What I wanted to say at the B.C. NDP Convention
Committee chair Ashley Zarbatany passes the torch
In my last blog post, I introduced myself to readers and I spoke about who I am, where I come from, and why I’m excited to lead Dogwood’s fossil gas campaign. I shared a little bit about my experiences growing up in Fort St. John, B.C. and what it was like to live in a place where toxic gas coloured our skies with pollution at 3 am and fracking seemed like a normal part of life.
One thing I didn’t mention before though was what it is like to grow up in a place where the only economic opportunities available for people were in the oil and gas industry. Fort St. John, like many resource towns, has an economy that is dependent on one major industry, the gas industry, and that makes it susceptible to boom and bust economic cycles.
I grew up there in the late 1990’s during a bust cycle. I want to describe what that looked like so that people can understand why communities are often willing to tolerate the many negative consequences of supporting industries that pollute their town and poison their bodies. It’s especially important that environmentalists who live in wealthy urban areas understand what it is like to live in an economically depressed rural environment and why there is resistance to their message, no matter how true it is, that we need to phase out fossil fuel use.
A hard life in the North
Growing up during the bust, I was surrounded by people who lived in deplorable living conditions. I saw large families fitting into tiny, poorly insulated buildings that were falling apart. I saw houses stuffed to the brim with people who brought in their extended family because they had nowhere else to go. They often were cold because they couldn’t afford to heat them properly, even while it was minus thirty degrees outside.
Many of the people I grew up with dropped out of high school before graduating for many different but related reasons due to impoverished conditions and a lack of social supports: teen pregnancy, juvenile detention for criminal activity, mental illness, substance abuse, and even needing to work to support their families because their parents were unable to afford their rent.
They dropped out because they didn’t have the social support they needed to succeed. They dropped out because the government failed to invest in them. The government failed to invest in the community.
Out of my friend group, I was the only one I know of who went on to take post secondary studies, and that was only because I escaped to the wealthy south where my grandparents took me in while I completed high school. When I arrived in Langley it was like arriving in the land of milk and honey. Everyone was rich in comparison to what I was used to in the north. The teachers were caring and talented: they actually taught me something. I wasn’t afraid of getting beat up at school by violent and disturbed youth (at least they were a minority rather than the norm). I felt supported for the first time.
While the opportunities seemed endless for me, the disparity between the south and the north was glaring and disturbing.
No better options
The fact is, it was a policy choice by decision makers in the wealthy south not to invest in better educational opportunities and support for students in the north. It was a policy choice not to invest in the economic well being of people in Fort St. John and other northern communities. We were set up to fail. We were set up to be funneled into working in the oil and gas industry because we had no other options.
I do not fault any oil and gas worker for choosing to work in the only industry they have ever had an opportunity to succeed within. I blame the system that set them up to be funneled there. I blame the decision makers in wealthy Victoria, regardless of their partisan stripes, who never gave a damn about us. They didn’t care if we were unsafe at work. They didn’t care if our community was polluted and children poisoned. They didn’t care if we were impoverished, suffering, and desperate. They wanted us to be desperate enough to take on the hardest, dirtiest, most thankless jobs in the country.
Oil and gas workers have some of the highest occupational hazards in the country and some of the highest rates of cancer because they are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals. When my family members who work in the industry develop shaky hands or persistent coughs, I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of the toxic environment they work in, or that time they were gassed on site. Do you know what it’s like to listen to horrifying stories about times your loved ones almost died on their job sites? Near misses when highly pressurized gas wells almost sent shrapnel into their skulls?
All British Columbians should have the same opportunities to succeed, regardless of which part of the province they live in. The province needs to invest in the economic diversification needed to make this a reality for all British Columbians, especially those living in northern rural communities that are vulnerable to boom and bust economic cycles: these cycles are violent and they need to be broken.
These are some of the things I wanted to share with members, union leaders, and decision makers when I attended the B.C. NDP Convention a few weeks ago.
