From Petro-States to People-Power: Reflections on PowerShift Atlantic

By Nimisha Bastedo and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler

Canada is a Petro-State – a prime example of a government that bows down to the oil industry while it turns its back on the land’s integrity and people’s basic rights. I’d been trying to keep tabs on my country’s dirty ways from across the border, but hearing it straight from those working on the front lines made it even more of a reality.

The last weekend of March was PowerShift Atlantic, a gathering of hundreds of youth from across Canada and New England that aimed to “spark new momentum for climate and economic justice.” As the organizers said, “we need to build a louder, more active and more unified movement.” This meant creating the space for fellow activists to meet and building connections, but it also meant getting us all on the same page in terms of what is going on in the world of climate injustice.

In a panel on Canada’s “petro-politics,” for example, one of the speakers described just how tight a bond our government has with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) – the “voice” of Canada’s oil and gas industry. The speaker had gotten hold of a series of emails written between a member of CAPP and Canada’s department of Natural Resources. Our government was creating brochures to promote the tar sands and was checking in to make sure its corporate partners approved. The CAPP member suggested they remove the pictures of ugly open-pit mining and sent greener-looking images to replace them with. The final message from the government employee went something like this: “Thanks Greg. I’ll choose the most aesthetically pleasing ones.”

Another speaker likened our government’s behavior to that of gambling addict deep in the hole who refuses to acknowledge their own problem and places higher and higher bets every day. In a panel called “Confronting Environmental Racism,” it became very clear who is paying for Canada’s addiction. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to slash all environmental monitoring programs that get in the way of full-speed-ahead oil extraction, small, mostly Indigenous communities suffer from soaring cancer rates, polluted waters, and altered ways of life. Women from Indigenous and Atlantic-African communities drew an explicit link between environmental degradation and the larger systems of racism and oppression they face every day. These powerful speakers also made it clear that they are standing up to our government, and not willing to back down.

Several of Saturday night’s keynotes speakers stressed that resistance to colonial exploitation and environmental degradation must be part of the same struggle. Vanessa Gray, who is from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ontario, which is surrounded by 40 percent of Canada’s chemical industry, talked about the health problems and spiritual pain the chemical plants located on her people’s ancestral land were causing for her friends and relatives.  She spoke in front of a projected photo of her home—a large chemical refinery visible in the background—with a caption that said, “This is what environmental racism looks like.”

Jasmine Thomas, a youth organizer for the Yinka Dene Alliance and a community leader in the fight against the Tar Sands Northern Gateway Pipeline, challenged conference participants to do environmental justice work in a decolonial context. Calling this land “Canada” is a lasting mark of colonialism in itself. In the eyes of the First Nations speakers, this land is Turtle Island. As Jasmine said, “Wind turbines on stolen land are still wind turbines on stolen land,” said.

Sean Devlin, a Canadian activist and filmmaker of Irish and Filipino descent, spoke about ongoing social and environmental crimes perpetrated against the native peoples of both the Philippines and Canada, including the rape and murder of scores of indigenous women in recent years, and the Idle No More campaign to resist colonial injustices and place them in a broader context.  He emphasized that climate justice must be a priority for anyone fighting for global solidarity.  As Devlin said, “I’m not a scientist but I know what CO2 stands for. It’s the first two letters of colonialism, squared.”

Earth in Brackets led a workshop on linking grassroots movements for a global effort. The session began with participants lining up on a spectrum from “local” to “international” in response to questions about where the focus the majority of their work, where they think the problems come from, and where they think the solutions lie. Judging by the spread across the room, we all see solutions and problems coming from many different levels. So should we work globally? Regionally? Nationally? Locally? It seems the best answer is “All of the above, we just have to make sure we communicate and support each other.” While our governments build alliances with Big Oil, we have no choice but to build more powerful alliances of our own. Our workshop presented two concrete opportunities for collaboration: the global campaign to demand climate justice, an effort of more than 250 grassroots groups, and the social pre-COP in Caracas, Venezuela, this year.

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