When global climate strikes shut down parts of cities across Canada on Friday, in the middle of a national election campaign, it will seem a watershed moment for environmental activists seeking to decide who holds power in this country.
If only it were that simple.
The spectacle of hundreds of thousands of students and their allies taking to the streets for massive climate protests, punctuated with a Montreal visit by teenaged movement leader Greta Thunberg, will seize control of campaign coverage for the day. It may even capture enough attention to keep environmental concerns higher in some voters’ minds through the rest of the race than would otherwise be the case.
But this election is occurring at a time when activists are still a long way from figuring out how to translate the youthful energy that will be on display during this week’s demonstrations into lasting, impactful engagement in Canadian electoral politics. The demonstrations are mostly led, from Ms. Thunberg down, by people who keep their distance from the partisan political fray.
There is no shortage of Canadian groups that would love to replicate the Green New Deal push in the United States, spearheaded by the youth-led Sunrise Movement. That group has become influential in the Democratic Party and captured imaginations over marrying environmental and economic-equality goals heading into next year’s U.S. elections.
What stands in the way in Canada is a less accessible, multiparty, first-past-the-post political system that nobody in the environmental world seems to know how to navigate to drive their agenda. That uncertainty has been brought to the fore with the centrist, alternately promising and frustrating Justin Trudeau campaigning for another term.
Speaking with leaders from groups that explicitly try to mobilize Canadians who care deeply about environmental issues to vote in elections, it seems their jobs have gotten more difficult since the past election in 2015. This, despite mounting public awareness of the scientific consensus on horrifying consequences if global carbon emissions are not quickly and dramatically reduced.
Four years ago, they at least had what Sonia Theroux – an executive director with prominent left-of-centre mobilization group Leadnow, which focuses heavily though not exclusively on the environment – calls “a clear villain” in Stephen Harper. The former prime minister increasingly fit that bill for progressives over nearly a decade in power; in British Columbia, where Leadnow is based, they rallied in particular against his government’s planned oil pipeline expansions. So Leadnow ran an anybody-but-Conservative strategic-voting campaign.
When Mr. Harper’s Tories were defeated, there was a period of euphoria and a laying down of arms among activists who had worked on such campaigns. Expectations were high for Mr. Trudeau – including around electoral reform, which Leadnow and others championed in the belief that it would lead to a system more responsive to their concerns.
Excitement around Mr. Trudeau may have turned to disillusionment amid his abandonment of the electoral-reform pledge, his government’s approval of expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline, and its purchase of it, and a perceived lack of sufficient urgency on climate policy over all. But there remained “a malaise,” according to Kai Nagata, the communications director for Dogwood, another B.C.-based democratic-engagement organization squarely focused on the environment.
Mr. Trudeau still didn’t make a great villain to rally against, especially when he spent much of his term being cast in a progressive light next to Donald Trump. However, he did contribute to a sense among activists that no politicians could be trusted.
The Liberal Leader’s climate announcements in the runup to Friday’s protests, highlighted by a commitment to join 65 other countries in moving toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 with little detail on how that would be achieved, offered a case in point. It’s not something for environmental activists to rally against, but not enough to rally behind, either.
Come the start of this year’s campaign, organizations such as Leadnow and Dogwood were left with smaller budgets (due to fewer donations) and volunteer bases than last time. And there seems to be a less clear sense of what to do with the resources they have to achieve their preferred outcome. (Amid a general view that Mr. Trudeau isn’t good enough, but Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would be worse, their ideal results would be a minority government involving some combination of the Liberals, NDP and Greens.)
Dogwood is pushing a message to “vote local” by ignoring party leaders in favour of riding candidates. Leadnow is endorsing somewhere between six and 15 local candidates across the country as “climate champions,” on the basis of being effective environmental advocates in competitive races against rivals who are not.
The Canadian wing of the international environmental organization 350.org – behind a nascent project called Our Time to build support for a Canadian version of the Green New Deal – is also naming “climate champions.” But it’s doing so on the basis of who excites local activists, rather than high-level analysis like Leadnow is doing. All concerned are reminding everyone on their contact lists (which number in the hundreds of thousands for Leadnow and Dogwood) to get out and vote. However, most people who signed up with them are likely fairly engaged voters to begin with.
Among those and other groups, the one that seems to have the most specific voter-mobilization plan is Future Majority, a new organization with funding from established environmental entities such as the David Suzuki Foundation. More than advocating on issues, it simply tries to boost turnout among youth on the premise that it will lead to preferred outcomes. Its focus is building and deploying volunteer teams only on postsecondary campuses situated in ridings that tend to have close election results – the idea being that, after the election, it will be able to point to evidence that politicians need to cater to younger voters on environmental and other issues if they want to get elected.
But for the most part, there seems to be a growing sense among activists that, as 350.org’s Canada strategy and communications director Cam Fenton puts it, “trying to engineer an election outcome” is unrealistic for organizations of their size. And some who were around for the last election’s environment-focused activist efforts quietly acknowledge that their impact even then tended to be a bit exaggerated, as everyone rushed to take credit for Mr. Harper’s defeat.
That leaves them grasping at other ways to insert the urgency on display in this week’s protests into the mainstream political system.
One method used effectively by the Sunrise Movement south of the border involves putting centre-left politicians on the spot through targeted protest tactics such as office occupations.
But what has also been key to Sunrise’s growing influence, so far, has been working within the political system. And that’s harder here.
In the U.S., which has a two-party system in which only one party is even remotely appealing to climate-concerned voters, activists have an obvious path: try to make that party (the Democrats) as green as possible by engaging in its candidate-selection process and other internal contests. In Canada, even though only the Liberals and the Conservatives tend to win government, the NDP and to some extent the Greens are viable enough to siphon off boundary-pushing activists.
At the same time, Canadian parties are relatively closed off, with membership systems and leadership processes more byzantine than U.S. primaries. They also, to varying degrees, employ top-down management that can make it seem futile to engage in riding-level nominations. Many climate activists wouldn’t know where to start in reshaping parties from within.
But then, to date, few have been terribly interested in trying to figure it out. Particularly among younger activists, engagement within the partisan system has long been seen in this country as a version of being co-opted, dirtying oneself and straying from non-partisan ideals. And even organizations that encourage democratic participation, insofar as voting or signing petitions or protesting, have not been inclined to challenge that.
Absent some other, as yet unknown way of swaying public policy, that kind of distance seems a luxury that the Canadian Green New Deal crowd will be compelled to reconsider at some point.
In addition to lending some organizational support to Friday’s strikes, including by encouraging their existing supporters to join, many of the established green-activism organizations will be out on the streets trying to make sure they have protesters’ contact information.
For groups such as Leadnow, which initially built an impressively large e-mail list that skews somewhat toward older Canadians, it’s a way to ensure that they’re in touch with younger ones expected to drive the push for ambitious climate policy in the years ahead. And that way, they can at least remind youth to vote next month.
But they’re going to have to think long and hard about how they want to try to engage those new contacts and everyone else they can reach after the votes are counted on Oct. 21. And they may have to consider whether avoiding more malaise requires them to get their hands a little dirtier.