It’s been two years now since I first got involved in the climate movement, and I can’t believe how fast my life has changed and how many amazing things have been accomplished.
Back in 2019 I helped organize the biggest protest ever in Nelson, BC’s history. Around 2,000 people joined the strike in a town with a population of just 10,000. Per capita, this makes it the biggest climate protest organized in the whole of Canada!
Later that year I travelled to Vancouver with the rest of Nelson’s amazing Fridays for Future (FFF) team where we led a march of 15,000 people alongside Greta Thunberg, and youth organizers from across the western provinces.
Then the world changed, and I shifted gears into co-founding Stop Ecocide Canada. This was a really difficult time – having in-person gatherings suspended seriously changed the way that FFF was able to work, and felt like a step backwards from where we had been before. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, being a part of Stop Ecocide Canada was an amazing journey. I personally met (over Zoom of course!) with over 20 Federal MPs, across party lines, all of whom have voiced their support for the movement. Without the pandemic, and the transition to online meetings, this might not have been possible, and it certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities of making change beyond our small town. We’re now talking about getting this idea into the platforms of federal parties, and it’s not a pipe dream, it’s already happening.
I represented Canada at Mock COP26, the youth-led alternative to the cancelled COP26. The high-level statement which resulted from that has now been shared with political leaders around the globe.
Of course, I did none of this alone. Throughout this journey, I’ve been surrounded by people who are also pushing for the same things, and every win we have is a collective one. Nevertheless, both the FFF and Stop Ecocide teams are under 10 people, and despite these small numbers, we have managed to make so many changes.
But as I reflect on all this, the question arises. How did this happen? How did all this work get accomplished? Some of the answers are obvious, and have been explored by others in great detail already. As a species, our collective awareness of climate issues has grown – in many ways there has never been a better time to be a climate activist. The energy and enthusiasm of the Fridays for Future movement was obvious, but it couldn’t have happened without 50+ years of awareness-building before it. The movement brought climate issues to the forefront of public awareness, but it didn’t create them. A certain amount of what we have achieved over the past two years was luck and good timing, and this is the case with most major movements throughout history.
And yet people tell me that what we are doing in Nelson is different. Youth climate groups across Canada look to what our local group does for inspiration. Other activist groups are blown away by what Stop Ecocide Canada has achieved in a few short months.
It is my deep conviction that a part of this is down to the way our group operates. Within the original team of FFF organizers, half of us were Peace and Justice Studies students. By unspoken agreement, we brought these skills to climate organizing and our group developed in a way which other groups did not. We never discussed this officially as a group, but in practice it meant that the group evolved to be open, kind, and grounded in practices of listening, accepting, and caring for each other. This created a space in which ideas could be shared, without judgment from the rest of the group.
Because of our peace studies skills, when conflict did inevitably arise our group had a way of handling it that I believe was healthy and led to the continuation of the group in circumstances that would probably have led to permanent division in the group otherwise. When the conflict arose, we held an in-person group circle to allow everyone to feel heard, and for their ideas to be expressed. This is a technique I learned in part on the Peace Studies program that I attended at Selkirk College and also from my upbringing, where circle discussions are a natural part of family life. These tactics are very much linked to the concept of power for peace, creating shared responsibilities, and giving a way for everyone to have input, as opposed to a top-down structure of power-over. The group deliberately used this approach of power of peace, and we have found it to be far more effective than a top-down system, with people feeling heard, valued, and empowered.
We all have such enormous capacity to create change, and to lead actions, but unfortunately there are many institutions which seem to be built to crush this capacity. I’d like to think that our local group does the opposite of that, building people up and offering flexibility, instead of pushing them down into rigid patterns of behavior, controlled from the top. Our group is definitely de-centralized and circular in nature.
Being the person I am, it was only natural that I felt the need to take this approach when I co-founded Stop Ecocide Canada, and started meeting with MPs. In those first days, our team was very small (really only two people), and we took a lobby training with the Nelson chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). Their goal as a group is to put pressure on politicians to adopt climate solutions, particularly carbon pricing. They conduct meetings in a very specific and organized way, which they termed the “CCL Method.” This method involves beginning the meeting by expressing gratitude for something the politician has done, followed by some discussion on the issue you are bringing to them, and finally, an ask of them. In my experience, following this script has helped meetings run smoothly and efficiently, and I have no doubt that it is this method that has made MPs so receptive to the idea of ecocide law.
