Toronto's Peoples Assembly on Climate Justice

Andrea Harden-Donahue
Mercredi 30 juin 2010 - 14:12
On the evening of the environmental justice themed day of resistance in Toronto (part of G8/20 mobilizations, June 23rd), a large crowd of 200 to 300 packed a Ryerson University room for a peoples' assembly on climate justice. While assemblies have a long-standing activist history, the concept of peoples’ assemblies for climate justice came to the fore with the Reclaim the Power action in Copenhagen during the December UN climate negotiations. On a very cold day, many of us took to the streets as part of the action which saw a peoples' assembly held outside of a police fence near the Bella Centre (where UN climate negotiations were taking place) to discuss real solutions to the climate crisis – clearly not the focus of official negotiations, which were in a downward spiral. The World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, in tune with the longstanding history of peoples assemblies (or referendums or plebicites) in Bolivia (and more broadly, in South America) embraced the spirit of the assembly held in the streets of Copenhagen. The Conference was held over three days featuring participatory working groups that anyone could join. The conclusions of these working groups became the basis of the Cochabamba Peoples’ Agreement. Organizers planning the recent Toronto assembly wanted to embrace the same dynamic, giving space for participants to frame the content of the discussion as well as action ideas and strategies. The organizers used a 'horizontal' organizing model. Following short presentations from the Toronto Bolivian Solidarity Network and Erika Duenas with the Bolivian Mission to the United States, organizers posed a question to participants which multiple break-out groups discussed; what does climate justice mean to your community? After 30 minute discussions, we re-joined and each group reported back to the broader group. During a 5 minute break, organizers picked out themes that emerged from the report-backs which became the basis for the second break-out working groups focused on strategies and ideas for concrete actions. After another 30 minute discussion we regrouped, report-back follows. The spirit of the event was dynamic, people were really engaged in the discussions and report-backs. A number of themes emerged. This includes: the need to recognize the structural roots of the climate crisis in an injustice economic system as well as a philosophy or lifestyle that is disconnected from the realities of ecology (disconnected from 'Mother Earth'), that there needs to be a herculean effort put into educating and broadening the movement for climate justice which clearly identifies and substantiates these links, the need to affirm climate debt repayment to the global South and the principle of free prior and informed consent recongizing that there exists environmental injustice in our country against certain communities particularly Frist Nations peoples, the difference in realities between urban/suburban and rural as well as other social factors relating to one's understanding of climate justice, and more. Action areas (based on themes derived from first breakout group discussion) were diverse and included ways to work within existing systems for positive change reflective of climate justice principles while still moving forward a movement making the structural analysis, critical of the global economic system and uniting for change. I was in a group focussed on holding a referendum on climate change, this was one of the outcomes from the Cochabamba conference (find out more here). The level of thoughtful, engaging discussion was empowering! We talked about whether to use the questions coming out of Cochabamba, or whether there needed to be some changes to reflect a Canadian audience. We talked about methods for holding a referendum including polling and community-based voting. We agreed that there would be a need for a concerted education campaign to inform people of what happened in Cochabamba and lay the groundwork for the vote. We also discussed the usefulness of a national committee that could agree on a model (and the importance of First Nations representation on the committee given existing climate injustice in Canada and in solidarity with the indigenous movements in Bolivia promoting 'Mother Earth' rights) which could then be shared with communities across the country that could adapt it to reflect their contexts. It was an exciting and empowering night and affirmed to me that the model of holding peoples assemblies can be a vehicle for important and positive climate justice work. In the coming year, I will be working with allied organizations and groups interested in promoting a referendum on climate change and peoples assemblies on climate justice in Canada.