The evolution of an activist

By Dogwood volunteer Lorisa Schouela. Originally printed in Common Ground.

One day last July, my life took a decisive turn. The day began much like any other summer Sunday; I ate breakfast and headed to the Kitsilano farmer’s market hauling a bucket of compost. At the entrance to the market, an organizer for Dogwood Initiative, a local grassroots organization, approached me with a petition against the expansion of coal transport through the Fraser-Surrey Docks.

Signing the petition was easy enough, but when the Dogwood representative asked if I would actively get involved in the coal campaign, I pulled back. Did I really want to be invaded with an avalanche of emails and phone calls? I have always regarded my privacy as sacrosanct.

“Yes,” I said, surprising myself, but I honestly didn’t think I’d ever hear from her again. A couple of weeks later when I met the young woman from Dogwood, I felt excited and nervous – excited at the opportunity to get involved but nervous because this was way out of my comfort zone.

Becoming more aware has been a gradual process, an evolution in the way I think and act in the world. The first tentative steps involved making certain key choices: becoming a more aware consumer, supporting a credit union rather than a conventional bank, eating organic and vegetarian, using transit whenever possible and recycling. For a while, that felt good enough.

As time progressed, I saw the desecration of the environment accelerate at a breathtaking rate: carbon emissions ballooned, natural habitats vanished, many fish and wildlife species disappeared, plans to extend pipelines from coast to coast continued unabated, tanker traffic multiplied and environmental legislation was gutted. It was becoming evident our government’s strategy was one of putting commercial profits before people. Watching helplessly from the sidelines became unbearable. As a lover of the Earth, animals and children and as a mother and grandmother, I felt a deep urgency to protect what I love.

I became active in Dogwood’s coal initiative to stop the proposed export of eight million metric tons of US thermal coal per year, which would travel by rail to the Fraser-Surrey Docks terminal at which point it would be transferred to gigantic ocean barges bound for Asian markets.

The current proposal to ship massive amounts of coal from Fraser-Surrey Docks down the Fraser River, through the Straits of Georgia and past the Gulf Islands to be burned in Asia would not only compromise the air, crops, waterways and fisheries at home, but it would also accelerate the global climate crisis as the atmospheric impact of burning coal is the same no matter where it’s burned.

The scheme to massively scale-up exports of fossil fuels has met with fierce opposition from communities on both sides of the border that are directly affected by the noise and pollution of the coal trains. A cross-border movement has emerged as people see themselves not as separated by a border, but as a West Coast bloc mobilizing to protect the same land and waterway.

As the battle to protect our air, land and water heats up, alliances are being forged between Native and non-Native groups, as both sides discover the potential benefits of working together in a common cause.

The “divide and rule” strategy no longer works. Outraged at having no say in projects that affect their health, safety and environment, young and old, native and non native, Americans and Canadians, are uniting. There is a new fighting spirit at play and it seems to be spreading with each advancing challenge.

My hope is that more people will awaken to the urgency of mobilizing as an organized and united force to say “No” to coal trains, to poisons polluting our air, land and water and to the expansion of fossil fuel frontiers.

If you’ve been sitting helplessly on the sidelines and want to exercise your right to say “No,” there are many local grassroots organizations you can contact such as dogwoodinitiative.org, Leadnow.ca or fairvotingbc.ca for people-powered change.

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