By Denise Leduc
After I became a parent in the early 1990s, I soon became concerned about the environment. I read extensively on the topic, made shifts in my lifestyle choices and aspired to one day be like Scott and Helen Nearing, the 1930s pioneers who advocated simple living for the health of people and nature.
For me, concern over the environment is not a fad. It has been an issue that I’ve reflected upon, grappled with and quietly tried to act on throughout my adult life. So one might assume that as an NDP member I celebrated the recent LEAP Manifesto resolutions passed the party’s convention this past spring, but I did not.
Initially released during the federal election campaign by a coalition of activists, academics and celebrities in September 2015, the Leap Manifesto is a 15-point document calling for a shift in Canada’s economy, an end to oil pipeline development, and, most importantly, the end to our reliance on fossil fuels. In fact, I agree with almost everything contained within the Manifesto. Yet after it made news this spring I also saw frustration, hostility, and divisions arising over this document.
Alberta’s first NDP premier, Rachel Notley, was quick to denounce the manifesto and distanced her government from the document by calling it “naive and ill-informed.”
Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour had harsher criticism, saying of LEAP, “These downtown Toronto political dilettantes come to Alberta and track their garbage across their lawn.” McGowan expressed frustration by what he saw as a disregard for workers. With Alberta’s dependence on the oil economy, I understood why labour leaders might be frustrated. I share some of these concerns.
My own family has benefited greatly from the resource economy boom here in Saskatchewan. For the past five years my husband has been employed building potash mines as a unionized Ironworker. His trade is widely sought in the oil patch as well. But are we sell-outs to the resource economy for recognizing what butters our bread? I believe there is more to the issue.
Before moving to Saskatchewan, we lived in Ontario where my husband built hospitals, universities, and car plants. Then the recession of 2008 hit.
Within three years our family went from middle-class to living in poverty due to chronic unemployment. People who have never experienced poverty can become desensitized to the concept and what it’s like to live without a steady income.
Imagine going for three months without hydro in your home — no lights, no fridge to keep what little food there is, no hot water, no washing machine. Sometimes we showered in ice-cold water while other times we sneaked into the local conservation area and used the showers provided there for campers.
There was a time our heat got cut off because we couldn’t pay the bill. Thankfully it was early spring. We couldn’t afford to have phone, cable or Internet. We went from having nutritious family meals around the table to making do on the cheap junk foods we could afford.
Our only car got repossessed and the only way we kept our home was with help from family. Every day was a struggle. The hardest part was the stress this brought to our family. There’s also a sense of worthlessness when you can’t even land a call back after sending out hundreds of resumes.
Our experiences weren’t unique, or the worst of what has happened. In 2015, a rash of unemployment-induced suicides swept Alberta.
It’s for these reasons that I was taken aback by the argument raised by LEAP supporters that Canada’s oil industry needs to be shut down. I also became resentful of the activists and political celebrities who tout the Manifesto without much care for the individual workers who might be displaced by their vision.
I started to question their motives and their personal commitment to Leap. Are they using renewables? How had they traveled to Edmonton for the NDP convention? If they are not willing to be a little inconvenienced how can they ask for families to face uncertainty? How can they be flippant about jobs that help people provide for their families? Had someone like Naomi Klein, who I respect, ever been to a food bank?
I reread the Leap Manifesto again and again. I watched the speech by Stephen Lewis.
It made me cringe when I realized I nodded my head in agreement when he talked about cancelling the Saudi arms deal. Why didn’t I stop to think about manufacturing workers in the same way I thought of resource workers?
I spent hours reading articles on Leap. Within a week Naomi Klein had replied to criticism in an article. In her piece it became clear that she is not indifferent to the concerns of workers, but instead that there are other forms of meaningful employment outside of the fossil fuel industry. Countries like Germany and France, she argues, provide examples of what is possible.
It has been almost four months since the NDP met in Edmonton and passed a resolution to have their local riding associations discuss the Leap Manifesto. Sadly it seems that these conversations have largely fizzled out.
However, the recent oil spill from a Husky pipeline that leaked over 200,000 litres of oil into the North Saskatchewan River, affecting over 70,000 residents in the province, might change things.
The cities of Prince Albert and North Battleford have had to shut down their water intake and now face serious shortages of water. Residents have been placed on drinking water measures and the city of Prince Albert has declared a state of emergency. The problem could linger for months or years.
Naively, I had thought oil spills were uncommon. Yet as University of Regina geographer Dr. Emily Eaton shows, since the 1990s there have been over 18,000 oil spills in Saskatchewan alone. In the past ten years there have been over 8000 oil spills in the province, with Husky being responsible for around 18 percent of these accidents. Yet Premier Brad Wall continues to defend pipelines and even acts as a spokesperson for the oil industry in Canada.
After much reflection I have come to realize the reason I wasn’t celebrating Leap was out of fear, and not an objection to the manifesto’s vision. I don’t think I am alone. After reaching out to contacts in the building trades and organized labour, I found that many people weren’t ready to comment on Leap or even discuss the subject.
People want to know that they can feed their families and pay their bills. The thought of losing good jobs is frightening to them. Yet, while I care about good jobs that pay living wages, this privilege should not come at the expense of other Canadians or the environment. There has to be another way.
The recent oil spill should force us to think about the future of work and the economy in Saskatchewan and set us on a path towards change. Still, supporters of Leap need to be careful with how they promote their message. I still think there needs to be an understanding of what a just transition will mean for workers and communities that depend on oil and resource extraction. As long as people fear the loss of jobs, there will be hostility and divisions. But there are opportunities that need to be seized.
Premier Notley and the province of Alberta has committed to 30 per cent renewable energy by 2030 while Prime Minister Trudeau had Canada sign the Paris Climate Treaty. Whether or not these commitments are enough is another question.
Yet, we need to see more leadership at all levels. Leadership from organizations like the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) and the Sask Building Trades could greatly help such a transition and inspire confidence in workers.
In Saskatchewan’s last provincial election both major parties were pro-pipeline and there was little discussion about green alternatives. So while Premier Wall’s inaction over the recent Husky spill must be criticized, the NDP in this province need to refocus and question our dependence on oil. Like it or not, the Leap Manifesto’s message needs to be discussed in Saskatchewan. Now it’s a matter of who will lead this conversation going forward.