10 Questions for Environmentalists

Alberta’s beleaguered green community must reorganize, re-prioritize and get down to work. Then we can call ourselves a true movement.

By Stephen Legault

We’re losing and we know it. We’re losing what so many love about Alberta—its wild places, clean air and clear waters. So despoiled are Alberta’s northern woods from clear-cut logging and oil and gas development that its border with Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories is clearly visible in satellite images. Alberta leads the country in producing greenhouse gas emissions. University of Alberta professor David Schindler predicts massive water shortages in the coming years as the province’s glaciers recede due to global warming. By any significant standard of environmental health, Alberta is losing ground.

“There are those who would say the rest of Canada’s environmental movement should ignore Alberta,” says Glen Semanchuck, executive director of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists. “But if you found a spot of cancer in your body, would you ignore it? No, you would attack it or it would spread.”

The Alberta government’s staunch opposition severely weakened the federal Species at Risk Act in the early years of this decade. Alberta’s feverish complaints about the Kyoto Protocol nearly scuttled Canada’s obligations under that treaty and have continued to interfere with efforts to tackle global warming.

Now the cancer is spreading. Canada’s new Prime Minister and Minister of the Environment hail from this province. They have done little to assuage concerns that they will further weaken Canada’s already lax environmental laws. Their promises of a made-in-Canada climate change plan come even as they cut funding to programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental community has often stood between ecological ruin and many of Alberta’s decision makers. I was part of that community for nearly 14 years and I’m proud of the work it has accomplished. I’m also aware that if we’re going to do more than just hold the fort, we’ve got to question our own effectiveness. Despite the heroic efforts of a few handfuls of volunteers and staff, Alberta continues to tumble into ecological decay. Alberta’s beleaguered environmental community must find the means to reinvigorate itself, reorganize, re-prioritize and then get down to work. Only after we’ve done this can we call ourselves a true movement. To that end, I offer these 10 questions in the hopes of spurring a sea change that will turn the tide in Alberta and across Canada.

(1) What Kind of Movement Do We Need?

We need to become 100 times more effective, and we must sustain that effectiveness for decades.

Environmental groups must stop competing for resources and for status within a piecemeal community. Instead they should specialize, eliminating overlap and duplication.

If we identify the gaps in our community, each group can choose a focus based on its strengths. The environmental community would start acting like a movement—with common goals and a shared strategic plan—rather than a loose affiliation of organizations. Only then can groups begin to work together as functioning components of a healthy ecosystem.

We’re a long way from that. “We collectively don’t know where we need to go,” says Miles Kitagawa of the Toxic Watch Society. Many others agree. None of Alberta’s leading activists feel they’re part of a coherent environmental movement in the province.

Currently, groups work together on an ad-hoc basis and through the poorly attended, narrowly focused meetings of the Alberta Environmental Network (AEN). While the AEN served an important role when it was first conceived, it has failed to keep pace with organizational challenges. To become a movement, we need to harmonize our efforts. We must be in constant contact, building a shared vision and executing common plans. We must begin to resemble a natural ecosystem, in which each component invisibly and effortlessly supports all the others.

(2) How Can We Build Trust at the Community Level?

While we become more effective through specialization and communication, we must support the growth of a grassroots environmental movement. Dozens (if not hundreds) of small- scale organizations are already forming across the province, tackling issues like children’s health, the downstream danger of sour gas, and the protection of watersheds.

Hinton’s Connie Bresnahan of the Athabasca Bioregional Society says that her group quietly backed off from open environmental advocacy work for a couple of years after the contentious Cheviot Mine hearing. They determined to change their relationship with their community.

To do that they focused on a small, community-based creek restoration project. They forged relationships, based on common goals, with community and government organizations, local businesses, town council, industry and interested public volunteers. For three years they worked to establish trust, respect and open communication between themselves and fellow community members.

What Bresnahan and fellow activists communicate with this kind of work is ‘We’re here for the long term. We’re here forever.’ Now, says Bresnahan, they have to test that trust as they prepare to speak out again on more pressing issues.

Similar work is occurring in the heart of Alberta’s ranching country, where activists are working side by side with organizations like the Pekisko Group to keep the province’s foothills ecosystems intact and save a way of life that has prevailed in Alberta for more than 100 years.

Provincial organizations can help propagate these models throughout Alberta. In this way, the success of one part of the ecosystem is transplanted to other areas in need of regeneration.

(3) How Do We Ensure Lasting Leadership?

While Alberta has many fine environmental leaders, it lacks a succession culture that identifies and trains young people for future leadership roles.

Crushing student debt, poor training, stressful working conditions and lack of leadership opportunities can force young people to abandon environmental action for jobs in industry, government or other provinces.

Alberta risks losing its leaders to burnout. Too much weight shouldered by too few has taken its toll. What one friend calls the “singular loneliness of leadership” often creates unbearable demands. This makes for a poor recruiting position: ‘Come and lead an environmental organization—work yourself silly, and fry your brain in five years flat.’

If a forest ecosystem is subjected to human disturbance and its natural fire pattern suppressed, fire can be a cataclysmic event, burning everything down to bare soil and rock. Eventually a new forest is born, but it takes a long time. The new trees have little shelter and few minerals for food. They are vulnerable to disease, soil erosion and more fires.

Compare that to a healthy forest ecosystem, where fire burns through on a regular basis, rarely claiming more than a small percentage of the forest’s trees. Fire makes nitrogen available to new trees, allowing them to grow from the ashes of the old. Shelter is provided by the diversity of ages and species. Young trees often grow up right out of the remains of fallen ones, called “nurse logs.”

Which ecosystem supports a diverse, healthy forest? Which does the environmental movement want to emulate?

Effective leaders must be found, trained and retained. But having a leadership pipeline in place within isolated organizations isn’t going to result in the kind of sea change Alberta needs. Leaders should be shared among organizations. This would break down the membranes that separate the groups, creating a cluster led by a single nucleus. Inspiration, vision, guidance and mentoring would be provided to our movement as a whole.

(4) How Do We Communicate?

In Alberta we’ve doggedly stuck to the same frames of reference for more than 30 years. The message that nature is good and development bad is not complex enough for today’s problems. We need to identify the underlying values that motivate Albertans. To start, we can talk about our children, about security and about healthy, diverse, robust and long-lasting economic well-being.

What we communicate will change how we communicate. Press releases and media events won’t cut it. We have to be the media. This means more than posting newsletters on the Web. It means finding vehicles for telling our story so that the public recognizes it as their own. We can’t communicate from behind our desks. We have to go to churches, to chambers of commerce, to community forums, pool rooms, coffee shops, town halls, cinemas. Connie Bresnahan didn’t win the trust of the people of Hinton by sitting at her computer.

(5) How Do We Find a Collective Voice?

The ills that lead society to devastate its forests and pollute its skies and water have the same systemic causes that create poverty and human rights abuses: unevenly distributed power; entrenched governments; an inability for the disadvantaged to find their voice and organize. Tackling these and other systemic causes allows, as famous progressive thinker Ronald Reagan once said, “the rising tide to float all boats.”

Alberta has a head start, thanks in large part to the work of Bill Moore-Kilgannon of Public Interest Alberta (PIA), which “recognizes the interconnectedness between various public interest themes,” according to Moore-Kilgannon. “Our work in one area supports work in others. Social change takes a long time to develop. So we need a long-term vision. PIA provides the democratic space to create joint strategic plans to create lasting change in this province.

“We haven’t done a very good job at building connections with the environmental community,” admits Moore-Kilgannon. “We need to find the capacity to do joint work together.”

As part of movement-building in Alberta, enviros might band together with others to identify and address the root causes of the province’s ills.

(6) How Do We Fund this New Movement?

Despite Alberta’s nation-leading economy, funding for organizations that work to protect Alberta’s environment is third- lowest in Canada, exceeding only PEI’s and Saskatchewan’s.

“When it comes to capacity to raise money,” says Pat Letizia of Alberta Ecotrust, a leading provincial funding body that channels money from resource sector industries to environmental groups, “environmental groups are at the bottom of the scale.”

Ecotrust has its own challenges. Its critics say that corporations, when approached by other groups for funding, hide behind their paltry $25,000 annual donations to Ecotrust. Its funds are mostly from oil and gas companies, so the grants it gives cannot be used to tackle head-on the corporations that are among the province’s worst polluters and largest consumers of resources. Despite these well-known and internally recognized challenges, Alberta Ecotrust is trying to create made-in-Alberta solutions by bridging the often massive gap between industry and the environmental sector. Few others are.

Most funding for Alberta’s environmental work comes from foundations. Without them, many organizations in Alberta would cease to exist. But by funding projects on a year-by-year basis, foundations have contributed to the hand-to-mouth mentality that often keeps the environmental community from pursuing a broader vision. Foundations need to stop handing out grants just for projects, and instead support leadership development, organization development, and movement-building. They can start by lengthening the time frame of their support from only one year to seven or even 10 years.

This kind of strategic funding means far fewer grants. That’s OK. It doesn’t make sense to fund duplication, or groups that don’t show promise of success, or organizations that aren’t part of a coherent movement. Funding must be focused on long- term, strategic enterprises, not short-term, low-risk, low-yield endeavours.

