by Stewart Muir
Coming from a global hotbed of environmentalism, when I travel I usually find myself in places that are far less tuned in to the currents of activism.
Not so when I made my first trip to Whitehorse, where the people I met made it feel like I was coming home. The questions people are asking in Yukon, the concerns they are airing, would not be out of place in Vancouver, birthplace of Greenpeace.
So too is the polarization I found, where it seems like loud voices on both sides of the ongoing resource conversation are leaving no room for anything else.
An astute question from a CBC reporter I met in Whitehorse brought home for me the degree to which two very different camps have dug themselves in.
Asking me for the word that I might choose to describe myself, he asked: “Peacemaker?”
I’d honestly never have come up with such an ambitious term. It’s surely a description I would aspire to earn. A term like peacemaker implies war, and I have to admit it does feel like we are having a war in this country about the future of the resource economy.
Much of our good fortune as Canadians comes from the fact that we are a modern, enlightened resource nation and will be that into the future.
First Nations today are executing long-term strategies for shared prosperity. One path over which they can have total control is resource development that, done right, can help people stay on their land.
Amid strong global competition, Canada has a few competitive advantages. Responsible resource development is one of them.
Yet, without due attention to climate change and its impacts, and without commitment to mitigating the local impacts of resource activity, public support to retain that edge is fragile.
A recent opinion poll conducted for the Yukon Chamber of Mines had some interesting findings.
Seventy per cent of Yukoners believe there can be a balance between mining and protecting the environment. Yet only one quarter agreed with this statement: “Mining in the Yukon is carried out with great concern for the environment.”
It also seems like the powerful impact mining has on the whole economy is not understood: 44 per cent of Yukoners agree that “only a small percentage of Yukoners benefit from mining jobs.”
So while Yukoners do see the benefits of resource use, we also find a degree of skepticism that is, I would argue, based on memories of some past projects that would unfold very differently if done under today’s better laws and regulations.
Though a majority of Yukoners value responsible resource development in its broadest sense, there is an odd silence when it comes to expressing support for resource activities.
Don’t take it from me that something is amiss. Even our most extreme activists cannot figure out why the silent majority is so quiet.
Here is what a successful anti-resource activist recently asked about those who are not speaking up. Wrote Kai Nagata of the Dogwood Initiative: “Why don’t resource-oriented people get more involved in fighting for their livelihood like the ‘naysayers’ do?”
Telling stories with video and pictures, gathering names and petitions, pestering politicians, and enlisting volunteers – this is how activists stir emotions and make such a big impact on public discourse. Corporate PR is no match for this.
The onus is not just on industry and government.
It is on those who want their kids and grandkids to be able to stay in the North.
It is on those who fear that habituated fiscal dependence on Ottawa (drawn, somewhat ironically, from resource activity elsewhere in the Canada), might be a fickle base for long-term planning.
It is on those with a strong vision for aboriginal self-determination and prosperity.
To those people I’d say: it’s time to speak up and share your story.
Peacemakers? How about gamechangers. We can change the world by helping those who share common, mainstream values to start talking – not just among themselves, but with their friends, neighbours and coworkers.
Learn from the activists through storytelling, advocating, and organizing. Above all not being afraid to speak out for your beliefs.
Who will lead this movement? There’s a question to ponder.
Stewart Muir is founding executive director of the Resource Works Society. He visited Whitehorse during Mining Week.