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Our leaders need to be led

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During Franklin Roosevelt's first term as president, the labour leader Sidney Hillman demanded that FDR do more to protect workers when they tried to form unions. To which Roosevelt famously replied: "I agree with you, I want to do it. Now make me do it."

As a proud Canadian-in-exile, it'd be nice to think that the Conservatives and Liberals in Parliament really wanted to pass a strong climate bill before December's Copenhagen climate talks, restoring our country to its rightful place as a global leader in fighting climate change.

But they couldn't take the first step. Like FDR, sometimes our leaders need to be led.

While in Ottawa for a conference of Canadian youth activists against climate change last week, a committed group of 150 young people visited the House of Commons for question period -- and sat in the visitors' gallery, waiting to hear their elected leaders address Canada's obligations to the planet and indigenous peoples.

As they listened, it became clear that the prospects for bold action on climate change coming from Parliament were almost out of the question.

And, driven by the urgency of the climate crisis and climate justice, they spontaneously started shouting and chanting -- first one person, then a few and finally dozens of them were chanting, urging their MPs to pass Bill

C-311, to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to take bold, decisive action to ensure that there is a future for all inhabitants of Canada.

Most scientists agree that climate change is now a real and serious threat to humanity, one that is already having disproportionate effects on indigenous peoples and severe, damaging effects on our nation.

Environment Canada's website lists impacts ranging from "the pine beetle infestation that has ravaged our boreal forests ... to the melting of permafrost in the north that has destabilized the foundations of homes and schools."

Canada could be a leader on this issue, but instead, our government is a notable holdout in creating an international treaty to address climate change. We're working with the U.S. in an attempt to kill the Kyoto Protocol. Canada has one of the highest rates of per-capita CO2 emissions in the world.

Now, some people might argue (and have) that young people should be sharing their views with their MPs at the ballot box, rather than at the top of their lungs. But these young activists knew from reading the science and watching the news that we don't have time to wait or to politely step aside while backroom deals destroy any chance of a climate agreement.

So, following in a grand democratic tradition, these youths stood up to make our democracy a little more participatory and our leaders a little more accountable, demonstrating the profound concern that young people feel for the future of our planet.

Because after all, if our MPs fail to lead the way in transitioning Canada to a low-carbon economy, most of them aren't going to have to live with the consequences. They won't have to raise their children in a world plagued by climate chaos. They'll long since have passed on to the Great House of Commons in the sky.

But these youths will. They hold the biggest stake in the future of our world. They know that it's up to them to make their elders fix the damage that they're doing to our planet, and to the people who live on it.

As one of the protesters said to a reporter after she was kicked out of the Parliament buildings: "Our children will appreciate what we're doing."

Sometimes leaders need to be led. Last week, these 150 youth showed more leadership than I've seen inside the House of Commons in a long time. Let's hope that our MPs will follow their lead.

Rebecca Tarbotton is program director at Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, one of the organizations involved in Monday's protests.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa Citizen
Rebecca Tarbotton, Citizen Special
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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