Climate change and the many solitudes of Canada

Last summer, my family and I moved from Sherbrooke to Vancouver. Sherbrooke is a city of 150,000 people, located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. It is the third most affordable city in Canada. We traded a beautiful old house in a vibrant, community-oriented neighbourhood for an apartment we can barely afford in one of the brand new, energy-efficient housing complexes on the UBC campus. While this was a bit of a shock to our family system, we had the good fortune of easing ourselves into our new life by way of a cross-country camping trip in the month of July. It was the best three weeks of our lives.

But it also turned out to be something of a wake-up call, coming as it did at the beginning of a world-wide heat wave and drought. Along the shore of Lake Superior, we wore long johns and sweaters to bed at night, but by the time we were driving through BC, the wildfire season had begun. We stayed with a friend outside Nelson who had been on evacuation alert for a month in 2017 and, shortly after leaving her house, we drove past the beginnings of the Snowy Mountain wildfire in the Smilkameen. There was a campfire ban in effect for the rest of our trip, and we arrived to a hot, dry Vancouver. Many of the newly planted shrubs and trees around our apartment complex were dead when we arrived, and the fern fronds a crackling brown. My husband and I had lived in Vancouver before, but we had never experienced a heat wave here, nor seen the sun red upon rising, or breathed air hazy with smoke.

It is not that I was in any way in denial about the reality of climate change. But this moment in my life, when I am still partly between two different worlds, is one of clarity. I can see that much of what I was quietly, sometimes only half-consciously afraid of while living in Quebec, has already begun in BC. Not just the fires, but also the droughts that precipitate them, the extended reach of forest pests like the pine beetle, the declining salmon populations and the suffering of species who depend on them (like orcas and whales). The manifold threats of climate change loom large here, and decisions about pipeline construction hit close to home.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country we drove through, people seemed to have a very different perspective. Wherever we stopped for groceries, it seemed the majority of vehicles in the parking lots were large trucks and SUV’s, and the hotter it got, a shocking number of them were idling for the sake of air conditioning. Across southern Saskatchewan, we drove past thousands of new pump jacks, many of which are apparently pumping ‘fracked’ or horizontally drilled oil–a method of oil and gas production that is environmentally risky and minimally regulated. And all across the country, the provincial and national campgrounds we stayed in were dominated by large, often air-conditioned RV’s, many of which made use of generators where there was no electricity hook-up.

But this divide, between those who are directly experiencing the effects of climate change, and those who are either unaware or wish to disregard it, is not the only divide that matters here. A few weeks before we left on our trip, Doug Ford was elected premier of Ontario, in part on the basis of promises to rescind new environmentally oriented legislation and cancel the province’s involvement in the federal carbon tax. His victory was attributed by many commentators to the growing rift between urban and rural voters: people outside major urban centres feel ignored by urban politicians, and think that the cost of social programs and environmental legislation disproportionately impacts rural communities without benefiting them. Even within cities, sky high real estate values have broadened and exacerbated the perennial divide between rich and poor. Then there is the monumental divide between the perspectives and life chances of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. This gap is so big that, even with the rise of Idle No More and other indigenous resistance movements, it often seems all but invisible within mainstream society. Finally, in Quebec, francophones are still marginalized in relation to Canadian culture and the mainstream political process, meaning that, outside Montreal, the considerable energy and creativity of many Québecois communities is turned inward, connecting in a limited way with social and environmental movements in the rest of Canada.

Each of these divides has their own complex and often painful history. You would think however, that climate change–which will affect us all–would provide the impetus to bridge these divides. What better reason could there possibly be to find common ground?

Given the well-documented economic impact of droughts, severe storms and wildfires, we don’t have to share the same values to agree that something must be done. Of course, part of the problem is that the effects of climate change will not be evenly distributed. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its effects will greatly exacerbate existing geographic and socioeconomic differences. The kind of solidarity it calls for is profound.

This is in part because the extent of socioeconomic and cultural change required to keep warming at 1.5 C (above which, widespread and, in some places, catastrophic effects are now considered likely), is so great. As the most recent report from the IPCC specifies, achieving sufficient reductions in time to slow global warming will entail not a gradual transition to alternative energy sources and greater efficiency, but a comprehensive and rapid transformation of human societies–encompassing overhauls of whole sectors (e.g., agriculture, transport, construction) and substantial lifestyle changes (especially in diet and other forms of consumption), as well as the deployment of new technologies. To the extent that we wish this transformation to take place in a manner that is democratic, socially just and economically sustainable, there is a great deal of social and cultural work to be done. Solidarity in the face of climate change will not be given to us. Especially in a multicultural, geographically diverse country like Canada, it is something we will have to make, and keep re-making as we go.

