Biosphere Defenders flourish in a Tory Heartland
By Anthea Weese and John Lewis, of Quinte Biosphere Defenders
Deep in Ontario’s rural Tory heartland, a vigorous group of ecological and climate campaigners has sprung up in the last three years, rallying support for constructive initiatives on environmental and social issues.
Those involved with the Quinte Biosphere Defenders (QBD) are distributed across the immediate watershed of the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario, Belleville, Quinte West (Trenton), and Prince Edward County (Picton). The area has a small population of progressive thinkers with a limited history of group activity, mostly focused on specific issues such as nuclear disarmament and banning cosmetic pesticides. In contrast to most other local groups, we are a local, nonpartisan, unaffiliated group.
Our initial meeting focused on public awareness about Enbridge’s Line 9B, which was being repurposed to carry tar-sands diluted bitumen and Bakken crude. This pipeline traverses our Quinte biosphere. The meeting took place in Belleville on Nov. 4, 2013. It drew on experiences of John Lewis with East End Against Line 9, a Toronto non-partisan community group. Sabrina Bowman of Environmental Defence (Toronto) and Knowlton Hunter of Prince Edward County also helped us get started.
About 35 people attended, an excellent turnout for our area for a non-sporting event. By the end of the meeting the audience was saying “let’s do something” and demanded further meetings. John stepped in to maintain an active info-brokering online presence, which has continued.
Most people at the first meeting were activists in other groups, with deep roots in the community. An eight-person planning and action committee was set up and met two weeks later at the OPSEU Membership Centre in Belleville, our usual meeting place. We soon started a book club that has continued in various forms since then. We would have wished for more young people, though some have shown up for street actions.
An Early Action September 2 2015
Our first initiative was an attempt to persuade a local amalgamated council to mirror the motions passed by its counterparts in Toronto and Kingston of non-support for the Line 9B project because of the evident dangers it posed both to the community and beyond.
Terry Cassidy, a member of Quinte West Council in Trenton, sponsored such a motion in June 2014 and the council approved a delay. Shortly afterward, an Enbridge representative met the council behind closed doors. Cassidy did not attend that meeting but said that during his 20 years on council he had never seen such an abuse of a closed-door council meeting. We lost the motion at the next council meeting.
In September 2014 Christine Elliott, then running for the provincial Conservative leadership, came to the area to address, by invitation only, local Conservatives. We intervened, demanding to know the Conservatives’ climate change plan. Some attendees gave us a covert thumbs-up, while others pointedly failed to see or hear us. The officials invited us in to their barbecue, which we felt was an attempt to neutralize us.
Rather than accept their hospitality, we chose to greet each new arrival with our demand for a climate policy. The BBQ organizers were irked. We felt this action was strategically effective and that we had successfully put climate change on the event’s agenda. Months later, a local paper reported our action in its annual year-end roundup of noteworthy events as follows:
“Todd Smith brought Progressive Conservative leadership hopeful [Christine Elliot] to Casa Dea Estates to try to rally supporters around her campaign for the party’s leadership. Elliot, Jim Flaherty’s widow, said the PCs had to embrace their progressive nature and do business in a more inclusive manner…. A small group of protesters greeted the politicians on their way to the meeting of more than 100 people to press Elliott and Smith on their party’s position on climate change.”
Several of our activists participated in the October 2014 Quinte West municipal election. We offered heavy support for Terry Cassidy’s mayoralty run because he was the only councilor in the region who openly supported the call to stop Line 9B. Terry was not successful. Local Line 9B opponents also participated as campaign workers and climate change/pipeline lobbyists in our two other local municipalities’ elections, and Anthea wrote an open letter to all candidates.
People’s Climate March 2014
In September 2014 a widely sponsored People’s Climate March drew several hundred thousand participants in New York City. Rather than travelling to New York, we held a local action. Eighty people joined us in voicing the need for climate justice, a higher per capita turnout than in Toronto. Many people learned of our march through Avaaz.org and attended from as far away as Kingston, Cobourg, and Bancroft, expressing gratitude to us for hosting the event.
C-51 fails to silence community
In March and April 2015, the Biosphere Defenders joined with a coalition of groups to hold three protests against Bill C-51 at the office of Daryl Kramp, MP and chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. Bill C-51 was the Harper government’s heavy-handed legislation to control dissent. On one occasion, Kramp’s rattled partisans called the police on us. The Broadbent Institute reported that this was because “a group of white-haired people were singing the Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” In fact, it was a topical rewrite.
In June 2015, we helped launch a local Council of Canadians chapter. The Quinte Biosphere Defenders and the Council of Canadians’ Quinte chapter held vigils — in the leadup to the Oct. 19 federal election — protesting Canada’s climate change denying prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his policies. Every Saturday for 10 weeks we met at the busiest and most soulless intersection in the Quinte area. Participants ranged from children through teenagers, right up to folks in their 80s. Throughout, right up to the election, we met to brainstorm strategy and make signs.