As part of Frack Free BC, we set our sights on the convention as a key political moment to highlight the growing concern about continued fracked gas expansion, both from the public and from their own membership base.
Unfortunately, the resolution to End Fracking in B.C. that called for an end to new gas well permits and a plan for a Just Transition for workers in the north never made it to the floor, so I didn’t get to share this with them. However, I did get to share some of it outside at the Frack Free BC rally which was attended by hundreds of people, including many of the convention’s delegates! Here’s some of the clips from that rally.
I was one of the many people who worked hard to get the resolution on the floor and I want to tell you the story of how close we got to making that happen because some of the news coverage our effort received completely downplayed what happened and needs to be corrected.
What really went down
Like many activists, I believe in a diversity of tactics and wear many hats. One of the hats I was wearing for the last two years was as the Chair of the B.C. NDP Standing Committee on Environment and Economy (SCOEE) where I helped build up the environmental wing of the party to make it a better organized bloc. We led the calls from within for an end to the Coastal Gaslink pipeline project and the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. We worked on many important and much needed policy resolutions that were well researched and backed up with scientific evidence; however, we were engaged in an unfair fight against the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists in the party.
Despite the power imbalance and the undemocratic ways that resolutions were prioritized at the convention, we still managed to get at least twenty different bodies of the party, electoral district associations (EDAs) and committees from across the province, to support the resolution either by originally submitting it or scrambling at the last minute to support the appeals process to have it moved up the prioritization list so that it could be number one on the list in the climate policy section. These efforts were not for naught and twenty submitting bodies is an extremely impressive number where most resolutions only have a small handful of endorsers. We ended up moving the resolution up from 17 to 14 on the list; however, that was not high enough to get it on the floor.
Since we knew we didn’t have a chance of getting it voted on when a policy section will typically only get through the first few resolutions, a member moved to amend the first resolution in the section to include our end fracking clauses to it.
Now, this is a bit wonky so bear with me for just one moment. In order to amend a resolution at convention, delegates need to vote to refer the resolution to the resolutions committee with instructions to make the desired amendments. Typically delegates do not like to do this because, not only does it chip into the already limited time that is afforded to vote on resolutions in a policy section, it strips delegates of the ability to vote on the original resolution on the floor, which in this case was a resolution calling for climate action.
This is important context that the Tyee and other news outlets failed to highlight or perhaps understand because what happened next was extraordinary.
The vote to refer the resolution with the end fracking clauses was such a close vote that the entire delegation was asked to vote again, this time standing up. I’ve never been part of such a close vote before that it had to be redone.
As I looked around the auditorium I saw hundreds of delegates wearing our “NDPers Against Fracking” buttons standing up in favor of the referral. I even saw vice presidents of the party wearing the buttons. It was just narrowly defeated, with a split delegation, but I believe, had it been a clean vote on the resolution itself we 100% would have won.
We completely unnerved party decision makers that weekend, both inside and outside the convention. From the rally, to ads on the way in from the ferry, to Frack Free BC volunteers greeting delegates coming and going, they were confronted with the call to end fracking all weekend long.
And they saw just how much their base of volunteers and donors disagree with their decision to keep fracking B.C. and to expand fossil fuel use in an age where we need to rapidly wind it down to save lives, and we know that they were shaken by it.
So, what now?
Now we need to keep pushing from the bottom up for them to act on this critical issue. The Frack Free BC alliance that Dogwood is a part of is a great place to get involved in the fight against fracking. We also have a petition that we’re encouraging supporters to sign.
As for myself, I passed on the baton at SCOEE and am dedicating all of my time to working on our fossil gas campaign here at Dogwood because I know that the most powerful way to get our decision makers to act is to create a mass movement of organized citizens who know the facts and are unwilling to tolerate poor policy decisions any longer.
If you want to get involved and help us organize, please sign up here and I’ll be in touch soon with further ways to help.