Calls to ‘focus on climate’ above justice or equity are misguided, even dangerous

I know what Mike Le Couteur was thinking. When NDP leader Jagmeet Singh stood in Grassy Narrows and vowed to fix the drinking water in Indigenous communities, the Global reporter was following his news instincts.

“Are you just writing a blank cheque,” Le Couteur asked, “for all problems for all Indigenous communities across the country once you get into office?” It’s a classic campaign trail question: This is a fine idea, Mr. Leader, but how are ya gonna pay for it?

At one time I might have asked the same thing. Mike and I went to the same journalism school and worked as reporters in the same city. Him for Global, me for CBC and later CTV. I think of him as a colleague, a good guy.

The problem is, even good people can harbour prejudiced ideas. I know I do. Just because my family members experience discrimination doesn’t mean we’re not all shaped by the same systems of colonialism and white supremacy. That’s true for reporters – and environmentalists, too.

The value of a human life

Singh replied: “If Toronto had a drinking water problem, if Montreal had a drinking water problem, would you be asking the same question?” The answer is obvious. But Canada has never had a national party leader turn the mirror back on the press gallery, and the country, the way Singh has.

Le Couteur asked the question on behalf of his audience, and that’s exactly the problem. Our government, along with a significant number of Canadians, places a lower monetary value on the lives of black, brown and Indigenous people than white people. We just find nicer ways of saying it.

It’s the same audience Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was playing to the day before. His government announced it will challenge a landmark human rights tribunal decision to compensate Indigenous children traumatized by the child welfare system. (For children who died, the meager $40,000 settlement would go to parents or grandparents.)

This is not ancient history. The suit was brought on behalf of children apprehended since 2006. The government argued not only that discrimination never occurred, but that $40,000 for each child would cause “irreparable harm” to Canada. A lot of people in this country probably agree.

A Green New Deal for all

These examples show why any grand plan to remake Canadian society in the face of climate change must start with Indigenous rights and racial justice.

Indigenous and racialized communities already have the most fragile infrastructure, the most exposure to industrial pollution, the most inadequate housing and transportation. Why? The problems Singh was trying to address are a direct consequence of land theft and resource extraction.

When we see babies covered in sores or people in Grassy Narrows dying of mercury poisoning, that’s colonial capitalism at work. And when we burn the coal, gas and oil dug up on Indigenous lands, people around the world will be forced to flee drought and sea level rise. Not white people, mostly. Poor people of colour.

Preventing this human catastrophe will require raiding the vast treasure troves of capital for a wartime-scale Green New Deal. If we can’t stomach spending $1.8 billion in public money to fix drinking water – or $2 billion for survivors of a racist system designed to break up Indigenous families – then we’re not ready for the real fight.

Worse, if we consider these small acts of justice and equity a distraction from climate change, we really are headed toward catastrophe.

The threat of eco-fascism

Thomas Robert Malthus was an 18th century English cleric who spent his days worrying about population growth. He preached “moral restraint” as the solution to poor people having too many kids. If religious abstinence didn’t work, Malthus predicted that famine and other catastrophes would keep the human population in check.

His ideas live on in some environmental groups and political parties. Without a clear plan to reduce wealth inequality, the temptation is to look for a policy or technological fix to reduce fertility – for the sake of the planet.

All these warnings of environmental collapse have found a receptive audience in violent white nationalists. Mass shooters in New Zealand and Texas both embraced versions of eco-fascism. In a terrifying twist, they used the climate crisis to justify murdering immigrants.

I don’t think most extreme right-wingers actually deny climate change. They just have a different solution. Through draconian immigration controls and physical barriers, their plan for the apocalypse is: be on the right side of the wall.

‘Climate barbarism’

This is why we need to oppose any so-called climate action that deepens inequality, violates Indigenous rights, or sacrifices marginalized people. Those ideas take us down the path to what Naomi Klein calls ‘climate barbarism’. In the fight against climate change, we must point our energy not at the most vulnerable, but at the most powerful.

The same system that creates out-of-control carbon emissions also relies on the dispossession and exploitation of human beings. Tackling one head of this Hydra is not enough.

Averting climate catastrophe requires that we stop the most powerful industry on Earth from doing the only thing it wants to do: dig up more and more fossil fuels. At the same time, we need to take money from the wealthiest people in society to repair and strengthen our communities.

That is a herculean task. It will require elected leaders with steel backbones, supported by mass social movements. Environmentalists are not strong enough alone. We’ll need to ally ourselves with millions of students, with organized labour, with Indigenous communities, gurdwaras, synagogues, refugees.

Time to listen

The key to our collective survival lies in taking care of our most vulnerable people first. That is our test. Even now, we live in a world of abundance and resilience and diversity and beauty. I don’t want to give that up to live in a compound patrolled by electric tanks.

So our first task as climate activists is not to act, but to listen. Listen to the people for whom life in Canada is already a crisis. Listen to the drug users, the unhoused, the people poisoned by their water. Listen to the migrants fleeing violence back home, the kids too depressed to imagine any future. Listen to the people who work as hard as they can, but keep slipping further behind.

Then think: what can we change to reduce their suffering, while also reducing emissions? Those are the ideas I’m listening for in this federal election.