A small group of young environmental advocates in Edmonton are underdogs in a province that's heavily reliant on oil and gas, but they believe they are picking up steam in organizing a resistance to Alberta premier-designate Jason Kenney.
It started with an online campaign that was initially a tongue in cheek response to Kenney’s promise to develop a $30-million “war room” against environmental activists.
Only days after Kenney's United Conservative Party won a decisive majority in the Alberta election, the campaign, which was launched by the youth-led organization Climate Justice Edmonton (CJE), has surpassed $12,500 and counting. About 200 people have chipped in with donations.
And although Kenney's party captured about 55 per cent of the electoral vote and two thirds of the seats in the provincial legislature, the group says it wants to send a message that not all Albertans agree with the incoming premier's views and policies related to the oilpatch.
“There are so many really small donations of people I’m sure who don’t have deep pockets but who really care. It’s a big vote of confidence,” said Gabrielle Gelderman, 28, who helped co-found CJE around a year and a half ago.
Gelderman was born and raised in Edmonton.
She and other members of the CJE started the campaign to highlight the disparity between the resources available to grassroots climate activists, government, and industry in Alberta.
“We don’t have funding. Our group is totally run on volunteers,” said Gelderman. “[We] are young people who have a bunch of student debt and are worried about our futures and we’re the ones who might be at risk with [Kenney’s] threats of litigation.”
Kenney has repeatedly said U.S. money is behind a campaign of climate activism aimed at sabotaging Alberta’s fossil-fuel-based energy sector by halting pipelines and land-locking Alberta’s oil. In May 2018, he promised to spend $30 million in taxpayer money to build what he described as a “fully staffed rapid response war room.” The proposed war room would support Alberta’s oil and gas industry and refute what Kenney called lies from the “green left.”
In the same speech, Kenney said his government would “go to court if necessary” in an effort to strip charitable status from organizations such as Tides Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation. He reiterated his commitment to stomping out the alleged foreign-funded campaign in his victory speech last Tuesday.
The Edmonton group, however, does not appear to have any major backing from billionaires. According to CJE, the group runs mainly on project-based grants of $5,000 or less. CJE pays honorariums to external facilitators, as well as elders and drummers who support their events, but the 10 or so core members are unpaid. Their largest grant came from the Lush charity pot program and supported the People on the Path art installation, which depicts real people across Alberta calling for a justice-based transition to a renewable energy.
“He’s preying on real fears,” said Gelderman, referring to Kenney. “People are afraid and they’re angry that they can tell jobs are disappearing and the future is uncertain.”
While some Canadian environmental organizations have indeed received funding from American foundations, Gelderman said Kenney’s claims undermine and discredit work by grassroots groups, including CJE.
“The real foreign funding that’s coming into the province is the internationally-owned fossil fuel companies. Profits are leaving the province and going to shareholders,” said Gelderman.
A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute shows that between 2010 and 2015, 13 of the top 25 owners of Canada’s fossil fuel sector, measured by revenue share, were not Canadian. The largest was American company ExxonMobil at 6.57 per cent of total oilsands revenue claimed by the company’s shareholders. The second was the Royal Bank of Canada at 3.35 per cent. The 25th top owner by revenue share was the Government of Canada.
CJE said they don’t know where everyone who has donated to the fundraiser is from, but estimated around half live in Alberta. The average donation is $65, boosted by a handful of larger donations. Many people have donated around $25. According to Go Fund Me, the campaign has been shared 1,300 times on Facebook and Twitter.
Offering an ‘alternative vision’
National Observer reached out to the United Conservative Party and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s office for comments about the fundraiser and premier-designate Kenney’s promise to build a “war room” against climate activists but did not receive a reply.
Kenney said in his victory speech on election night that Alberta takes climate change seriously and was doing its part to reduce emissions and diversify its economy, but he blamed some environmental activists for spreading what he described as defamatory information about the province's oilpatch.
But many scientists say that Alberta is not doing enough. The province's oilsands sector is Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and a new scientific study, released on Tuesday, has noted that several oilpatch facilities are polluting the atmosphere much more than what they are reporting publicly.
According to Gelderman, CJE has been framed as a group of “lonely pipeline protesters,” but she noted that their group shows that not everyone in Alberta wants to see the expansion of the oil and gas industry.
“I think there’s a lot more Albertans who are ready for a different kind of future, who are pushing and who want a big investment in a just transition than Canadians realize,” she said.
CJE has grown in the last six months, signing up new volunteers, and connecting with 100 people on the night of the election. Gelderman said momentum to take action against Kenney has been building for some time now, and the election mobilized people, noting people are also galvanized by the emergence of the right-wing “Yellow Vest” movement, whose Facebook group is riddled with anti-carbon tax and anti-immigrant posts.
“Things won’t happen just by voting every four years. People really need to resist more actively,” said Gelderman.
Members of CJE plan to use the money to have “face-to-face conversations with other Albertans,” with the goal of slowly but surely swaying public opinion in favour of a justice-based transition to a renewable energy.
“We know that offering an alternative vision that meets the scale of the overlapping crisis of economic inequality, climate change, and white supremacy is the best way to fight the growing wave of far-right petro-nationalism Jason Kenney is stoking in our province,” the fundraising page reads.
catch me crying for the next week because my old high school teachers, former swim coaches, profs, friends, complete strangers, AND everyday Albertans have DONATED OVER $10,000!!!!— Emma Jackson 🌅 (@EmmaJackson57) April 20, 2019
According to the fundraising page, $10,000 enables them to host trainings for 200 young people, knock on hundreds of doors, host community town halls, and support arts-based resistance against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The day after the launch of the fundraiser, CJE provided some funds to high school students involved in the climate strike movement in the city.
For $30,000, they hope to rent a workspace to share with allied community groups, including those advocating for LGBTQ and migrant rights. The organization also works closely with the Beaver Hills Warriors, a group of Indigenous youth in the Edmonton area.
Climate Justice Edmonton’s work is coalescing alongside a growing youth-led movement for a made-in-Canada Green New Deal. It calls for science-based policymaking and investments in jobs and infrastructure that will sustain a carbon neutral economy. The deal is also rooted in justice, especially for the workers, Indigenous communities, and migrants from the Global South who are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change.
Edmonton is one of seven initial hubs for Our Time, a new youth-led campaign for a Canadian Green new Deal. CJE said they’ve signed up more people than any other hub, including Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal.