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Youth protest for climate change action

Hundreds of youth protestors gathered on Parliament Hill on Oct. 26 for the largest climate change rally in Canadian history. It was part of Power Shift, a three-day summit where youth converged in Ottawa to discuss climate change and lobby the Federal government to take action. It was co-ordinated to coincide with a global day of action on climate change that saw similar protests in 181 countries.

Among the protestors were 55 youth from Halifax, mostly students, who spoke on behalf of Atlantic Canadians.

Power Shift began as an event in November 2007. Over 5,000 young climate change activists descended on the University of Maryland in the U.S. for three days of workshops and keynote speakers, a rally on Capitol Hill and a day of lobbying federal politicians for legislation to address climate change. It was the largest youth activist event on climate change in history. Al Gore made a speech, signs were waved, everyone went home and the Bush administration did nothing. MTV gave the summit a brief mention on its web site, but the story didn’t crack the pages of the New York Times.

The Power Shift summit in Ottawa began at Nepean Sportsplex. A slew of speakers opened it, followed by a performance by underground political hip-hop duo Dead Prez. While there’s certainly a strong activist undertone to their music, some delegates, while thrilled to see Dead Prez live, had reservations about their performance and the opening night in general.

“No one had ever heard of the speakers,” said McGill delegate Paul Foster. “It was cool to see Dead Prez but they were up there quoting Mao and saying, ‘Fuck Obama,’ and shouting that the only real power is in the barrel of a gun. A lot of stuff there seemed inappropriate for a youth climate change conference.”
Workshops were held at the University of Ottawa, but the action was focused on Parliament Hill where hundreds of protesters joined together for the largest climate change rally in Canadian history. The cold drizzle that fell for hours on the assembled demonstrators did not dampen their excitement. Impassioned speakers shouted slogans and waved their arms on the podium.

But anyone hoping for a powerful speech to inspire the youth climate change movement to new heights was hopelessly disappointed. The time-worn words and catch phrases speakers spewed from the stage were met with a tepid response from the crowd. The event climaxed with the assembled activists spread out across the lawn, flailing their arms and chanting, “Tick-tock.” Disinterested reporters and photographers milled around the stage. However the rally saw little coverage in the mainstream media. To cap it off, a zealous group of green-overall clad revellers took off down Wellington Street, leading the charge to 24 Sussex Drive. Few followed them.

RCMP officers, who stood watch over the demonstration, casually dispersed the crowd. Standing by the Centennial Flame, some members from the Montreal delegation debated hopping the next bus home.
A sense of disenchantment hung as heavy as the clouds over the empty hill. It was hard to believe that one had just witnessed the largest climate change protest in our country’s history.

Power Shifters wandered the concrete and glass campus, clutching their schedules, looking about in bewilderment. Not everyone received a map of the campus. But once found, the workshops themselves were highly informative with topics ranging from Canadian climate policy to how to run a media campaign and a seminar on how to lobby.

In the late afternoon the delegates gathered together in groups divided by region and prepared for the ‘Day of Action’ when delegates would swarm into the Parliament Buildings to meet with and lobby local MPs and Senators for greater political action on climate change.

“This is a stranger place than you can ever imagine,” NDP leader Jack Layton assured Power Shift delegates.

Many delegates were dismayed by the lack of real political interest in climate change.

The activists’ frustration boiled over during Parliament’s question period when nearly 150 Power Shift members interrupted with loud verbal protest from one of the viewing galleries. In a dramatic and co-ordinated sequence, one youth activist after another stood up and shouted a plea for action to the politicians on the floor below. Security removed one protester after another, each one followed by another to take their place before the entire gallery erupted into chanting. The ensuing chaos saw Power Shift delegates forcefully hauled from the House of Commons. Witnesses say once the demonstrators had been removed, one MP said, “That was embarrassing,” then resumed the pension debate.

The disturbance made national headlines. It was the only significant media attention the conference received. Many Dalhousie delegates were uncomfortable with the coverage. Regardless of the negative portrayal in the media, Power Shift was an eye-opening experience for many.

Canada is one of the worst per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and Canadians, along with the Americans, have repeatedly blocked international efforts on multilateral action on climate change.

Bill C-311, the only environmental bill currently tabled in the House of Commons, has been repeatedly delayed. With the global climate summit in Copenhagen set for December many Canadians feel ambiguous about their country’s record as a polluter.

The energy on the bus ride back was electric with new ideas and information on everyone’s lips and fresh inspiration in their minds. Whether Power Shift had an impact on the way the Canadian government responds to climate change is up for debate. If Power Shift was intended to be a wake up call, it seems Ottawa hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Nevertheless, with the Copenhagen summit on Dec. 7, Canada’s sleep-in on climate change might end soon. Whatever the long-term result, the passion and hope those three days in Ottawa inspired in the youth climate movement is a step in the right direction.


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