Stars of 2011: Canada’s youth climate delegates

By Tierney Smith

Canada’s reputation as a country that cares for the environment took a pasting at the Durban climate talks.

Environment minister Peter Kent made few friends before he had even arrived in South Africa, having promised to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

This stance, allied to statements calling climate financing ‘guilt payments’ saw the Canadians finish as joint winners of the ‘colossal fossil’ with the USA.

The prize is awarded by the Climate Action Network to countries who have made the least effort to help the talks progress.

And yet while their government appear content to disengage from the UN negotiations, Canadian youth groups in Durban were vociferous in their condemnation of that policy.

The Canadian Youth Delegation at COP17 played an important role in reminding delegates that despite their government’s hostility to the talks – there was still a strong seam of green in Canada.

They took their campaign into the main plenary hall, wearing ‘Turn your back on Canada’ T-shirts. One protest, which coincided with a speech from Kent, saw them ejected from the Conference Centre.

It also ensured that their message spread from Durban back to the streets of Canada, where the campaign continued weeks after the negotiations had ended.

It was for this reason that RTCC has decided to award our inaugural ‘climate campaign of the year’ medal (it’s still being minted) to the Canadian Youth Delegation at COP17.

Proof of their impact could be seen in continued protests against the government’s stance leading up to Christmas.

“Just because we are unable to vote, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice”

That was the message of a group of Canadian climate campaigners, as they put together a flash mob in Vancouver just before Christmas.

To the tune of ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ the children stopped festive shoppers in their tracks with their tune about Climate Change.

With lyrics including ‘Climate Change sucks,’ and ‘It’s better to work together to change earth for future days’, the Kids for Climate Action group said they wanted to speak out about their government’s actions in the wake of COP17.

Speaking to local news outlet News 1130 one participant Alice Paul said: “Basically with what happened in Durban in South Africa at the recent climate talks, youth are really disappointed with the decision made by Canada and other countries to delay action to stop climate change. We felt we needed to do as much as we can. Youth do care.”

Changing political climate

Following the elections in May 2011, the Conservative government – which had already been leading a minority government since 2006 – took the majority with 40% of the vote.

Canada’s previous Liberal administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, but current Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government have never embraced it.

The latest announcement may not have come a surprise for many, as the government had already announced four years ago that it would not be meeting its commitments – and Canada’s emissions have risen by about a third since 1990.

But scratch the surface and a complex picture starts to emerge.

Canadian politician Peter Kent

Peter Kent was called a 'piece of sh*t' by a fellow MP on his return from COP17

Former Canadian Green Party Campaign manager David Lewis told RTCC that federal policy masked progress on renewable energy and mitigation efforts at provincial level.

“While the federal Conservatives oppose key climate change legislation, largely due to their desire to protect Alberta’s tar sands production, there is significant progress to be found at the provincial level,” he said.

“This is important because the provinces wield considerable power to enact their own mitigation and adaptation measures.

“Quebec and British Columbia have had carbon taxes in place for several years, Ontario is eliminating its coal-fired plants and provides feed-in tariffs for renewable energy, and Nova Scotia is capping emissions from its power plants.

“Four provinces are active in the Western Climate Initiative, which along with several American states, seeks to create a carbon market.

“So while on the surface things look bleak, a closer inspection reveals that political will exists to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the great white north.”

Warm words

Anger at government policy came to a head a week after COP17, during in a heated exchange between Peter Kent and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, who called the Environment Minister a “piece of sh*t” in Parliament.

Kent had suggested MPs questioning him over Canada’s position in Durban should have come to the conference – despite the government having banned opposition MPs from joining the delegation to South Africa.

Some found a way around these restrictions: Green Party MP Elizabeth May paid her own way to the conference and became a delegate of Papua New Guinea.

The Harper government has accused their predecessors of never making real attempts to comply with the commitments laid down by the Kyoto Protocol, and has criticised the agreement for only including developed nations – leaving  countries like China and India without any emission restrictions.

The Canadian government did, however, add their support for the Durban Platform, that would see a new legally binding agreement come into force by 2020.

Grassroots leadership

Across Canada young people are stepping up to the challenge of living a greener more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

For grade 8 student Harnoor Gill, from Georgetown, Ontario, this means volunteering on local environmental projects.

He was recently voted one of Canada’s Top Fifteen under Fifteen by national magazine Canadian Family. He told RTCC that he believes youth can make changes for the better in the environment, despite their young age.

“I have been involved in volunteering with the community at a very young age,” he said.

“This is important to me because I tell youth that age is not a barrier to volunteering. We can speak up for ourselves, for what we believe is right and what we believe is wrong.”

“We can make changes in the world by stopping the footprint of pollution on the Earth. We should go green in every aspect of our lives; this is how I believe youth can make a change in the world. ”

Harnoor worked on environmental causes from being in the Kindergarten and has now worked on his schools green team, volunteered for two environmental organisations in his local area.

He has also written for multiple publications across the country spreading his story and encouraging other youth to get involved.

And he was joined in the top fifteen by others working on similar projects – including a 12-year-old girl who makes films about the environment and a 14-year-old boy who runs his school’s environmental team and helped clean up his local beach.

Proof perhaps that while the government in Ottawa is more concerned about the billions of dollars that lie in the Alberta Tar Sands, below the surface Canada’s green streak remains alive, if hidden from view.

We’ll be sending copies of the UN’s Exclusive Rio Conventions Calendar to Harnoor Gill and members of Canada’s Youth Climate Committee in recognition of their outstanding work in 2011.

RTCC VIDEO: The Sierra Club’s Heather Hatzenbuhler and Toby Davine from Canada’s Youth Climate Committee explain how they are  attempting to change their governments’ climate policy.

Heather Haltzenbuhler and Toby Davine from Responding to Climate Change on Vimeo.

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