All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for April 2012

Montreal’s giant Earth Day

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The giant human tree - or hand? - of Earth Day

What does Quebec want?  In a new twist to that never-ending question, a clear answer: Quebecers want a healthy environment.

That, at least, was the very clear message that came out of last week’s Earth Day in Montreal.  A crowd of more than 250,000 people gathered for what turned out to be the biggest demonstration ever!  That’s no small feat, in a city that saw the biggest protests against the war in Iraq and that is currently beset by the longest ever student strike.

You’ve got to give it to Quebecers: if they can show exuberant joie de vivre, they also can express a mood of ras le bol, up-to-here-fed-up more clearly than the rest of Canada, it seems.  And fed up they are, both with the inept (and clearly corrupt) provincial government, as well as, of course, with Harper.

I had an inkling that something big was up when I picked up a free Metro paper in the subway a few days before Earth Day.  The front page lead was an interview with Dominic Champagne, the Quebec director organising the demonstration.  I translated a bit to give the flavour:

You’re an artist who’s very involved in helping the planet.  Aren’t you afraid it’s a lost cause?

Quite the opposite, it’s the main political issue of the moment.  Sure, people are tired of hearing about the environment every two minutes, and they tune out.  It irks me to limit the debate to the sole topic of the environment.  This is more global than protecting the earth, it’s a fight against growing inequality and that concerns everyone.  Look at water: it’s a public good, yet people pollute it, or grab it to sell it back.  That makes no sense!  It’s a moral issue, above all, about the respect of citizens and our collective property…us Quebecers, we’ve championed fairness and equity, but that way of thinking is threatened.  My grandfather could drink water directly from the river.  Nowadays, that’s unthinkable.  How on earth can we accept this!

Then it happened, and on Monday the papers all led with that story.  Le Devoir, in particular, had a front page full spread, with the picture above and the headline “Un grand cri du people!” (A giant scream from the nation!).

The picture shows the creativity that is a new characteristic of demonstrations all over, particularly in Quebec.  In this case, an army of volunteers guided the marchers into the shape of a giant tree that could be seen from the air.  An amazing feat of organisation, given the size of the crowd: imagine five or six Sun Runs, you’ll get the idea.  People were still waiting to start marching while the top of the procession had already arrived at the rallying point in Parc Jeanne Mance.

The shape is that of a tree – so the papers say.  But on closer look, it also looks to me like a hand…giving the finger to Harper, in defiance.  That’s what I mean by creativity.

An inkling of what the event was like can be found here in this article and this clip, both in English – as well as here, at length, with a good video clip in the Montreal paper La Presse (Jour de la terre: une foret humaine! A human forest).

Why were the numbers so huge?  Maybe the issue of shale gas fracking helped – it is huge in Quebec, and everybody is aware of its potential dangers.  And the indignation towards the jettisoning of Kyoto may be strongest in Quebec.  But aside from this, and the need of a venue for people to express their anger, it helped that this was a popular demonstration, not just a political event.  Sure, politicians like Thomas Mulcair were there (where isn’t he, these days?), and welcomed, but mostly artists of all kind were present, many performing.

Sure, it would be easy to dismiss the size of the crowds as simply the result of a free show.  But that would be misinterpreting what really happened.  People wanted to be there, wanted to have their voices heard, amplified by the voices of their performers.  In that respect, Quebec is still like a big family.  Not that there isn’t dissent (god knows how there is!), but the sense of identity that is provided by a big, popular event is something that seems more common and more important in Quebec.  Whatever the reason, it works.

Oh, to have such public displays of indignation in Vancouver!  I can only hope to see such protests grow here.  (And I want to commend the efforts of the group that has started the robocall voter fraud protest movement in Vancouver – look’em up here.)

