Over 1,000 youth from across Canada gathered in Ottawa on the weekend of Oct. 23-26 for a conference on climate change. The Power Shift conference was organized by the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and consisted of lectures, discussions, training and lobbying. On the last day, participants were invited to partake in a question and answer period at the House of Commons with elected Members of Parliament and Senators. The goal was to encourage MPs to make bold moves towards fighting climate change in Canada, to put money towards the creation of new green jobs and to see to it that Canada takes on a leadership role at the upcoming United Nations meeting in Copenhagen where a revised international deal regarding climate change will be signed. However, the conference took an unexpected twist during Monday’s question and answer session when actions by a group of protesters got out of hand, culminating in the forced removal of over 120 people from the House of Commons as well as two injuries and five arrests. The following is a day-by-day account of the weekend’s events from the perspective of a reporter in the heart of the action.
Friday Oct. 23
The Nepean Sports Complex, a bleak grey facade housing a multi-use gym, hockey rink and pool-cum-convention centre in the chilly Ottawa suburbs, was a strange place to launch a conference that would culminate in a demonstration that made international media headlines. Stunned children and teens made their way to early hockey practices as participants lined up to register for the four-day Power Shift Canada conference, the largest Canadian youth gathering of its kind on climate change.
The first night kicked off with lectures by speakers coming from various sectors of the environmental community, including keynotes, Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environment Network, and Majora Carter, former director of the Sustainable South Bronx foundation.
Both speakers made references to the civil rights struggle, urging government to commit to “Climate Justice,” an approach to climate change mitigation efforts that focuses on at risk communities for whom climate change poses an immediate threat to their way of life and ability to sustain themselves.
Hip-hop group Dead Prez helped end the night with a bang, at what was likely one of the loudest, most controversial performances that this Ottawa suburb has ever seen. Touching on issues ranging from veganism and physical fitness, to global governance and racism, rappers stic.man and M1 stressed the need for solidarity and respect. In an interview following the performance, M1 said, “for us, there can be no green without first recognizing the red, yellow and green,” in reference to the colours of the Pan-African flag.
Saturday Oct. 24
After a late night with Dead Prez, things got going bright and early at the gates of 24 Sussex Dr. A group of University of Toronto students showed up in their pyjamas to give Prime Minister Stephen Harper a wake up call &- literally. Five fully equipped RCMP squad cars were called to control the group of 10 to 15 activists.
A little later, Fill the Hill, an event sponsored by international climate change organizing group 350.org, took off as a part of the International Day of Climate Action. Thousands of Canadians, from small independent farmers, to factory workers and even the Raging Grannies &- an activist group made up of elderly women, packed the lawn of Parliament Hill to send a message to Canadian leaders.
Once again, numerous experts took to the podium to emphasize the need for immediate action on climate change and stressed their disappointment at the inaction of the Canadian government. Around 1:30 p.m. Power Shift participants made a grand entrance by marching up from Wellington St. towards the steps of parliament where the crowd had assembled. A crowd of over 1,000 people chanted: “When I Say Power, You Say Shift” and “When I Say Climate, You Say Justice.”
They made their voices heard by presenting the demands and principles of Power Shift, as well as a declaration on the dire state of the Arctic communities to the crowd. But, whether or not the message resonated in the halls of Parliament remains to be seen. Rob Stewart, who was on hand filming a new documentary and handling MC duties, said the spirit and action of Canadian youth, “made [him] proud to be Canadian, no matter what our leaders are doing.”
The Green Jobs Symposium gave youth a chance to come together and discuss their ideas about having a green economy. Representatives from different Canadian industries came to speak up about the need for a paradigm shift in the way our country envisions doing business. Their point was hit home with the presence of industrial workers who had lost their jobs in the wake of the financial crisis. Among them was Tammy, an ex-auto worker from Ontario’s manufacturing core, who discussed the problems associated with relying on the current system.
