our future resides in rural canada

Sécurité Chambre des communes is taking a hard look at me. They are equally suspect of everyone in the line behind me.

Sécurité Chambre des communes is taking a hard look at me.

They are equally suspect of everyone in the line behind me.

“Can I have your coat, scarf?”

“Do you have a computer in here?”

“Anything in your pockets? Keys? Wallet? Change?”

“You will have to remove that belt, I am afraid.”

Humbled and humiliated, we ease through the metal detector and reassemble ourselves one by one.

Moving forward in a gaggle we are coached into another holding room and, finally, given our security passes.

I am in Ottawa this morning as a witness before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development and this security shakedown gets me to room 269.

A small voice isolated at the end of a very long table, 12 Members of Parliament want to hear my views on the effectiveness of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in “preventing pollution, protecting the environment, protecting human health and contributing to sustainable development.”

I tell them it will not get to the heart of the matter.

“Why?” Chairman Mills wants to know.

Well, for one, this act will not protect Canadians from themselves.

All of us here in this room, I tell them, have lost our ability to distinguish our basic needs from our unnecessary wants.

And our endless wants come at the expense of nature.

We have created for ourselves an on-demand economy and it is killing us. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act will not protect us from our own greed.

And, I ramble on, our present economic model, which demands unlimited growth through unlimited consumption is prejudiced against the small; it has an inherent industrial prejudice against anything rural; it works against family business, co-operative business and small-scale innovation.

In fact, I tell the committee, it is fair to say that, at the end of the day, our economy might just be prejudiced against the delicate balance inherent in our natural world.

I look directly at the environment critic on the committee and tell him that as our current economic system continues to pump resources out of the periphery and into the centre, from the countryside into the city, from the poor to the rich; as the economy heats up — as it must do in a fully capitalized system — it has become increasingly acceptable to ruin one place for the sake of another.

Rural Canada is taking it hard, I tell him.

He is becoming uncomfortable, passes on a follow-up question.

From the government side of the table I am asked my opinion on priority substances lists, screen-level risk assessments, and administrative and equivalency agreements.

He stumbles through this list of regulatory programs and asks bluntly, “Do these work in rural Canada?”

I am just as blunt.

We must not allow the particular and overly precise language of experts, of scientists, of lawyers and lawmakers to cloud over and obscure the common-sense language by which we express many of our common-sense Canadian values, I say.

If we are going to prevent pollution and protect the environment, I tell him, we must first prevent small communities from falling in on themselves, from becoming economic wastelands.

Our rural places are quickly becoming places from which the best and the brightest are lured into the urban centres.

There is a point in all of this where rural living becomes too much like urban living.

“Well,” Mr. Heming, “What do you propose we do about that?”

Four things.

I pull out my notes, doing my best to sound folksy.

We must appreciate the fact that small communities are the proper context for healthy living.

We must never assume rural folks are incapable of reaching some accommodation among themselves about how to inhabit their own place.

We must never forget that pollution prevention, environmental protection and sustainable development are all tied together.

Air, water, vegetation, animals and human civilization are equal partners.

And we would do well to pay particular attention to something writer Erica Jong once said.

“Take your life into your own hands,” she said, “And what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.”

“This committee, all of us in this room, can no longer afford to shuffle the entire blame for contaminated water, smog, climate change and toxic chemicals solely to either industry or to government.

“As citizens and consumers we are ultimately responsible for making healthy choices about our lives and our livelihoods.”

We all must learn to live modestly.

If we don’t, I tell the committee, we risk falling prey to something poet laureate William Wordsworth told us some 150 years ago.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

“Little we see in nature that is ours;

“We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.

“For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”

I tell the committee we cannot continue the infinite consumption of our finite resources, for if we do we will certainly give our hearts away.

Several members of the committee adjust their ties. All get to their feet. My time has expired.

I leave Parliament Hill and see a full moon rising above a city illuminated by the most beautiful Christmas lights I have ever seen.”