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COLUMN: Hellish summer opened many eyes in Port Alberni

Climate emergency spells the end of fossil fuel era
Hesquiaht master carver Tim Paul speaks to a crowd gathered in front of Port Alberni City Hall for the Global Day of Climate Action. (MIKE YOUDS PHOTO)



As summer draws to a close, the worst wildfire season in B.C. history rages on, still threatening many communities across the province.

For some fire victims in Western Canada there will be no rest until the snow falls and recovery could be a long, difficult road ahead. For others, life may never be the same.

Last Friday, under a bluebird sky in Port Alberni, 75 people — local community leaders among them — gathered at City Hall, joining thousands across Canada in a Global Day of Climate Fight to End Fossil Fuels calling for wholesale change and an end to fossil fuel industry supports from government.

A fiery, hellish summer may have been a blessing in disguise, said Chris Alemany, president of Alberni Valley Transition Town Society.

“It opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Alemany told the rally, urging politicians and leaders of all stripes to show leadership. “We need action like never before.”

Two paramedics also took the time to attend Friday’s rally. One of them expressed relief that someone had taken the initiative to hold such a rally in Port Alberni. Certainly, few others in attendance would be better acquainted with the meaning of emergency.

“The chaotic climate events of the summer provide an opening for leaders of courage to say to the public we need to rethink fracking LNG and offshore oil and other new fossil fuel infrastructure,” Alemany said.

“We need our elected leaders to speak forthrightly a basic truth: the era of fossil fuels is coming to a close,” said John Mayba, a climate activist.

Civic leaders from Port Alberni and across B.C. are gathering for the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention this week, an event sponsored in part by Fortis B.C., Coastal GasLink and the Petroleum Industry Association of Canada.

“To the city councillors who are here today, I say beware,” Mayba said. “Doesn’t this compromise any perception of municipal climate leadership? If we’re in a climate emergency, shouldn’t such sponsors be banned?”

City councillors Deb Haggard, Todd Patola and Dustin Dame, together with Tseshaht First Nation elected Chief Councillor Ken Watts and Tim Paul, Hesquiat master carver, spoke about critical issues tied to climate action. Mayba read letters of encouragement from MLA Josie Osbourne and MP Gord Johns.

“I think about my kids,” Watts said. “What kind of world are they going to live in when summers are 40 degrees in Port Alberni?” He upheld the importance of a balanced ecological approach, “a sacred responsibility to take care of everything,” but tempered his remarks. With 60 percent of his people in poverty, they feel compelled to pursue development opportunities, he said.

“We overdo and overuse,” Paul said, recalling the legacy of colonial exploitation while blaming greed and excess. “I’m glad to see this group of people take a step forward to take on the big problem of take, take, take, mine, mine, mine.”

Haggard said the drought is a pressing municipal concern provincewide and environmental considerations have become a regular part of city affairs. On a personal level, she worries, too: “I worry about the kind of life my grandchildren are going to have, or are they even going to have a life?”

Yet she held out hope, noting individual actions can add up to big changes.

Dame said he is baffled by the way some people continue to behave.

“It shows either that they are not aware of the situation we are in or that they feel completely helpless to do anything about it,” Dame said. “We are not helpless … and today I see a community of people who are refusing to accept helplessness. We are representative of so many communities globally who are united in speaking truth about this crisis we’re facing.”

Similar rallies and marches were held throughout the weekend in Parksville, Nanaimo, Victoria and Vancouver.

Alemany got on his bike Friday, day of the rally, and produced this video encouraging others to join in climate action:

“This summer we’re in a test for our survival and that isn’t alarmism,” Alemany says. “Tell someone in Yellowknife that’s alarmism. Tell someone in Lytton, who doesn’t have a town to go back to, that’s alarmism.”

What can we do? For a start, roll up our sleeves and get to work as individuals and collectively. Governments must mobilize the economy to bring about wholesale economic change. They need to stop subsidizing oil and gas production. Voters need to pressure governments to act decisively and urgently. And please accept the challenge, as many of us have, to cut personal carbon consumption by any means possible.

Responding, after all, is the only acceptable course of action in emergencies.

Mike Youds is a writer living in Port Alberni.