At 9:00 a.m., Amber Church, the head of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, along with a small group of Canadians from varying backgrounds, presented the Power Shift conference’s principles and demands at a national press conference held in the Charles Lynch Press Gallery. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, and Linda Duncan, the NDP’s environment critic, both publicly signed the declaration, despite all political parties being invited to join. The declaration was a formal message from Canadian youth to the federal government, demanding that the government make serious commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, transitioning to a green economy and ensuring climate justice.
Daniel T’selie, of the Canadian Youth Delegation to Copenhagen, and a group of representatives from Canada’s arctic followed suit by presenting the Inuvik declaration; a document drafted by northern youth regarding the ongoing effects of climate change in Canada’s Arctic region. They were joined by a group of M.P.’s including Linda Duncan, who said, “as we stand here, and as the government does nothing, the prairies are burning and the arctic is melting.”
Throughout the day, youth met with their local M.P.’s to lobby for strong actions to fight climate change. Over 70 representatives from every political party were present, and youth were optimistic that their message had been heard heading into the question period.
What happened next was surreal. One by one individuals in the gallery stood up and started shouting messages, such as “Sign Bill C-311” and “Canada needs to sign the U.N. declaration on Indigenous rights”. Bewildered security tried to deal with each person in kind, but the demonstration appeared to take on an organic flow, with another person taking up the leadership mantel as each one was quieted. Chants such as “When I say 311, you say sign it,” “When I say tar sands, you say shut down” and “Whose house? Our house!” were led by activists, and answered by the youth in the gallery. They were referring to Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, which if passed, would force government to set strong targets for Canada going into the meeting in Copenhagen.
Security guards removed six youth down a back flight of stairs, and cleared everyone out of the gallery. One of them was Jeh Custerra. He was violently taken down by security and his face was forced against the ground, leading to bleeding evidenced by blood seen on the floor of Parliament, and witnessed firsthand. The youth also produced video from the Parliamentary detention facility that showed lesions to Custerra’s nasal bridge. A hospital report was released that cites blood originating from both inside and outside of Custerra’s nose.
Another youth, a female, was seen being dragged through the rotunda and down the front steps of Parliament by two officers. Parliamentary security has since commented that its officers acted appropriately, and there have been claims that two security officials also sought medical attention following the incident, but no follow-up has been issued.
In a subsequent press conference, Elizabeth May said “I just want to share with all Canadians that those were our children we threw out of the House of Commons today. Those were the best, the brightest, the most dedicated, the most responsible young adults in Canada.” She was responding to accusations from the Liberals and Conservatives who called the protests an “NDP stunt”. They have cited connections of a few individuals responsible for the action to the NDP as reason. Joe Cressy, one of those individuals, told the media gathered in front of the house that this was a “non-partisan” action, and that youth wanted a “race to the start” to work with any political party on this issue of climate change accountability.
The demonstration received a whirlwind of coverage in Canadian media, as well as a mention on American independent news program Democracy Now! Subsequent stories reported by Canadian news, specifically CBC’s Power & Politics program, have tried to cast doubt on activist claims of security overreaction by releasing their own photos that call into question the extent of Custerra’s injuries. Little focus has been paid to the issue raised by youth at the demonstration, prompting a flurry of editorial responses from young people across Canada. Letters denouncing the media response to Monday, have since appeared in the Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen and Winnipeg Free Press, as well as numerous campus and community papers.
Amara Possian, a student at McGill, wrote “A silent vacuum of media and government neglect echoes throughout the country. It is a silence that speaks volumes more about the current state of environmental dialogue in Canada than the stifled cries of Monday’s protesters” in a letter that has since garnered the attention of the New York Times blogroll.
Whatever the case of media representation or questions towards activist tactics may be, it is quite clear that the over 1,000 youth who made their way to Ottawa for the Power Shift conference, and the hundred plus who stood up in the House of Commons are not the apathetic youth that young Canadians are often painted to be.