Meet Dogwood’s Newest Goliath Slayer
Hi! My name is Ashley Zarbatany and I’m excited to announce that I’m Dogwood’s new fossil gas campaigner!
You might know fossil gas as “natural gas” or LNG. But there’s nothing natural about it. It’s that stinky stuff heating most of our homes in B.C., aka methane or fracked gas. It’s also heating our planet at an unfathomably scary rate. I’m going to spend the next couple of years helping you fight back against the companies selling it.
But first, I want to tell you about myself, why I am thrilled to be leading this campaign, and why I need you in it.
Like many Canadians, I’ve spent a great deal of my life living in the contradictory midst of great beauty and resource extraction devastation. I grew up picking blueberries in sprayed clearcuts, ice fishing on likely contaminated rivers beside abandoned mines, and hiking gorgeous plateaus in fracked countrysides. This is the reality of living in beautiful rural Canada: you’re constantly reminded that industry’s needs have always come before ours and yet our very existence in these places is often tied to it.
I can remember catching frogs and hunting grouse on top of the TransCanada gas pipeline when I was a child in Beardmore, Ontario. I was oblivious to the danger under my feet. In 2011, that same pipeline blew up right outside of town. Thankfully, no one was injured but it’s a somber reminder that these pipelines are never safe.
I moved to Beardmore when I was five years old and had a magical childhood in the bush. I spent many days trudging through marshland or canoeing across lakes to get to our minnow traps. Year round fishing gave us plenty to eat whether it was tasty little speckled trout from a creek, pickerel by canoe, or huge lake trout from Lake Nipigon, my favorite place in the world.
It was there that my mother transferred her band membership from Sandy Bay First Nation to the Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek Nation. As Ojibway people we had gone back to the territory after hundreds of years of settler colonialism pushed us westward, first through the fur trade, and later, through economic opportunities on the west coast, where I was born.
Northern Lights Country
It didn’t last though. When I was nine, we moved to Fort St. John, the epicenter of B.C.’s fracking sacrifice zone.
The Peace River country is a majestic place. The plateaus, the canyons, the boreal forest, the northern lights, the rolling fields, the crisp dry air, the majestic rivers have all been imprinted into my body and soul. It was a stunningly beautiful place to grow up, but it was also a place where the violence of the oil and gas industry seeped into all pores of society.
It was not a safe place to be. Indigenous women and girls went missing. Girls like me. Like my friend Rene, who went hitchhiking and was never seen again, leaving behind her baby boy. Flare stacks burned toxic chemicals in the middle of the night when gas companies thought they could get away with it, blanketing our town with strange colors and chemicals at 3 a.m. I’ve had friends I grew up with lose their children to rare cancers. Statistically, residents in the Peace River region have higher than average rates of cancer, asthma, and other forms of diseases that have been linked to the fracked gas industry.
Growing up in Fort St. John we were taught at an early age to be aware of hydrogen sulfide gas leaks, just in case we ever got caught in one. We heard the stories about flocks of birds dropping dead in fields because of those leaks. We knew the drill: put on your AC and drive away as fast as you could. Avoid valley bottoms and get to high ground if you smell rotten eggs. “Get to high ground” still repeats on rewind in my head.
As a girl, I learned that two types of humans lived here: predators and prey. The ways that the violence against the land manifested as violence towards other humans was a reality I learned to navigate early. The normalization of exploitation, both of the land and of people, created loops of human misery that were hard to escape.
This was the frontier of settler colonialism and the resource extractivism that drives it. And it’s only gotten worse since I left. Tens of thousands of new wells have been drilled since I was a child and now the oil and gas industry wants to expand it by tens of thousands more to export gas to foreign markets and feed their LNG nightmare.
The Wild West of Gas Cronyism
I think about this every time I turn on my stove. I hate that thing and I look forward to the day I can afford to switch to induction. Like most British Columbians, we can’t afford to get rid of our gas appliances all at once and the government is doing little to help us. You can’t even get a rebate for an induction oven, even though it’s well documented that the fracked gas coming through our stoves is poisoning our homes and causing childhood asthma.
But you can get up to $3,700 in taxpayer funded rebates for fossil gas appliances. It’s maddening how much the gas industry has captured the highest levels of our government. Companies like FortisBC claim they are leading B.C. into a “low carbon” future, but that’s because they’re not telling people the truth that methane, which they call “low carbon”, is eighty times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas emission and is accelerating the climate crisis.
More than ever, we need to fight back against the lies of the fossil gas industry.
We need to tell the truth about what oil and gas is doing to sacrifice zones like my hometown and the impact this toxic gas is having on our health and our safety. The industry is Goliath in this fight but I believe that when we work together to tell the truth and demand change we will win. I know I can trust Dogwood supporters to be up for this challenge.
The Power of Collective Action
I want to tell you about a beautiful experience I had that changed everything for me.
Prior to this experience, I had been a student activist in Vancouver for a couple of years. I had participated in a number of different types of grassroots resistance efforts, diving into the work of community organizing after a traumatic awakening to its need at the Toronto G20 protests in 2010.
I went to the G20 in Toronto as a Liberal student who was somewhat concerned about Stephen Harper’s austerity and misuse of public funds, but I came back completely transformed by not only the shocking police brutality I witnessed there but also the community organizing that had gone into the G20 resistance movement and taken care of us during an incredibly upsetting and disillusioning time.