But there’s something that can be done right here, dear reader: the demonstration produced the mass signing of a declaration in support of the Earth, in French, English, and Innu.  The Suzuki foundation has created a website that anyone can access and sign.  I know, it’s just another petition – but hey, as AVAAZ has demonstrated, they add up, and they’re effective.  C’mon, it takes fifteen seconds…

I want to close with a clip of Lisa Leblanc, one of the signers that was featured there.  I think she’s still fairly unknown in English Canada, but this may be temporary.  Her song – maybe the theme song for the prevailing mood: “Ma vie c’est d’la marde” (My life is just shit).  As in, I’m not gonna put up with it any longer…

Written by enviropaul

April 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm

The environment and Attawapiskat

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Another great article from reporter Chelsea Vowel, in today’s HuffingtonPost, on the roots of the problems in Attawapiskat – and environmental problems have played a huge role in the making of the crisis.  (A good background to the story can be found here.)

Vowel writes in her usual acerbic vein, which of course paints Harper’s tories, and the manager they imposed, Jacques Marion, in a particularly bad light.  I don’t know enough of the details to pass judgment, but based on other reporting, Vowel seems bang on in denouncing the crisis.  This is particularly galling given that the same tories have cut funding to the only agency that had any effectiveness in at least documenting the extent of the health crisis in Aboriginal communities.  The whole article, here, is well worth reading.

And, even if the HuffPost is (rightly) criticized for getting a free ride on the work of others (it doesn’t pay most of its writers), at least it offers a tribune to voices that don’t get a hearing in the traditional media.  If only for articles like this one, I’ll keep reading the HuffPost (my other favourite source for a different viewpoint is Al Jazeera, by the way).

What caught my eye, though, is the extent of the environmental injury that the community of Attawapiskat has had to put up with.  Vowel lists the main problems:

I have been telling everyone that the way to get out of our economic mess, in Canada, is to push for green jobs.  What would that look like in Attawapiskat?

It would need to be well done, of course, and run by the community itself – much, if not all, of the problems in Attawapiskat have been inflicted on the community by outside impacts.  But the potential is obvious that, if working solutions can be implemented for Attawapiskat, they can be implemented across the country, for the benefit of all.

Let’s start with sewage (this is the poo blog, after all!).  Attawapiskat’s treatment plant is a class III primary facility treating over 2000 cubic metres of sewage per day.  Yet many members of the community are not connected to the system and can get rid of their waste only ion the most primitive, chamber pot manner.  And then there was the horrid sewage back-up.

I haven’t seen the details of the design, let alone been there, but it seems that the design is woefully inappropriate: a large and complex concrete facility based on urban concepts in a northern community with cold temperatures and a rural setting.  Instead of a costly traditional network of sewers, it would seem that local treatment may work better.  I don’t know what that could be: a mix of septic and infiltration fields; waterless systems; composting toilets; even methane generators.  Each of those has its own set of problems – but surely adapting them with a bit of ingenious design would be better than aping a costly, urban-style, hard engineering approach.

There are also huge problems of historic contamination: those mentioned above, which are mostly from oil spills, and the problems not on the above list but all too common on northern reserves: mold spores in indoor air.  Both lead to unhealthy conditions, and both are linked to energy supply.

Most northern communities get their power from diesel generators; they are usually too far to be connected to the provincial grid.  These generators (often old and inefficient) pollute the local air and generate greenhouse gases, when they don’t either breakdown or cause an oil spill.

The cost of running these old generators is awful, as well.  It is now clear that new energy sources (whether wind or solar) are much cheaper in the long run.  And, remember the sewage issue?  Even methane generation could play a role.  It’s actually very difficult to understand why these technologies are not implemented on a wide-scale throughout the north: the only difficulty is the initial financing, but interest rates are at a rock-bottom low. All that would be needed is a well-designed federal program.

Imagine the scenario: alternative energy and waste management arrive at Attawpiskat.   The community benefits from large-scale technology transfer.  It then serves as a model for other communities, and several residents of Attawapiskat are now employed all over northern Canada as builders, trainers, and engineers.  The sky’s the limit!

Several people use Attawapiskat as an example of all that is wrong with our management of northern communities, especially First Nations’.  And, yes, as Vowel does with her wonderful acid style, some fingers need to be pointed.  But I prefer to look at Attawapiskat as an opportunity and an example of what could be.