Canada’s Founding Myths Hold Us Back from Addressing Climate Change
It has been one year and one week since a coalition of dozens of organizations and artists launched The Leap Manifesto, a short vision statement about how to transition to a post-carbon economy while battling social and economic injustice.
A lot has changed: a new federal government, a new international reputation, a new tone around First Nations and the environment. But when it comes to concrete action on lowering emissions and respecting land rights, much remains the same.
Our new government has adopted the utterly inadequate targets of the last government. Alberta has a climate plan that would allow tar sands emissions to increase by 43 per cent, wholly incompatible with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
And the push for new pipelines – often sold as “nation building” – continues to tear us apart.
What I find striking is the narrowness of our public discourse – how much continues to be treated as unsayable and undoable when it comes to keeping carbon in the ground. Other countries are moving ahead with policies that begin to reflect the scientific realities. Germany and France have both banned fracking.
Even in the United States, there is a wider spectrum of debate. The new platform of the Democratic Party, for instance, states that no new infrastructure projects should be built if they substantively contribute to climate change – essentially the same position that caused all the outrage around The Leap Manifesto.
So what’s going on here? Why is it so hard for Canadian political leaders, across the political spectrum, to design climate policies that are guided by climate science?
There are many factors, of course – the need for jobs in an economic downturn, the power of the fossil-fuel lobby, to name a couple. But we are hardly the only country contending with these forces.
I think there is something deeper at play, something that brings us back to the founding narratives of this nation. The story begins with the arrival of European explorers, at a time when their home nations had slammed into hard ecological limits – great forests gone, big game hunted to extinction.
In this context, the so-called New World was imagined as a sort of spare continent, to use for parts. And what parts: Here seemed to be a bottomless treasure trove – of fish, fowl, fur, giant trees, and later metals and fossil fuels. And in Canada, these riches covered a territory so vast, it seemed impossible to fathom its boundaries.
Again and again in the early accounts, the words “inexhaustible” and “infinite” come up – to describe old growth forests, beavers, great auks, and of course cod (so many they “stayed the passage” of John Cabot’s ships).
From the start, Canada was conceived as the place of endlessness, a wilderness of such bounty that the very idea of ecological limits seemed gone for good. Except, of course, that it didn’t work out that way.
The early U.S. economy was brutally extractive too, of course – but in a different way from Canada’s. The Southern slave economy was based on the brutal extraction of forced human labour, used to clear and cultivate the land to feed the rapidly industrializing north.
In Canada, cultivation and industrialization were secondary. First and foremost, this country was built on voraciously devouring wildness. Canada was an extractive company – the Hudson’s Bay Company – before it was a country. And that has shaped us in ways we have yet to begin to confront.
Because such enormous fortunes have been built purely on the extraction of wild animals, intact forest and interred metals and fossil fuels, our economic elites have grown accustomed to seeing the natural world as their God-given larder.
When someone or something – like climate science – comes along and says: Actually, there are limits, we have to take less from the Earth and keep more profit for the public good, it doesn’t feel like a difficult truth. It feels like an existential attack.
The famed economic historian Harold Innis warned of all this almost a century ago. Canada’s extreme dependence on exporting raw natural resources, he argued, stunted Canada’s development at “the staples phase.” This reliance on raw resources made the country intensely vulnerable to monopolies, foreign interference, as well as outside economic shocks. It’s why “banana republic” is not considered a compliment.
Though Canada doesn’t think of itself like that, and our national economy has diversified, our economic history tells another story. Over the centuries, we have careened from bonanzas to busts, from beaver to bitumen.
The trouble isn’t just the commodity roller coaster. It’s that the stakes grow larger with each boom-bust cycle. The frenzy for cod crashed a species; the frenzy for bitumen and fracked gas is helping to crash the planet.
This dependence on commodities continues to shape Canada’s body politic – and for our new government, it will continue to confound attempts to heal relations with First Nations.
While Indigenous hunting and trapping skills were the backbone of wealth production in the early Canadian economy, Indigenous culture and relationships to the land were always a profound threat to the lust for extraction.
Which is why attempts to sever those relationships were so systematic. Residential schools were one part of that system. So were the missionaries who travelled with fur traders, preaching a worldview that regarded nature-worship as sinful.
Today, we have federal and provincial governments that talk a lot about reconciliation. But this will remain a cruel joke if non-Indigenous Canadians do not confront the why behind those human-rights abuses. And the why, as the Truth and Reconciliation report states, is simple enough: “The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.”
The goal, in other words, was to remove all barriers to unrestrained resource extraction. This is not ancient history. Across the country, Indigenous land rights remain the single greatest barrier to planet-destabilizing resource extraction, from pipelines to clear-cut logging.
And there can be no reconciliation while the crime is still in progress.
© 2016 Globe & Mail