Why youth and First Nations are key to green economy future

This is the second part of an interview on green jobs with Ben Powless, a Mohawk youth who is helping to organize the Power Shift Canada 2009 conference, Oct 23-26 in Ottawa. You can read Part I of the interview here.


Greg Macdougall: So you’re obviously involved with [green jobs organizing] here in Canada and you’re part of the Indigenous Environmental Network (www.ienearth.org). You’re coming up with some strategy on this?

Ben Powless: Well, I can’t speak too extensively about that because we don’t really have one identified policy yet, we’re working on that right now, but the key difference within First Nations communities is the recognition of sovereignty over the land, and that allows for First Nations communities to perhaps even leapfrog over other communities that have to take time and get approval and get zoning permits and sort of change around their industries and everything.

A lot of First Nations communities are dependent on outside sources for power, for example, but with these ideas in their green economy, a lot of them could become a lot more sustainable and eventually even sovereign in their energy production, as well as a huge consideration that’s part of that is making a lot of our communities more self-sustainable providing their own food. I think it’s a bigger worry in some places here in southern Canada where those kinds of traditions have been lost. For example our people are actually in tradition agricultural but few of our communities are left able to farm anymore; in some cases the history of social development, but in some cases also the history of economic devastation and economic destruction in our communities, has rendered them unable to produce any healthy crops.

So talking about this from a First Nations perspective, you have to start with the fundamental idea that these First Nations communities are self-determining and are able to pursue a lot of their own initiatives in this way and can use a lot of the money they have to invest in these programs, and as well through that provide opportunities for young people to become involved, provide opportunities for employment, and then really move towards making themselves a lot more independent or really sovereign First Nations.

GM: So there’s a lot of positive things that can come from this green jobs / green economy movement. Another thing you’re involved with is the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (www.ourclimate.ca), and there’s something coming up with that around green jobs?

BP: Yes, so within the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition we’ve been discussing this issue for a number of months as well, and we also work with a lot of our coalition partners who include groups like the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Auto Workers Union, who have been focused on the ideas of green jobs for years now really, and we started to highlight this as a major priority coming into this year, coming into the end of last year. And we started setting up our own working groups after really not seeing a lot of movement on the ground around green jobs. I mean you can find a few policy documents by some environmental groups, you can find some stuff on their website, but nobody’s out there in the streets talking about it. And so we’ve had a few initial engagements around the green jobs issue but our first real big event we’re going to try to pull off this October and it’s going to be here in Ottawa, probably an event about maybe three or four days, we’re going to try and bring in hundreds of young people from across the country to a conference with the main focus being around green jobs and generating a political movement here in Canada, that people are able to go back to their communities and represent this idea and as well are able to go back, hopefully take some of the tools, take some of the strategies from the conference and help organize and help facilitate this within their own communities, and as well set up coalitions with other organizations, other partners, to really press for green jobs / the green economy.

It’s not going to be the only focus of our conference, another significant portion is going to be focused around Canada and its international obligations around climate change: of course this year is the most important year in perhaps the upcoming generation in terms of the United Nations climate change negotiations where they’re actually determining medium and long term targets on greenhouse gas reductions and so we also need to make sure that a strong message and a strong part of talking about green jobs is saying that as part of Canada’s reduction strategy, as part of Canada’s commitments and obligations, moral duty to the rest of the world and to Canadian society itself, as Canada is going to be one of the most impacted countries especially in Indigenous communities, Canada really needs to be investing in green jobs and green industries, really trying to really transform the basis of its old, grey, dying economy, and it’s fundamentally going to be the young people in our generation that are going to have to be the ones that are leading this, the ones that are going to take this into the future.

GM: How do green jobs address socioeconomic problems? How do green jobs address the current economic crisis?

BP:  Well, the idea out of the U.S. was that this whole green jobs program would be part of an economic stimulus thing, and I think in Canada a lot of commentators have started to say that we need to be really thinking about an economic stimulus package in Canada as we start to see a lot of our key industries starting to falter and unemployment rates are going up: people everywhere I know are having a hard time finding a job.

So it’s a real concern and I think similarly here in Canada we need that kind of government stimulus, that industries, businesses, even small stores that are closing down, they’re not able to provide jobs, so we can’t be looking for them to step out of this crisis and generate consumption that would bring us out of this cycle. So with that idea, with that understanding that we might need an actual stimulus package that would be able to address this, once that money is there, that can be invested in our communities, that can be invested in training programs, that can be invested in education, as well as re-training programs for people that are moving out of jobs and economies and industries that will have to close down as a result of moving towards a just transition away from a fossil fuel based economy …

When we mention green jobs, you also need to think about this as sustainable, well paying, decent jobs, as well as jobs and especially training opportunities that are focused on poorer communities and immigrant communities and our First Nations communities, and young people in particular, and so that part really needs to be stressed, made accountable to a green jobs movement, to make sure that it does contain the elements of social justice and it does have a chance of attaining some forms of economic justice. Because if not we’re going to end up with what Van Jones points out in his book, this is a sort of ‘eco-apartheid’ -- where 90 per cent of the population is running their air conditioning because it’s too hot and they have old cars because they can’t afford anything else, that are polluting the environment more than anything, when it’s only 10 per cent of the population that’s able to afford environmentally friendly alternatives -- that kind of solution is never going to work.

So you can approach it from that angle of saying this is the only pragmatic thing we can do, or really just see it as the only moral, the only responsible thing we can do is try and address the social inequalities that we have in our societies at the same time as we really, radically try and restructure our economy into one that will be sustainable over future generations, one that has the chance to stop dangerous climate change from happening on our planet. I think that if we really try and grasp what that means, what it means to really transition away from a fossil fuel based economy, to transition away from one that cuts down trees, that wastes so many resources, then I think, call it what you want, green jobs / green economy is the only thing that’s left possible.

GM: And it’s quite an opportunity. We’re being pushed in that way, but we can take advantage of it and make things better.

BP: Well yes, that’s what it is at the same time. And that’s what everybody’s saying, is that this is the opportunity of a lifetime to get it right -- the economy and society and form of government. This needs to be fundamentally part of it -- that’s part of Elizabeth May’s new book as well, talking about the basic democratic principles, it’s just elementary that we need a well functioning democracy, which we’ve seen little evidence of here in Canada -- to make sure that the society and country can respond to the actual concerns and to the actual needs of citizens, it’s just a fundamental part of democracy.

But we really only have this one chance I think to get it right, and that’s why we really need to have everybody taking part in this. What’s going to shape the history of our Mother Earth for the next number of generations, is how we choose to respond to these crises today.

 

Greg Macdougall is involved in organizing the Organizing For Justice conference in Ottawa from Oct 15-18. He is also a member of Common Cause, an Ontario anarchist organization, and the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Ottawa (IPSMO), as well as being an educator with Equitable Education.

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