People get ready...

By Aaren Madden, February 2012

To win the battle for envionmental health, mass mobilization will be necessary.

"Hello, I am Tria Donaldson, and I am calling to register my opposition to the government’s position on…” That was the gist of the very first phone call Tria Donaldson made to a politician. It was Environment Minister-of-the moment Jim Prentice, just before they both attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Aside from having been a tad nervous, she barely remembers it now. “They all kind of blend together after a while,” she smiles.

The Victoria branch of the Wilderness Committee is an inviting hobbit-hole of nooks and crannies. Battered filing cabinets, bookcases, bulletin boards and posters on the walls teem with words and images of flora, fauna, and natural places that are both exceptionally beautiful and in imminent danger. Donaldson, Pacific coast campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, moves stacks of books from the corner of a desk and hands me a warm ginger tea.  

As I sip, she shakes her head over the recent Cohen Inquiry in Vancouver addressing declining sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River, from which she has just returned. “The DFO won’t recognize a positive test of ISA (infectious salmon anemia) if they haven’t caught and sampled the fish themselves because of chain-of-custody issues,” she explains. “They tested samples that were so degraded, they were inconclusive. And they read them as a negative.”

“If we lose our salmon,” she laments, “we lose our trees, our grizzly bears, eagles, whales. They underpin our entire ecosystem; they are so vital. It’s shocking how government is putting the interests of a small private industry above wild salmon, one of the biggest economic engines for coastal communities. When government is not stewarding our resources to the public interest,” she suggests, “that speaks to a lot of concerns people have with our democracy in general.”

Political awareness came early for Donaldson, who marched to Beacon Hill Park with her father for an anti-NAFTA rally as a youngster. Organizing her elementary school’s planting of indigenous trees was among the many volunteer pursuits that kept her from “falling through the cracks,” she has said in the past. Her family background, though low income, was richly informed by both the immigrant and the First Nations experience. Her maternal grandmother came from India and her grandfather was Mohawk, while her father’s side is a mix of First Nations and European. This unique perspective has no doubt nurtured her passion for social justice, Aboriginal rights, and the environment.

Donaldson’s efforts crystallized around climate change while she studied journalism in Kamloops. Evidence surrounded her, and its effect was visceral. The red hills and giant swaths of dead trees from pine beetle infestation were one thing. Experiencing the fear and devastation the forest fires wrought in the summer of 2003 was another. “It very fundamentally changes the way you think about things when you realize there are already changes happening in our world because of how we’re living and how much fossil fuel we are burning. Seeing the real-life impacts of that in your community is pretty drastic,” she says. Among many other projects, she coordinated Power Shift Canada, a youth-based climate change conference in Ottawa. Donaldson proudly recalls the lobbying day in which hundreds of young people met with MPs to discuss climate change.

That small victory was followed by the crushed hopes of Copenhagen. Eyes welling and her words strangled by emotion, she recalls people from Africa talking about walking ever farther for water and people from the Maldives having their island’s fresh water turn salty due to rising sea levels. “Seeing the injustice that is already happening because of our lifestyles and our government’s decisions, and at the same time having people blaming you directly because you are Canadian and Canada has played such a huge role in delaying and blocking international work on climate, it’s a really strong motivator,” she says. 

Indeed, it redoubled her convictions to change political will, in her mind the only thing lacking. In the time since Copenhagen, she has learned one vital thing: “I know whenever I have worked on campaigns that have led to victory, it has been because of mass mobilization.” She has seen enough proof that even the recent announcement that Canada has altogether withdrawn from the Kyoto Accord hasn’t fazed her.

Take the recent Juan de Fuca Trail victory. “What stopped that development was people standing up, thousands of letters and phone calls to the CRD, the public hearings that were extended for three days, where almost every single person spoke against the project,” Donaldson says.

Of course, she’d love the same result on the five campaigns she is currently working on in her job at the Wilderness Committee: forestry, fish farming, natural gas fracking, coal mining (she says three mines are slated to open on Vancouver Island), and the proposed Site C Dam in northern British Columbia’s Peace River Valley. 

The latter is of particular importance to her right now. “The main issue that I don’t think people understand is that energy use in the province of BC is down 10 percent since the early 2000s. As residential energy users, our demand is decreasing. But when BC Hydro talks about Site C, they talk about it in terms of powering homes. Where it’s [actually] going is to power dirty industries,” she says. The huge demand for cheap energy needed for shale gas operations in the Horn River Basin is the real reason Site C is being pushed again, having been defeated twice in the past. “Residential users are going to be paying 85-90 cents per kilowatt hour for that energy and companies are going to be buying it at 49 cents,” she explains. “That [encouragement of industrial growth at such a cost to citizens] is above and beyond all of the environmental impacts of the Site C dam: flooding the vast agricultural land in northern BC, a main connector of the Yellowstone to Yukon migratory corridor for some of the biggest wildlife [populations] in all of North America. Flooding people out of their homes, the land First Nations have used from time immemorial. The consequences of our policy decisions and our lifestyle choices are felt by these people who are out of sight. When we need more energy, it is people in the Peace River Valley who pay the consequences,” she argues. 

So for better or worse, people do have the power. We can do nothing, and let others—and eventually ourselves—pay the consequences, or we can show up. “History has taught us that, with successful movements, it takes people standing up for what they believe in and drawing a line in the sand. The first step is getting involved,” she says. Write a letter. Volunteer for a candidate you believe in. March in a rally.

Or make a phone call. Donaldson can tell you it’s easy: “You can phone a politician when you are, you know, walking to the washroom! Multitask! There’s always time.” As I descend the stairs, I practise the script Donaldson so kindly provided: “Hello, I am Aaren Madden and I am calling to register my opposition to the government’s position on…”

Aaren Madden’s ancestors have farmed in the stunningly beautiful Peace River valley for over 100 years, and she spent many a childhood summer in its golden glow. She has a lot of phone calls to make.