak. A Happy Earth Day it will be for me if youth get out to vote. Young Greens have chalked lines to the same polling station and are also focusing on getting out the youth vote. Michael Erickson’s NDP campaign is having an advance poll party. Greenpeace is rallying against new nukes.

I’ve been involved in many these youth movements over the last few years, from Sustainable Campuses, Youth Climate Change, Young Greens and now the youth food movement. These have similar goals and sometimes similar people, and have been making a big difference – if not just a kick in the pants, energizing the broader environmental movements and organizations.

Sadly though, it's tough times out there for environmental advocates, but not for a lack of work to be done.

The federal government has done everything it could to rid environmental programs of funding, as reported before the election - but with little fanfare - in Canadian media. Expected cuts were to include a whopping 59% for climate and air pollution programs, the latter being a supposed environmental priority for the Tories.

That adds up to an overall 20% reduction in Environment Canada's spending and a 21% cut for Natural Resources Canada.

While spending cuts are easier to argue in deficit days, the cuts come at a time when barely anything is being done by federal government to reduce climate change, a crisis whose costs will outweigh any small savings of doing nothing, many times over.

In Canada's biggest province things also look bleak. After canceling potential offshore wind because of localized public opinion differences, Ontario's provincial government who has shown support for green energy is facing a challenge from a Party threatening the dismantling of the Green Energy and Green Economy Act. This comes with a base of support from Landowners who have traditionally butted heads with all government environmental policy, including Greenbelt legislation. The same Party under Mike Harris left a 40% cut to the Ministry of the Environment.

In Canada’s biggest city, a mayor has been elected who’s been guiding Council through priorities of tax and spending cuts, with perceived public perception that these issues are critical over pretty much all else. Meanwhile, area grassroots environmental and food movement organizations are growing like gangbusters. With a deep financial crisis, Council will have to find savings of hundreds of millions by next year, and we assume continued financial support for programs like the Toronto Environment Office, Toronto’s Food Strategy, Live Green or Tower Renewal.

These political leaders are all very popular. Harper and Hudak Conservatives could both win majorities. The federal political landscape is split up, and the other parties, according to a new Sierra Club survey, are slipping in their support for environmental issues. There may be a historic opportunity to elect the Green leader who has been involved in nurturing many of our youth movements and could have an impact. But with the NDP on the rise and the Liberals in free fall, where would a Conservative majority leave us?

The environmental movement has to up its game. We’ve reached the attention of many, except for those holding power. We need some deep discussions about where we’re headed and what will work from now on.

One hope is to eat our way out of the mess. The New York Times recently headlined, “Foodies Can Eclipse (and Save) the Green Movement.”

“But here's the good news,” read the article, “the two sides aren't really competing. As the food movement matures and grows, it could end up being the best vehicle available for achieving environmental goals.”

As usual, the advice I can provide is to get involved and learn. Work with like-minded folks and see the broader political context. Be strategic and have discussions – if we reach out and work together, we can win.

Suggested reading:

My past Earth Day articles, 2006, 2009, 2010

Federal Election Party Platform Environmental Report Card, Sierra Club of Canada

Our Generation, Our Future, Our Demands, Canadian Youth Climate Coalition

Foodies Can Eclipse (and Save) the Green Movement, Time Magazine

Take action:









Jason Kenney, settlement cuts and the ethnic vote

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been found to have been writing and fundraising for the Conservatives' federal election with office ministerial office resources and letterhead. Kenney's campaign was to strengthen the vote of what he called ethnic Canadians. According to their fundraising campaign:

"There are lots of ethnic voters," the media plan says. "There will be quite a few more soon. They live where we need to win."

I recently wrote about Kenney's treatment about immigrants, questioning his policies when he is likewise courting votes from various ethnic communities. Perhaps a better strategy than using taxpayer resources to campaign, would be to actually implement policies that supported new Canadians.

Below is an article I recently wrote on this topic for the Canadian Multicultural Journal (click "Multicultural Journal" in the drop down menu), and a way to get involved.

Here's an easy way to get involved and get a motion passed in the House that would make a change - template letter to an MP provided:

Dear Friends,

As you may be aware, MP Olivia Chow recently presented a motion to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration to reverse the $53 million in funding cuts to immigrant and refugee serving agencies across Canada, $44 million of which is being cut in Ontario. That motion was passed.

Today, the motion to reverse the $53 million in cuts is being debated in Parliament and will be voted on in the next few days. The importance of this motion is evident to all of us, and it is up to us to pressure our MPs to adopt this motion.

What you can do:
1) Forward this email through your contacts
2) Use this website to identify your MP and find their email address:
3) Use the form e-mail below to email your MP.
4) Encourage your clients, friends and family to email their MP.

Thanks you for your support.
Form email:

Dear ----,
The successful integration and inclusion of immigrants and refugees is vital to a strong and cohesive Canada. The recent $53 million cut to immigrant and refugee serving agencies across Canada, and in particular the almost $44 million being cut in Ontario, threatens to undermine the important work that these agencies do. I am particularly concerned that these cuts were implemented without consulting and working with the immigrant and refugee serving sector.
I strongly urge you to vote in favour of the motion put forward by Olivia Chow and adopted by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration to reverse the cuts. Settlement and Integration programs and services are critical now more than ever to facilitate the successful integration of newcomers. Supporting this motion will ensure that the important work undertaken on behalf of Newcomers will continue without disruption and will reinforce our collective Canadian value of fairness.



Wendell Berry in the mountains

Wendell Berry is quite awesome. A hero to the environmental and food movements, he is currently taking action in the kind of activism we presently need - against coal strip mining in Kentucky. Some good ole Christianity.

"The writer and philosopher Wendell Berry, armed with little more than a copy of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and his conscience, has been camped out for three days with a handful of other activists in the governor’s outer office in Frankfort, Ky. Berry, who is 76 and the author of a number of important books including the “Unsettling of America” and “Life Is a Miracle,” has been sleeping on the floor of Gov. Steve Beshear’s reception area since Friday night with 13 others to protest the continued blasting of mountaintops in eastern Kentucky and the poisoning of watersheds, soil and air by coal companies."

Read more


Mackenzie Valley pipe dream

The Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline has been in the works since forever... it's the fundamental case upon which large environmental assessments have been modeled after in Canada and the Berger Inquiry was an epic formation of its time (the 1970s). It was reported that new Environment Minister Peter Kent did his own reporting on the Inquiry and a television clip was recently played of this journalism (he's known about environmental issues himself for quite a while).

Thomas Berger's Inquiry created a moratorium on the Pipeline proposal for ten years to deal with Aboriginal land. Years of delays and assessments after that has meant that the Pipeline was still never built. Now Kent and his colleagues in Cabinet have approved that same Pipeline, CBC has reported. However, they put in a stipulation of no government subsidies meaning the economics of it all still might not work. We don't know if it will ever be built (and at this time, the gas would be used more for tar sands development than its original purposes).

More and more, economics has been driving development over environmental considerations - and in some cases, it can be a much stronger force in stopping a project that has negative environmental consequences. Either way, the Pipeline and its case - whether it will be built or not - still has the prints of Berger all over it. His report has certainly outlived Canada's annually changing role of environment minister.