Some Reflections on the Montreal Conference

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Discussions at the Cochabamba+1 meeting posed a critical question: how can we build a truly inclusive network that incorporates voices from across the climate justice spectrum?

by Matthew Brett

Organizational tensions emerged during the Cochbamba+1 conference on climate justice in Montreal last weekend that merit addressing. My concern is that important messages conveyed during the conference will be eclipsed by these disputes.

The conference ran from April 15 to 17, bringing activists and intellectuals together from Indigenous communities, from across Quebec, the rest of Canada and abroad. The clear message was that environmental degradation is the crisis of our time.

“There are laws in nature that we must respect,” said Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón, during the opening address. “We are not God.”

Early discussions at the conference centred on the planning at the international scale. Strong emphasis was placed on planning for the upcoming Climate Conference in Durban this November, 2011.

Canadian activists stressed the need to organize local actions around the Durban conference, with Polaris Institute president Tony Clarke stating that Cochabamba should serve as a counterweight to the failures of Copenhagen and Cancun.

Mohawk activist and president of Quebec Native Women Inc. Ellen Gabriel gave a remarkably compelling speech along these lines.

Corporations and states are “greedily taking away the bounties of nature so they can get rich,” she said. Once Mohawk and other Indigenous communities organize to resist, Gabriel said they are “criminalized for defending mother earth.”

The diversity and nuance of panels was incredibly rich, addressing topics of “geoengineering,” biodiversity loss and shale gas exploitation.

There were strong critiques of the conference’s structure, however.

Climate Justice Montreal organizer Cameron Fenton stressed that the conference was highly conventional and provided little time for organizational work and planning. Many conference organizers agreed with him on this point.

At the crux of the debate was how to go forward from here. Canadian Dimension editor Cy Gonick and I proposed that an inclusive network be created which brings all interested parties into the fold. The network would be centred on the climate justice movement within Canada and Quebec.

Fenton and many of the long-standing climate justice organizers felt that a network along these lines runs the risk of duplicating that which already exists, citing Rising Tide North America as a viable existing structure. Creating a network should also be a more inclusive process, Fenton and others argued, with a variety of stakeholders having their say. Their points are valid, and merit full consideration.

There was also a clear tension among young climate justice organizers—primarily from Toronto and Montreal—some of whom felt a level of distrust for conference organizers, and that their work was being co-opted.

These are vital points to address. This broad group of climate justice activists are highly active and engaged. It would be counterproductive to alienate them from decisions made by more well-resourced and institutionalized organizations like Alternatives.

Part of me feels that the tensions already run too deep, and are not likely to be resolved. It may be impossible to reconcile approaches between conference organizers and the young climate justice organizers, and I think that would be a tragedy.

If that were not enough, the closing remarks of cofounder Judy Rebick merit critical attention. People involved in environmental preservation and conservation must express a degree of humility—paying critical attention to voices from Indigenous communities, women and youth.

It is difficult to know how to go forward in light of this conference.

I am of the opinion that a well-resourced climate justice network is necessary in Canada. Fenton stressed that these networks already exist and should not be duplicated, and I am inclined to agree.

At the same time, a truly inclusive network would welcome voices from across the climate justice spectrum. A network along these lines would include contributions from Greenpeace, Council of Canadians, Indigenous communities, anti-shale gas and uranium mining activists in Quebec, Francophone voices, collectives, individuals, and so on.

A network along these lines should be broad and inclusive, encouraging voices from across Quebec and Canada to share their ideas and actions. This conference has provided an opportunity to create that network. It is important that all of these points and tensions be discussed.

Matthew Brett is a student and contributor to Canadian Dimension magazine and the Socialist Project.