The gratitude piece, in particular, is key here. Each time we express gratitude to an MP, I can see the positive response, in both their facial expressions and body language. They relax, listen more, and really seem to deeply appreciate us taking the time to express gratitude to them. I know that they attend a large number of meetings which consist mostly of angry constituents shouting at them about something, and they infrequently receive recognition for the work they do. Providing this makes them more open and receptive to what we have to say.
I believe it has been this gentle approach to climate activism that has led me and others in my group to be able to achieve the incredible amount that we have, in such a short space of time. I learnt so many of these skills through the Peace Studies program, and in my mind the two spheres of Peace Studies and activism are very closely tied – almost inseparable. If we activists want to succeed in our goals, it is so important to take a step back, look at how we are going about it, and adjust. Marches and protests are great tools for drawing attention to an issue, but the background work and the way we do it is crucial too. For example, during the recent global climate strike, our local group spent a great deal of time considering how we might present ourselves in a way that would feel non-confrontational in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and how people feel about protests in the wake of this crisis.
We spent literally hours organizing our protest so that there were never more than 10 people in a group (as they arrived, they were taken by coordinators to different places in the town, all nearby) and we asked all protesters to wear masks and remain six feet apart, even though we were outside. We also ran a newspaper article ahead of the action explaining to people in the town what we were doing to be respectful of COVID, and why we felt it was so important to go ahead and strike during the pandemic. And finally, we asked a lecturer in Peace Studies to instruct all the coordinators several days before the strike in conflict de-escalation methods (CLARA) and we reminded them of this in the pre-meeting on the day of the strike. This method was actually used on the day to great effect on someone who in fact ended up changing his mind completely and joining the action!
Of course, there are a huge array of tactics at our disposal to create change. Up until now, the tactics I have used in the groups I have been involved in have been very non-confrontational and mostly focused on creating change at a government level, but there is certainly space for other actions. I recently attended Extinction Rebellion Vancouver’s Spring Rebellion, and this opened my eyes to other ways of raising awareness. Extinction Rebellion, by its very nature, uses civil disobedience as a tool to create change. At the Spring Rebellion, activists occupied key pieces of infrastructure in Vancouver, and several arrests were made. Some people are strongly against the tactics used by Extinction Rebellion, viewing them as too extreme, and this is OK, intentional in fact. One of Extinction Rebellion’s main goals is to shift the Overton Window of public perception. By getting arrested, they make students marching in the streets demanding action seem very reasonable. By setting a target date of zero emissions by 2025, they make 2030 seem reasonable, and 2050 seem ridiculously lacking.
From my perspective, this type of action serves the purpose of communicating the urgency of the climate crisis, and makes it clear that people want to see action now, in a way that other actions cannot necessarily accomplish. It is my firm belief that we need many types of action in order to succeed in creating change. When I speak to MPs, they often ask if there is support from their constituents. Civil disobedience, along with large marches, petitions, and letters, show them that there is support. When they then meet with groups like Stop Ecocide we can give them the solutions they need to address the problem.
We know that action is imperative. Climate disasters continue to escalate around the world. Here in BC, forest fires are of particularly concern, and we frequently experience smoky summers, where the air quality can become worse than most of the world’s major cities. We also know that we cannot flip a switch and stop the negative effects of climate change. It will take years for carbon already released into the atmosphere to dissipate and for levels to return to closer to normal. Canada is warming at twice the average global rate, and in the north, the rate is three times higher. Action is urgently needed, but we must make sure that this action is lasting. I believe that only by incorporating all these different tactics, and voices from an array of people, can we accomplish this.
The methods I have learned in peace studies have been inextricably linked with the most successful campaigns I have been involved in. Of course, it is worth remembering that I live in a part of Canada which is not on the front lines of facing the climate emergency, and this work would be much harder in areas with, for example, large-scale resource development projects and/or greater dependency on fossil fuels for job opportunities. And yet the fact remains that with both Fridays for Future and Stop Ecocide, we have achieved so much in such a short amount of time. For me, Peace Studies theory will always play a central role in how I approach activism and life in general. I think it is this approach that has made all the difference.
Jamie Hunter is a 21 year old Peace and Justice Studies student at Selkirk College. Jamie is the co-founder of Stop Ecocide Canada, the Canadian branch of the Stop Ecocide campaign, which aims to make ecocide an international criminal law. Jamie is also an organizer with Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion in Nelson, BC, and has been involved in many other environmental and social justice causes. He is currently planning to attend COP26 in Glasgow to help advocate for ecocide to become an international crime.