Picture a scene in a big airy classroom in the middle of a large city. High school students fill the seats, chatting excitedly, wired because they’ve just finished presenting their final projects to the class: group projects on social justice. One was a community art project about the climate crisis, another was a zine about racism and body image.
I’m standing at the front of the class, here to tell the students about a big new climate justice movement. But I decide to lead with a couple questions first:
How many of you have encountered something unfair in the world and felt angry about it? (All their hands shoot up). And then how many of you came across something that you thought could probably help with that particular problem, something that would make the world a bit better, a bit more fair? (Almost all the hands go up again). Okay, last question: how many of you have shared this idea with an adult and been told that, although it sounds nice, your idea is impossible, it’s too idealistic? (All the hands shoot up into the air and the students look at each other knowingly, laughing and rolling their eyes).
I’m not surprised by their answers, young people are often told they’re being unrealistic. But there’s another layer to this. We’re not just in any city. We’re in Edmonton/Treaty 6––a city in the very heart of Alberta.
Here, young people are constantly told that the biggest player in our provincial economy, the oil industry, is also the most impossible to change. Most of the students in the classroom have likely never heard a single elected official even suggest that any alternative to the oil industry is possible. And the rare moments that alternatives are discussed publicly, they are quickly shot down as ‘idealistic’, ‘unrealistic’ or just plain impossible.
If you didn’t grow up here it can be hard to understand how all-pervasive this idea is. So let me paint a bit of a picture of what it is like.
I grew up on the outskirts of Edmonton, a third-generation settler on the old farm of my grandparents. My siblings and I spent our childhood on that farm just like my mother had before us––exploring the bush and back fields, playing in the old granaries and marking the changing seasons by the migration of birds.
I didn’t know how much I loved it there until it was gone.
It was the summer before I started junior high, I was 14. Urban sprawl that had been creeping closer and closer every year and was now at our doorstep, poised to swallow up the fields and aspen and crumbling granaries of our farm, razing it to make way for sprawling parking lots, a Cabela’s, Boston Pizza and Cineplex Odeon.
I remember returning to the farm with my sister after we had moved out. We stood side by side, where the front lawn used to be, staring at what was left. All the trees and granaries, the garden, the root cellar, they were all gone, burn piles and deeply rutted mud in their place. The only thing left was our old white farmhouse, standing in an empty dirt lot, looking cold and lonely.
I stood there swirling with emotions––sadness, confusion, anger. I was furious that the ‘people in charge’ could have let this happen, but I felt completely powerless to do anything about it. I imagined confronting them about this, but even at 14 I knew exactly what government officials would have told me “it’s the cost of growth sweetie; there is no alternative. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
I got older, but I still didn’t understand.
In my teens I lived through one of Alberta’s biggest oil booms. By then my uncles had long since moved the family farm 30 kilometres northeast of the city, attempting to outpace the long reach of urban development.
But the boom kickstarted a different kind of development––industrial petrochemical plants––mostly upgrading bitumen from the Fort McMurray tar sands. Within a few years the farm was surrounded. The government coined the area ‘Upgrader Alley.’ The neighbours called it ‘Cancer Alley.’ And one by one they moved away––scared off by the health impacts of the refineries or aggressively bought out by the oil companies.
Month after month, my aunts and uncles refused to be bought out. One of them, my uncle Wayne, was one of the most outspoken critics of industrial development in the area. He was the one who first taught me about the soil that the family farm, and the ‘Upgrader Alley,’ existed on.
Moisture and nutrients from the nearby North Saskatchewan river and the high quality Black Chernozem soil type of the region, means the Edmonton area has some of the best farmland in the whole country. “This soil is world class,” my uncle would argue at whatever town hall or press conference he was at, “we should be planning for the long term-–feeding the growing population of Edmonton with local, sustainable food production. Instead, our leaders are letting industry destroy this land for short-term gain––corporate shareholders will make their millions and be gone by the next bust cycle, taking thousands of jobs with them.”
What did government and industry officials say to my uncle? Exactly what they would have said about us losing the first family farm: “sorry folks; this is just the cost of growth. There is no other alternative.”
“There is no alternative.” There it was again. How many times have my family and I, and countless other families throughout this province, heard this refrain?
Every time a family is kicked off their farm; every time local food advocates call for sustainable, local production; and every time a young person, like the high school students talking to me about climate justice, calls for a climate plan that takes their future into account.
What do they hear? “That’s a nice idea, but it’s just not realistic here in Alberta. We’re not ready for that kind of change. Right now, the fact of the matter is, there is no alternative.”
I believed this for a long time. But I don’t believe it, not anymore. And those high school students? They didn’t buy it either.
As I started to talk with them about a Green New Deal and what a real alternative to the oil industry could look like in Alberta, I saw students lean forward, their eyes fixed on me. A couple took notes, a handful asked questions and half a dozen crowded around me afterwards, excitedly demanding to know how they could get involved.
It was like they were hearing something that they had been waiting for––a positive vision for their future in this province. A future in which they are not subject to the whims of a volatile industry, one that destroys farmland and ecosystems, undermines Indigenous sovereignty and contributes climate-breakdown, all the while funneling profits to the 1 per cent.
A future in which they could have good, long-term work in renewable, sustainable and life-giving industries. A future in which they have access to healthy, locally grown food, affordable education, and sustainable transportation not just in the cities, but in rural communities as well.
Of course, these young people had already been imagining alternatives to the status quo, they didn’t need my permission to do so. However, what the concept of a Green New Deal gave them was a name to rally behind and the knowledge that there are millions of other people around the world dreaming about and organizing for the same future we are.
As you read this, coalitions of community groups, youth climate organizers and non-profit organizations are starting to flesh out what a Green New Deal could look like in Alberta and in Canada. These visions of a better future give young people hope, and more importantly courage: courage to put down roots into our communities, to offer our personal gifts and to make our communities better.