But there are two players in this codependent relationship. Those of us seeking funding must develop strategies to wean ourselves from foundation funds, with or without their help. Groups should set up parallel businesses to generate revenue. This will take creative, entrepreneurial thinking—which environmental leaders are blessed with and must now exercise.

(7) How Do We Influence Decision Makers?

Environmental groups don’t matter to decision makers in Alberta. The reason is simple: to be taken seriously in politics, you have to be considered an asset or a threat, and environmentalists in Alberta are neither. Protests, letter-writing campaigns, rallies and lobbying fall on deaf ears because many in the environmental movement fail to engage directly in the political process. If we refuse to elect or defeat candidates and governments, only a handful of MLAs will take us seriously.

That could change with the introduction of Conservation Voters of Alberta, whose goal is to “green all of the political parties, making them aware of environmental issues, and to encourage Albertans to vote green, regardless of party affiliation,” says board chair Tamara DeFord.

Conservation Voters works with other environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs) to develop a list of environmental priorities. “It’s a challenge to narrow it down to just a few priority issues,” says DeFord. Land management, urban issues and wilderness are given top billing by the group.

This might sound like previous efforts at prioritizing, but Conservation Voters offers something new: a reward at the polling booth for those who support good environmental decisions, and a threat to those who don’t. Past efforts (undertaken informally through the AEN and through infrequent meetings between ENGO staff and volunteers) failed for two reasons: a lack of focus and follow-through; and an absence of any motive for the government in the form of political rewards or threat.

Conservation Voters expects to be in a position to support green candidates from the major parties by the next provincial election.

The real question in Alberta politics is not which party will be in power after the next election, but who will head the Conservatives when Premier Klein finally exits. “A sweeping change of government isn’t going to happen,” says DeFord. “The Conservatives need some greening.”

Environmentalists feel much more comfortable working with Green Party, NDP and Liberal candidates, but if they want to gain influence they should identify the greenest candidate running for the leadership of the Tories, and join his or her team—at least until the next upwelling of political populism. (Change in Alberta government has only ever come from grassroots movements—could Preston Manning’s proposed marriage of conservation and conservatism be the next one?) Even if their candidate loses, enviros will have demonstrated the ability to move votes, and that is what matters in politics. When we’re done with the Conservatives, we should do the same for the other parties.

(8) What Is the Role of Environmental Education?

“Education is a strategic tool,” says Canmore-based environmental educator Gareth Thomson. He has been at the forefront of environmental education in Alberta for more than a decade, working first for the provincial government, then for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and now as executive director of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education. During that time, he and his team have made hundreds of presentations to schoolchildren across the province and have developed a curriculum that can be easily used by teachers themselves.

“Environmental education is a process. The outcome is someone who is environmentally literate, who understands the connection between society, economy and nature. They have to have the skills to act and to create change,” says Thomson. These literate citizens can then vote for the environment with their wallets and at the polling booth.

(9) What Is the Role of Ethical Business?

“Consumers and citizens have to understand their power as a group,” says Nan Eskenski of Calgary’s Good Earth Café, which is part of a slowly emerging values-based business sector in Alberta. Its leaders have chosen business as their means of making a difference. These include a growing number of energy companies, such as Calgary’s Canadian Hydro, that produce and market green power.

The economic engine of Alberta is the oil and gas industry. To have any meaningful effect on Alberta’s greenhouse gas output, companies like Suncor, with its massive oil sands development, must lead the effort to curtail emissions. “Companies have resources, and environmental groups have ideas,” says Gord Lambert, vice president of sustainable development for Suncor. Lambert has teamed up with the Pembina Institute, a national energy think tank based in Alberta. “Pembina is helping how we design our facilities and make business decisions,” says Lambert.

Suncor rates among the best in the province at making allowances for environmental and social issues. But with Alberta leading Canada—and Canada leading the world—at increasing, not curtailing, greenhouse gas emissions, Suncor and the oil industry have a long way to go.

For the next frontier in ethical business, look to companies which engage their clients in environmental issues. For example, the Co-operative Bank of the UK’s “Customers who Care” campaign has inspired tens of thousands of its members to advocate against pesticides, climate change and land mines.

(10) How Can We Embody the Sea Change?

Before we can implement a sea change, we must first become that sea change ourselves. Too often, advocates act out of anger and fear for what is being lost. Until we are able to act out of compassion for one another and love for what remains, we will never gain ground, at best hold ground, and much too often lose ground.

There will be resistance to such a sea change, in Alberta and elsewhere. Some will condemn its advocates as wild-eyed and negative. But we can love something and still find fault with it.

Alberta deserves the very best environmental movement we can muster. It’s time for some reflection, so the trees can once again see themselves as part of a forest, the forest part of an ecosystem, and the ecosystem a living, breathing and growing movement.

Stephen Legault is the author of Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership. Join the discussion at


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