young canadians protest greens grab spotlight

This Monday a group of protesters interrupted Question Period in Canada's House of Commons.

This Monday a group of protesters interrupted Question Period in Canada’s House of Commons. They stood up in the visitors’ gallery and chanted slogans demanding that Parliament pass Bill C-311, an NDP private members bill that would force Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 per cent by 2050.

Although NDP Leader Jack Layton seemed surprised to be interrupted while speaking on the floor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed the action as “an NDP stunt.”

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, demonstrating her unfailing ability to get her face on TV, gave a press conference after the protest, decrying the PM’s remark, and insisting that the demonstration was a spontaneous outburst by “the best and the brightest” of Canada’s children, and asserting that “The youth in the gallery showed more leadership than the MPs on the floor,” despite the fact that the protesters clearly acknowledged that they were acting in support of a New Democratic motion.

It’s par for the course that May would attempt to steal the NDP’s thunder. In the real world of Canadian politics her party has only two possible sources of new voters, either from inspiring young people to vote for the first time, or stealing support from the existing environmentalist party.

If she achieves the first of these, she will have done the country a favour, but the question arises, why would a committed environmentalist choose to scupper the party that has led the Canadian fight for environmental responsibility for the past three decades? How did the Greens get the idea that two parties working the climate change beat would be better than one?

It’s certainly no surprise that May would rush to disassociate Monday’s protest from the NDP, and to link herself to it in the public eye. She has made a career out of attaching her name to every possible application of the hot-button green brand, even going so far as to endorse her old boss Brian Mulroney, one of the principal authors of the container-ship economy, as “Canada’s greenest prime minister,” and hitching her electoral wagon to the Liberal machine’s “green-shift” fraud.

What does seem strange is that Jack Layton hasn’t made more of an attempt to lay claim to the protest. If there is one issue that galvanizes young people today, it is the fact that current government policies bid fair to leave them with little more than the cracked husk of human civilization. The scientific consensus is that global warming, if left unchecked as Harper intends to do, will result in drought, famine, disease, fire, flooding, mass species extinction, political upheaval, and war.

Most young Canadians don’t take an interest in the arcane business of parliamentary politics, but they do understand climate change, and they respond to the notion that the old are busily disinheriting them. The average age among members of Parliament is 52. If they fail to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, very few of them will be around in 2050 to suffer the consequences. This is one political fact that young Canadians are very much aware of. If the press wants to believe, along with Harper, that the protest was an NDP stunt, why on earth would the NDP challenge that notion?

If the young people who were violently dragged from the Commons gallery on Monday have ever watched Question Period on television, they must wonder what all the fuss was about. Can security guards and police really have objected to a “disturbance” during that daily half-hour of cat-calling, jeering, and general ruckus? If unruly behaviour is unacceptable in the House, why hasn’t the entire cabinet been dragged down the stairs and beaten bloody in a stairwell?

Bill C-311 is just one example of important, but largely ineffective, work in Parliament on environmental issues by the NDP over a period of decades. With less vote-splitting between the NDP and the Greens in the last election, there would probably have been more committed New Democrats in the House to push for C-311’s passage into law.

If Elizabeth May is really interested in fighting global warming, there are two strategies she might consider. First, she could disband the Green Party and give the party with a track record on environmental issues a fighting chance. Second, she could volunteer to teach Layton some tricks on grabbing the political spotlight.

Layton could sure use the education, and Canada could do with a lot less of May’s empty posturing.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.