By ‘solidarity’, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone has to agree before progress can be made. Not only do I find that unlikely, historically, it has not been necessary. Advances on behalf of justice, equality and the environment have always begun with the efforts of a committed minority. I mean something more pragmatic: that is, the ability to speak, credibly and meaningfully, about the necessity for collective change. This might seem overly basic, but given that we live in a capitalist society, where convenience, productivity and the protection of narrow political-economic interests are often elevated above all else, assertions about collective responsibility often lack credibility (when they are voiced by politicians without the ability to follow through), or are dismissed as idealistic.

The current polarization and low quality of public discourse on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion provides a good case in point. At international meetings, Justin Trudeau has repeatedly claimed that Canada is committed to reducing emissions and even to being a climate leader. But, as the federal court confirmed when it quashed the NEB’s approval of the project, he approved the pipeline without serious analysis of the environmental impacts. Whole classes of impact were excluded from the NEB’s consideration of the project, including the considerable emissions produced indirectly and directly by the tar sands. At the same time, the positive economic impacts of the pipeline have been widely proclaimed, without being substantiated by a third party or even clearly explained. The implication seems to be that, because we are so heavily invested in the oil and gas industry, our responsibility for climate change action does not extend to the emissions produced by it.

However, if you take the IPPC’s timeline, and the idea of collective responsibility for climate change seriously, this is an absurd position from which to talk about climate action. The specific character of its absurdity is perhaps most neatly encapsulated in the idea that it is our support of the oil and gas industry that will enable us to finance a transition to renewable energy. As Kinder Morgan’s withdrawl from the project demonstrated, these companies are too large and too risk averse to accommodate even a small amount of uncertainty in the realization of present projects, let alone chart a path into an unknown future.

But this is what we get when we allow politicians and oil companies to play such a substantive role in discussions of collective responsibility. It is time, I think, to elevate the role of those who can speak on behalf of change, rather than the status quo. In this respect, I am inspired by indigenous resistance to pipelines, because it is motivated by more than the environment-vs-economy narrative that has, until quite recently, dominated news coverage of various climate change issues. Indigenous groups oppose, not only the escalation of climate change and environmental destruction but also, more importantly, the complete disregard of their jurisdiction over the land across which the pipeline travels. In this, they foreground precisely what has been obfuscated in public discourse to date. That is, the centrality of land. This is the thing that oil and gas companies, with all their money and political power do not hold, and which many non-indigenous Canadians have forgotten to value.

The sheer quantity of land in Canada is one of the major challenges to reducing emissions (given the distances that many Canadians travel on a daily basis) and, historically, it has been a source of much disagreement, especially given the way geographical and economic differences are entwined and exacerbated in an economy based on resource extraction. But it may be that what makes solidarity difficult for Canadians to achieve, is the most important avenue for pursuing it.

According to the IPCC report, there are numerous land-based avenues for carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation. These could help us, not only to meet our reduction commitments and thus contribute to the momentum for change on behalf of other countries, but also to reorient the Canadian economy around a diverse productivity of land rather than corporate-driven resource extraction. For example, advances in regenerative agriculture promise to make agricultural soils both more productive, and highly effective for carbon sequestration. Planting more trees and managing forests more carefully would have similar effects, as would the restoration of degraded land and waterscapes to make them more resilient in the face of climate change. Investments such as these could provide promising—and up to now, mostly unexplored—avenues of green job creation, concretely tying social well-being to that of the land and its non-human inhabitants.

However, as indigenous people have been reminding us for a long time now, land is a major blind spot for most Canadians. In Canada, there is a lot of land, but it only belongs to anyone (landowners or the government) because it was originally taken from indigenous people. And most of us continue to benefit, if unequally, and sometimes indirectly, from this arrangement. For example, the rent for our brand new apartment is modestly ‘below market’, in part because it was built by the university on land given to it by the province. But the Musqeaum people have never signed any treaties with respect to this land, which makes the tiny office from which I am writing—which we could not afford were we living off-campus—a stolen luxury.

I think that, being dependent on or—for landowners—invested in, stolen land, combined with its apparent abundance, disposes us to undervalue land in a cultural and political sense, and to avoid talking about it. But land is what enables every major form of energy production and distribution–not only oil sands and pipelines, but also hydroelectric dams, windmills, solar farms and the electric grids they feed into. The only way that oil and gas companies can profit to the extent that they do, is if they can access the required land at little to no cost, and bear little to no responsibility for how their activities change it. This fact has been recently brought into focus by media coverage of the numerous abandoned, improperly decommissioned oil wells throughout Alberta and BC, but it has long been much more painfully in evidence for those indigenous communities whose land is the site of unwanted oil and gas development.