The location was a gem of a find. We received support from the overwhelming majority of passing drivers. Occasionally, of course, an individual would respond with curses and abuse, the kind of reaction that many of us had found intimidating on previous occasions. We settled on a strategy of greeting any abuse or rude dissent with a cheery and loud “thanks for your support.” This buoyed our spirits and spawned a later creative avenue for our activism, as we embraced “artivism” — forming the Soapbox Players, using art and drama in the service of social change.
A few people from Trenton, all in their twenties and entirely unacquainted with public protest activity, came to the vigil in support. Soon they set up a matching vigil in Trenton. Two matching events also happened in Picton.
Together we contributed to defeating the Conservative candidates in the three federal ridings in the Quinte biosphere in the October election – indeed, the decline in the Conservative vote was much greater than the national average. The three Liberal candidates won, joining Justin Trudeau’s majority in parliament. No more was Quinte a Tory heartland!
Support for Paris Climate Talks
On Nov. 29, 2015, we demonstrated support for the upcoming Paris climate talks. The photo below was first published in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper along with images from hundreds of other groups from around the world.
Films We Sponsored at Belleville’s DocFest
In March 2016, the Biosphere Defenders sponsored two environmental films – Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness and Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World – at the Belleville Downtown Doc Fest. The films were introduced by QBD’s Wesley Weese and Lindy Powell, and we handed out our homemade postcards to Trudeau calling for climate justice.
We also set up an anti-Line 9B art installation in the lobby of one of the festival venues, along with a stack of postcards, which were quickly taken up. Our group also achieved visibility through the Doc Fest’s multimedia publicity. All in all, a great success, with a total attendance of 500 at our films and much discussion, still continuing, of our film choices.
People’s Climate March 2016
Another People’s Climate March was held in Belleville on May 14, 2016. We were joined by Amnesty International (Belleville), Grannies for Africa (Quinte), NDP (Quinte), and the Council of Canadians (Quinte). It was a cold, windy, rainy day resulting in a turnout of 50 hardy souls. We received coverage in Quinte News. Katsitsiase (Betty Maracle), a grandmother and the cultural advisor to First Nations Technical Institute in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, did a traditional Mohawk opening and closing for the March, grounding the event in respect and gratitude for the earth and its biosphere see the Video of our march.
Artivistic liberation: The Soapbox Players
Another highlight of the climate march was a live performance by our own Soapbox Players. As the video shows, the players recount good climate news versus bad climate news and call for audience response. The reported news on the Fort McMurray fire was interrupted by a march participant, who demanded to know why there were no reports of the catastrophic impact on wildlife. A Soap Boxer responded, “I guess the wildlife don’t have a press agent.”
This was the third outing in one month for the Soapbox Players: the first, including art installations, was at the Belleville Farmers Market; the second was at Night Kitchen, a local monthly variety show.
Costumes and props were done during many get-togethers starting in January. The script writing was done during prop building. We have found that strategic decisions are most easily and harmoniously made when our hands are busy. We call this approach “artivism” – a liberating and attractive option especially for people who have had their fill of meetings and talk. Fun is a lot of fun, we’ve found.
Engaging with Justin Trudeau’s Government
At the start of Trudeau’s mandate we decided to adopt the stance of “cautious optimism.” We are still waiting for specifics on the new government’s climate action. In July 2016, the Biosphere Defenders drafted and sent a submission to Prime Minister Trudeau, Environment and Climate Change Minister McKenna and the three MPs in the Quinte area regarding our concerns about climate change and giving concrete suggestions for climate action the federal government can undertake. In our submission we strongly asked that regular reports — in the form of meeting minutes — be released to the public, in a timely manner, about the progress of the multi-departmental task force on “climate mitigation.”
We have also attended, and given input at two Climate Change Town Hall meetings sponsored by two different Members of Parliament.
Throughout our group’s history, numerous published letters-to-the-editor and visible projects or events have generated public conversation. A local high school has now installed a huge “Climate Change: Talk About It” sign spanning its windows, without our involvement. Also a newspaper columnist, Jessica Laws, wrote a thoughtful and supportive piece about climate change after seeing one of our signs.
Numerous letters to, and meetings with, candidates and politicians at all three levels of government have generated some response. News coverage has occasionally been good, and is improving. (The Aug. 18, 2016 issue of the County Weekly News, a traditionally conservative local weekly, has six climate-related stories, including one covering a Climate Change Town Hall meeting.)
Our prime focus remains climate change, including pipeline resistance. We react to what stimulates us, locally, nationally, and globally. And we continue proactivity. We work in partnership with other progressive local groups, in support of each other’s actions.
“Go with what you’ve got,” could be the motto of the Quinte Biosphere Defenders, at this point. We enjoy more good ideas than we have time and energy to develop – a good sign of an ongoing creative fervor. We have two guiding principles: (1) to be faithful to our role as our region’s biosphere defenders (which brings the joy), and (2) to have fun exercising our creativity in the service of social change. This dual focus keeps us busy enough, while continuing to attract new participants, and it invigorates our get-togethers with like-minded camaraderie. Drop us a line at the Contact Us page to join in!