In 1952, my Grade 10 civics teacher asked us what we hoped to become as adults. One of the most popular boys answered, “I hope to go into politics.” We were delighted because we knew he wanted to make the world and Canada better, and we admired him for it.
Things have changed in half a century. In 1992, my daughter Severn, then 12, created a minor sensation with a speech at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, upbraiding delegates for not protecting the future for children. “You grown-ups say you love us, but please, make your actions reflect your words,” she said.
Back in Canada, CBC Radio host Vicki Gabereau interviewed her. “So Severn, when are you running for politics?” she asked. My daughter’s answer stunned me: “Oh, is that an insult?” To her generation, running for office was not admired or inspiring. Her response made me realize I was constantly decrying politicians who made grand statements but failed to follow through. To a child, my complaints indicated that politicians are hypocrites.
Democracy is far from perfect but it’s better than the alternatives. We must strive to improve. Women were once thought to be incapable of making decisions and were denied the vote. Asian-Canadians and African-Canadians, even those like my parents who were born and raised here, couldn’t vote until 1948. The original peoples of this land didn’t gain the franchise until 1960! Homosexuality was a crime in Canada until 1969. Change can happen in our political and judicial systems, but we have to work for it.
When far fewer than half of us fail to vote in federal, provincial and municipal elections, democracy flies out the window. It should be our civic duty to participate in the democratic process, as it is in Australia where people are required to vote.
We elect people to act in our interests and reward them with perks: gratitude and respect, good incomes and trappings like an office, support staff, cars, drivers and planes. Our tax dollars make politicians possible. I don’t begrudge that. They’re there to serve us and we want them to do the best job.
I often wonder what’s gone wrong, although I understand why people become jaded about politics and politicians. I’ve met and encouraged many energetic and enthusiastic political neophytes, only to see their sense of idealism, responsibility and duty transform to a sense of self-importance that leads to entitlement. Not always, thank goodness, but frequent enough, especially when a person is promoted to cabinet.
Often it seems politicians prioritize corporate interests over those of the citizens who elected them. As prime minister, Stephen Harper avoided discussing climate change, even though Canada is more vulnerable than most industrialized nations. He pulled us out of the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would “destroy the economy.” This flew in the face of evidence from countries like Sweden and Denmark that reduced emissions while their economies grew. Elevating the economy above the atmosphere that keeps us alive and gives us weather and climate is a stunning case of wilful blindness that will reverberate through the lives of our children and grandchildren.
Many of us thought things would turn around after Justin Trudeau was elected. He put climate change back on Parliament’s agenda, and we rejoiced at Canada’s strong position in Paris shortly after. Two years later, we have to ask “What happened?” To meet the Paris target, science shows we have to leave most known fossil fuel deposits in the ground. That means no more exploration for new sources, a halt to fossil fuel industry subsidies, no new pipelines, and winding down fracking and deep-sea extraction.
We must also subsidize renewable energy expansion and seek methods to store energy, reforest large tracts of land and outlaw disposable products.
Each of us has a responsibility to change the way we live to minimize our carbon footprint, but we need the folks we elect to step up and restore our confidence. The window of opportunity to avoid climate chaos is narrow. We have to use our civic responsibility and tell elected representatives that Canada must honour its commitments. The Paris Agreement is one of the most important we’ve ever made.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.