By Valerie Lannon
“Canada cannot achieve reconciliation without addressing climate change…We ask political parties to address rising temperatures, provide jobs and protect biodiversity.”Andrea Bastien, Indigenous Climate Action
May 6, 2019 saw the launch of the Pact for a Green New Deal (P4GND)/Un New Deal Vert, a pan-Canadian initiative to build on the growing international call for a comprehensive strategy to address the climate catastrophe we are facing. Andrea Bastien, quoted above, was one of eight panelists who spoke at the press conference in Toronto—one of three in Canada, the others in Montreal and Vancouver. Other speakers were from the youth-led Our Time, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, a York University environmental studies professor and an anti-oppression musician. While the campaign literature says the initiative was inspired by Le Pacte in Quebec, the very name of the initiative suggests the organizers also want to build on the growing popularity of the Green New Deal discussions underway in the US, built by the Sunrise movement.
From policy document to political process
The P4GND can build on the popular support for a Green New Deal. As reported in The Toronto Star, a mid-April poll by Abacus Data found 61% support among people across Canada—likely in response to the alarm bells being rung by climate scientists in recent reports. The campaign reinforces emerging climate campaigns like the student climate strikers/Fridaysforfutures and Extinction Rebellion. But compared with these campaigns, the P4GND is more emphatic on the need for meaningful labour input, workplace justice and just transitions for all workers and communities. This commitment to address all aspects of climate justice, including Indigenous sovereignty (which is a pre-requisite in Canada) and labour participation, is a real strength.
So too is the attempt to build it from the ground up. Rather than come out with a draft policy document for feedback (or, as was done with the Leap Manifesto, a policy document for endorsement), the organizers are instead focusing on a process of listening to people from affected communities, with the aim of achieving 50% carbon emissions by 2030, within the framework of two principles: “It must meet the demands of Indigenous knowledge and science and cut Canada’s emissions in half in 10 years while protecting cultural and biological diversity. It must leave no one behind and build a better present and future for all of us.” This second principle is elaborated with reference to observing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, transforming energy, transportation and key parts of the economy, “creating dignified work that can support families”, stopping the exploitation of migrants, and creating safer, healthier communities.
At the time of the launch, the P4GND initiative had the backing of 60 organizations (and dozens have joined the coalition since), including some unions (CUPW, CUPE Ontario, Confederation des syndicats nationaux), some Indigenous organizations (Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Indigenous Climate Action), labour/social justice groups like the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and Ontario’s Fight for $15 and Fairness), the larger environmental groups, and 50 well-known individuals (like community leaders, scientists and entertainers).
Pre-election town halls
The current emphasis of the campaign is to get buy-in from political parties in the context of the upcoming federal election. To that end, and to avoid what amounts to a gag order that affects organizations without “third party election advertising” status in the period leading up to elections, the organizers are calling for groups and individuals to conduct town halls May 18-31.
The purpose is to “help build a shared vision for Canada’s Green New Deal” according to The Leap, one of the main organizers: “We are aiming to make 2019 the year of the Pact for a Green New Deal. This month members of Parliament go back to their ridings and now is the chance for us, the people, during this election year, to make them realize and understand how crucial it is to build a future that meets the demands of science and justice and works for all of us.”
Town halls have begun to take place, with impressive numbers of participants—more than local organizers had planned for. The format has participants meeting in small groups and writing on post-it notes what each individual would like to see in the GND, as well as things that need to stop (e.g. pipelines). Following this first round of town halls, there will be a second round for “under-represented groups” including unions and rural areas. Leap is organizing larger town halls in seven cities where, presumably, early findings from the town halls will be presented. The idea is to have enough information gathered to present a focus for political parties.
Unfortunately, there is no place for detailed discussion, debate or consensus-building, nor is there room for the creation or strengthening of campaigns that are or would be consistent with participants’ demands, e.g. retrofitting buildings, free public transit, migrant rights, Indigenous sovereignty, or just transitions for workers. In addition, while it is understandable to want to take advantage of the opening for political discussions provided in a pre-election environment, there is a danger of some activists getting too focused on this, and building illusions in what even supportive politicians can actually achieve once in office. People have had to learn this the hard way after failures by successive social democratic and green governments here and elsewhere.
Fortunately, there is every intention for the town halls to continue after the election. This was important after the last election, where a mass march on Parliament was planned to put pressure on whoever was elected. Despite Trudeau’s charm offensive and climate promises at Paris, the climate justice movement never retreated from mobilizing after his election.
How can we mobilize labour?
While the recognition of the importance of labour is essential, the actual take-up of the P4GND by labour to date has largely been missing—and not because of a lack of ideas. For example, over 10 years ago the Canadian Labour Congress established the Green Economy Network, which produced policy documents for a million new jobs in the country, in renewable energy, mass transit and housing retrofits. But there was never a concerted campaign to actually mobilize labour behind this policy, so it has been gathering dust ever since.
There are important historical reasons why labour has not leapt to the GND or just transition. The saying “nothing about us without us” is just as true for labour as any other group. As Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America told In These Times: “First and foremost, there has to be a recognition that labor has never seen an actual ‘just transition.’ You can say those words all day long, but what people hear is ‘a couple hours of training and then you’re going to leave my community devastated and alone—like a ghost town.’ So, there’s zero trust. If you want to build trust, you need to do two things. One, you need to shore up the wasteland that’s already been created where there was no just transition…Second, a just transition needs to talk about how we start the transition process early. We need to get into these communities, talk with them about their needs, and get to know them.”
These past experiences, plus the reliance of certain workers on the jobs provided in the fossil fuel sector, explain why more unions are not leaping to the head of discussions around just transitions; see this report on US Labour and Green Transitions.
The climate justice movement has pushed some sections of the union leadership to provide vocal support. For example, CUPE Ontario’s President Fred Hahn stated: “A Green New Deal must be a deal for everyone. Facing the climate crisis means facing the many other crises – economic inequality, housing insecurity, precarious work, and rising racism – that threaten our communities and social fabric.” But even leaders of unions with a good position on climate justice (e.g. CUPW’s Community Power campaign) have done little to mobilize their own members. The next step will be taking job action to make this initiative a reality.
Rather than relying on union leaders, activists need to find ways of reaching out to and mobilizing rank and file workers—both unionized and non-unionized. For example, in Ontario, the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign is planning to reach out to workers in or near their workplaces and ask what they understand about the Green New Deal, what it should contain, i.e. what issues are of most importance to them, and how to activate co-workers on these issues.
As noted in Tara Ehrcke’s article if workers gained the confidence to join calls from Extinction Rebellion and student climate strikers for a general strike, this could force the hands of governments who refuse to take the climate crisis seriously. A direct strike for the climate is not immediately on the agenda, but we can build towards this by raising the confidence of workers to fight on broader climate justice issues, e.g. against government austerity, or for free public transit, for affordable housing, for improved workplace standards. Involvement in these movements can provide the necessary link to broader discussions around good jobs, climate jobs. Ultimately, we need to replace this fossil-dependent capitalist economy with one that is based on peoples’ needs, not profits. But the road to socialism begins with movements for justice in the here and now.
Visit Green New Deal (P4GND)/Un New Deal Vert for updates
Join A Green New Deal for All-Toronto, June 11, 6:30pm at Bloor St United Church