Justin Trudeau

Photo by Ramona Leitao \ www.uwimprint.ca

The first time I met Justin Trudeau in person was on December 6, 2009. I remember it clearly because I also got arrested.  The Copenhagen climate summit was in full swing, and I had joined a group of young climate activists in the last of a series of sit-ins sweeping across Canada asking our government to be ambitious on climate. Our team had made its way into the heart of Parliament where the House of Commons Environment Committee — of which Trudeau was a member — was studying Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act. 

At the time, Trudeau and the Liberal Party were, along with the Harper Conservatives, opposed to the legislation. Their reasoning was that the Bill set ambitious political targets but didn’t lay out a plan in order to achieve them — a move that harkens to Trudeau’s reticence to set climate targets in his election platform over the past few weeks.

About fifteen minutes into the meeting, our group stood up and removed our jackets, revealing shirts printed to read “Climate Action Now!” — the tip of the exclamation point replaced by a maple leaf. We walked slowly and deliberately to the front of the room, where the MPs sat around a donut-shaped table, to declare our intention to sit-in until the bill was put back on the House of Commons floor with the support of the Liberals.

Within minutes we had been picked up, dragged out, and detained by security. Within hours we were placed under arrest, processed, and issued trespassing tickets.

At that meeting, the committee voted to return Bill C-311 to the House of Commons without amendment, where it returned four days later on December 10th.

Long story short, the C-311 was not passed in time to affect Canada’s position in Copenhagen, but it was passed a year and a half later by the House of Commons — this time with the support of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. Later, in an unprecedented move, the Climate Change Accountability Act was defeated by a Conservative Senate. The moral of the story remains that a strong display of people power held the Liberal Party to account. And so I can’t help but feel hopeful in the wake of this past election.

It gives me hope for two reasons. The first is that the movement of people calling for real climate action in Canada has never been stronger. From coast, to coast, to coast there are powerful, deeply rooted struggles to defend communities and the climate, evidenced by the failure of Stephen Harper to have even a single tar sands pipeline touch the ocean. The second is that Trudeau needs to be accountable to this movement, and more broadly to progressives in Canada.

The simple truth is that in this election, people wanted change. Time and time again, polls showed that 3/4’s of people in Canada wanted to oust Stephen Harper. Justin Trudeau won the change vote, and in many ridings was the beneficiary of the hundreds of thousands of people who were tired of the Harper decade.

These people voted against Harper. They voted against a Prime Minister whose vision of turning Canada into a fossil fuel super power was destroying environmental protections, polluting our democracy, muzzling science and criminalizing opponents — particularly Indigenous communities.  

They also voted for hope, and now it’s up to us to turn that hope into action, without delay. If we can do that, we can hold Justin Trudeau accountable to his campaign promises, and demand those things that we know are necessary for a more just, progressive, and fair society.

For a lot of us in Canada, it’s not in our nature to demand things. Unfortunately, the ticking time bomb of climate change means we need to be a little impatient and demand climate action from our new government. We only have a handful of years left to change the course that this country has taken over the past decade, and to turn Canada from a pariah into a leader. Put another way — we need to pull a Reverse Harper.

Here’s what I mean. On January 23, 2006 Stephen Harper was first elected. He was sworn in on February 6th and before the end of February had cancelled billions of dollars in federal spending on climate change and energy efficiency. On top of that, they abandoned work that Environment Canada had taken on to regulate greenhouse gases from large industrial facilities and started describing or legally-binding Kyoto Protocol climate targets as unrealistic. In other words, within a couple weeks of his election, Harper had already dismantled some of the most important pillars of Canada’s climate change action.

We need Justin Trudeau to act with the same kind of bold, swift action to dig Canada out of the hole on climate that we’re in. We need the polar opposite of the concrete actions that Harper took to tear down this country’s reputation on climate, but we need them to be as decisive — and this time to protect the planet, not put it in peril.

Unfortunately, that kind of action isn’t something Trudeau will do on his own. We already know that his former campaign advisor had been on contract with TransCanada, and had advised the pipeline giant to start their lobbying efforts without delay. We know that Trudeau’s climate platform on the campaign trail, despite some great initiatives like phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and overhauling the pipeline review process, falls short of delivering a clear plan, in line with the science, to meet Canada’s climate obligations.

Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged to pursue a climate and energy strategy that respects science and evidence — something we have in troves when it comes to climate change. Those troves are clear that in order to meet our obligation to a 2ºC world, at least 85 percent of tar sands needs to stay in the ground. Personally, I think that Mr. Trudeau understands this, but I believe he needs the social license in order to act on that understanding.

That’s why I’ve been a part of organizing something called a “Climate Welcome”, a series of gentle, but serious, sit-ins happening in two weeks at 24 Sussex in Ottawa. The idea is to throw a welcome party for the new Prime Minister — one that is both hopeful, but also defined by the need for bold and urgent climate action. That’s why we’ll be risking arrest and why we’re bringing gifts. Each day we’ll deliver a series of gifts for the new Prime Minister, gifts that should give him the tools he needs to do what we know is necessary to get Canada back on track when it comes to climate change — freezing the expansion of the tar sands and committing to build a justice based, clean energy economy.

This could well be the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada’s climate movement, but that alone is not the point. The point is that we need bold leadership from this government, we need it now, and we’re going to use our bodies, our creativity, and risk arrest to show it. What happens next will be up to Mr. Trudeau.

Cameron was born in Edmonton, AB, is the former director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and currently works as the Canadian Tar Sands Organizer with 350.org

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