Naturally, when I got home to Vancouver, I threw myself into community organizing, especially at UBC where I was studying. During that time, working with others, I learned a lot about campaigning, what it takes to win, and how easy it can be to lose.
I learned that it’s not impossible to convince 400 people in half a day to sign a petition with a strict 5 p.m. deadline looming. We did it. Between the three of us we got the 1,000 signatures needed to get our referendum on the ballot during the student elections and then we won our referendum with over 90 per cent of the vote. Apparently, students support lowering tuition and were shocked to learn that their student union wasn’t advocating for them on it. We made it binding.
Through that experience, and the countless more that came after, I learned that organizing is hard work and that hard work pays off but only if you do it.
I learned that you need a team to win. We never would have made the deadline if we didn’t each do our part and believe in our (extremely ambitious) mission.
Social Tipping Points
In May of 2012, this lesson in collective action was hammered home to me when I had the privilege of witnessing the Maple Spring Revolution in Quebec, aka the student strikes.
Many Canadians outside of Quebec don’t know this but there was a gigantic social movement in 2012 to stop the austerity of the provincial Liberal government and fight back against their proposed tuition hikes. Students across the province went on strike, picketing classes, occupying administrative buildings, and demonstrating in nightly marches across Montreal. They formed neighborhood and general assemblies where they would make decisions collectively through direct democracy. Everywhere you looked people wore red squares in support of the striking students and hung red squares in their windows. The whole city pulsed with an electric feeling of solidarity.
I was there for a family visit when the government passed draconian Bill 78, an unconstitutional law that took away citizen’s rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. The whole city erupted and my cousin interrupted our dinner to take me with her to my first night march. In what was called the single largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, tens of thousands of people took to the streets that night to protest the passage of the law and over a thousand students were arrested in mass kettles. That night was the first time I tasted tear gas.
Two days later, on May 24th, I would witness the most incredible collective action of my life (thus far). In response to the undemocratic law, the mass arrests, the police brutality, and government contempt, over half a million people joined students on the streets. The entire city stopped and everywhere we went people were supportive. Bus drivers gave us free rides directly to the rally and workers honked their truck horns in support as we marched by. Later that evening, people from all walks of life and all ages gathered on street corners and balconies in every neighborhood to bang their pots and pans in solidarity with the students. It was amazing. It was a turning point. At that moment, I knew the students had won.
Sure enough, the bill was repealed and tuition was frozen a couple months later. A few months after that, voters got rid of that government.
From that experience, I learned that beautiful, powerful things can happen when people come together and act collectively; that social movements, much like our climate, have tipping points. When you reach them, success is inevitable, even if you can’t see it right away.
It also takes courage. Too often activists, especially marginalized people, are subjected to brutal police tactics, such as being kettled for hours, or violently attacked. People can end up with life-altering injuries. It’s important to acknowledge that the success of any social movement in the face of violent and powerful forces takes courage and sacrifice.
But it’s also important to recognize that most of the incidents of police violence happened when the protests became too small. At the large ones, police didn’t stand a chance of trying anything like that because there were just too many people. That’s the power of numbers. That’s the power of solidarity and of collective action.
When you reach a critical mass, a certain tipping point, new possibilities arise. A different world becomes possible.
I Believe That We Will Win
I believe that the climate justice movement can and must do the work to make this happen. We must work towards building a social movement that is well organized, inclusive, democratic, and capable of reaching the tipping point we need to win this fight for a stable climate and an economy that prioritizes people. We must work together to make this happen, to make a Green New Deal real. I know we can do it and I’m excited to help build it through this campaign.
It wouldn’t be the first time Dogwood staff, volunteers and supporters have achieved incredible things through collective action.
You defeated the Northern Gateway Project! By working together to protect our coastline, you helped build the movement that was needed to stop that terrible pipeline project from going ahead. Dogwood has achieved a lot of real tangible wins over the years and it was only possible because it is a people powered movement. That’s where our strength lies, in people coming together with a shared mission.
This is why I’m so excited to begin working with Dogwood, which has been at the forefront of movement building and intersectional climate justice work for over twenty years in B.C. I’m thrilled to be part of a team that understands the power of collective action.
It feels hard right now in B.C. We’re all carrying a lot of grief and we have a lot to mourn but I want to share something important that I’ve learned both from being an activist and from growing up in an industry town: the future is not set in stone.
I know from experience that things can get worse, if we let it. I look at the google satellite map and yearn for the days of my youth when there were “only” thousands of fracking wells in the Peace. So much damage has been done since I left and now they want to put in tens of thousands more wells. It’s horrifying how much worse it can get when people don’t organize.
But I’ve also seen how things can get better.
I ended up living in Montreal for three years and during that time there were multiple oil and gas megaprojects being proposed across Quebec. As of today, none of the gas projects happened and the Energy East pipeline was canceled. Quebec is a proud signatory of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) and is now considering a ban on gas hook ups in new buildings. They are leading the way in the fight for a stable climate and it is, again, because of the work of people on the ground making it happen through good old fashioned community organizing.
We can do this here in B.C. too! In fact, I believe we will. It starts with you. Please sign up here to get involved in this important gas campaign. I’ll be in touch soon with ways to take action! And in the meantime, if you want to get in touch, please drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org