When we do talk about land in the context of energy production, it is usually because the people connected to it in a particular location, and therefore most directly affected by the associated activities, bring it back into the picture. And while such resistance is often dismissed as NIMBYism, it reminds us that neither the impacts, nor the benefits of energy-producing activities are equitably distributed. Treated as mere backdrop by energy producers and the governments that prop them up, the land becomes a medium for channeling environmental impacts and profits in specific directions: impoverished indigenous communities suffer polluted waterways, declining wildlife populations, higher incidences of cancer and lower birthrates, while oil and gas companies make millions of dollars, provide the government that issued their permits with royalties and increased tax revenues, and create jobs for a small percentage of Canadians.

Land is more essential to sustaining these effects than money. But because it is, literally, the ground across which they play out, it is often effectively invisible. In contrast, indigenous resistance to infrastructures of extraction and distribution brings land back to the forefront, asserting its value not as an incidental medium of transport, but as a medium of relationships–between people and the soil, water, plants and animals that sustain them, both physically and culturally. As Kanahus Manuel puts it, “land is home.” In the gap between these two different ways of understanding land, I believe there is a powerful potential for social transformation, and for the cultivation of new forms of solidarity in relation to climate change

There are many concrete ways in which we can learn to see land differently. For example, participation in community ownership of renewable energy projects puts people in a very different relation to land than a pipeline imposed on them, as does the community management of forests. Such projects could help to diversify the value we see in land such that the manifold relations it sustains, or could sustain, become easier to talk about. Being able to talk about land in terms of its diverse values, while having concrete examples of the ways in which the fulfilment of such values can benefit us all, would in turn help to bridge some of the social and economic divisions that currently structure Canadian society.

At the same time, nothing provides a more meaningful basis for connecting with others across difference than the experience of investing time and labour in a shared project. For many, it is particularly enjoyable and inspiring to do so when the project involves gardening. This is part of the reason I am excited to be living in Vancouver at this time: here, an increasing interest in gardening and green infrastructure is currently being met with a decreasing availability of land and a growing awareness of its contested nature. Consequently, there is widening experimentation with alternative models of cultivation and land-sharing (my favourite example so far being this youth-run native plant nursery) and you can begin to imagine how a more diversely productive urban landscape might look–shaped not only by more community and rooftop gardens, but also urban orchards, food forests, pollinator meadows and so on.

The considerable labour required to develop and implement such projects over time can, at first glance, seem a barrier to their feasibility and sustainability. However, this is also where their greatest potential lies with respect to change, because they provide an inclusive setting for developing the new practices and relationships that we will desperately need in a society organized around the pursuit of something other than unrestrained consumption. In this sense, they require more than just the time and energy of volunteers: they also require a substantial quantity of good will, the ability to temporarily bracket certain individual needs and preferences, and–crucially in my opinion–considerable interpersonal and communication skills. More on this in a future post.


Camosun Bog in the haze from summer wildfires. A small urban bog that survives on the edge of Pacific Spirit park, against all odds, thanks to the efforts of an unusually dedicated and well-organized group of volunteers.

All this said, the pursuit of new relations to land will never reach its full social potential if it does not begin by reckoning with the damage that has been done on the basis of existing models of land tenure and resource development. We have to fully hear what indigenous people have to say about what has been lost, before we can see clearly ways of moving forward that don’t further entrench those losses. How do we do this exactly? I don’t think it is at all straightforward, and we certainly can’t leave it to governments to sort out on our behalf.

It has to begin though, with a certain amount of humility and a willingness to see the connections between non-indigenous ways of living and the material circumstances sustaining indigenous oppression. The ability to drive our kids to school in order to save time, for example, or the ability to adjust the thermostat based on preference; these things depend on the ability of oil and gas (and coal and hydroelectric) companies to fragment, pollute and otherwise dispossess indigenous people of the land on which their culture,  communities and ways of living depend. Which is not to say that our dependence on fossil fuels is the only barrier to a meaningful reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, but it is to suggest that as long as that dependence continues, practices that prioritize comfort and convenience risk, not only aggravating an existing divide, but being complicit with internationally recognized violations of human rights.

Such connections are heavy ones to make. But it is not just more public transit and a willingness to wear sweaters that we need here. It is also the ability to say the hard things, and to identify those values that social media, capitalist culture and the norms of polite conversation make it difficult to name, let alone agree upon. It may be that what has come between us—our fear and anger and helplessness, our grief for what is already lost—these are the things that, if named, and heard as meaningful, will, in the long run, provide the basis for building new relations of solidarity.



3 thoughts on “Climate change and the many solitudes of Canada

  1. Peter Watson

    Hi Erin
    Thank you for this . I feel that an important way
    forward in Canada is the electoral reform were

  2. Richard

    Thank you Erin. This piece is a true gift to anyone who chooses to read it! It certainly has opened up a fresh vision for me, of where we are headed. It certainly has encouraged me to step up and find ways to react in my community.


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