Youth climate conference builds momentum around Canadian Green New Deal

Image: PowerShift/Facebook

Several hundred youth are gathering in Ottawa to kick off a recurring youth climate conference called PowerShift.

This year's event, called "PowerShift: Young and Rising," is a four-day convergence starting February 14 that draws young people from across the country for workshops and keynote lectures by prominent activists like Kanahus Manuel, Harsha Walia, Derek Nepinak, and Romeo Saganash.

Organizers say the aim of the conference is to galvanize youth around the climate change and Indigenous rights movements.

This year's PowerShift comes amid the youth movement that led to the recent launch of the Green New Deal in the U.S. and an upcoming federal election.

"This is a moment to bring youth together and organize them in the leadup to the federal election, to demand much bolder climate action from the federal government and the kind of bold Green New Deal that we're seeing coming out of the U.S.," said Emma Jackson, an organizer with Climate Justice Edmonton and 350 Canada, in an interview with rabble.

Equipping young Canadians with activist toolkits

The first PowerShift conference took place in 2007 in Washington, D.C. Since then, conferences have been held under the PowerShift banner in countries around the world, including Canada.

"A lot has changed since PowerShift started 10 years ago, and we haven't had one [in Canada] in a couple years," said Jennifer Deol, a Steering Committee member of this year's PowerShift, in an interview with rabble.

Deol said at this year's conference, organizers are hoping to attract up to 400 participants for the four days. The Steering Committee focused on centring the voices and participation of Indigenous youth and youth of colour.

"I am excited to learn from and be inspired by incredible young leaders in this work, who are deeply grounded in their fiery pursuit of justice and their faith in creating a better world," said Raagini Appadurai, a PowerShift participant and facilitator. "I think the youth voice is the most powerful tool we have to create the world we want to see."

Organizers set up two "Frontline" funds to offer scholarships for Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) youth travelling to Ottawa, which Deol said had successfully provided funding for 50 youth.

"PowerShift is an opportunity to hear from [frontline activists] and learn from people who've been fighting Trans Mountain, Northern Gateway, and Energy East pipelines, as well as other [extraction] projects that have been going on for years and battles that have been going on for decades," she said.

Deol, who is based in the Okanagan Valley, said that PowerShift represents an opportunity for youth in her community to connect with people from across the country to strategize.

"We spend so much time battling these pipeline projects and fossil fuel extractivist projects that [we] don't have enough opportunities to get together as a collective to skillshare, build networks, think about where we're going, and really amplify what we're doing on a local scale and lift it up to a national scale," she said.

Building out a Green New Deal for Canada

Jackson travelled to the conference from Edmonton with a group of youth activists engaged in progressive organizing against fossil fuel and tar sands expansion projects, like the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Teck Frontier mine.

Citing the youth-led Sunrise Movement's ability to galvanize mass public support for the recently released "Green New Deal" resolution in the U.S., Jackson said that this year's PowerShift will explore building a youth movement around a policy framework for a Canadian Green New Deal.

"If there's anywhere in Canada that needs a just transition that protects workers and upholds Indigenous rights, it's Alberta," Jackson said, pointing to a federal jobs guarantee as a means of transitioning energy and oil sector workers to green jobs while ensuring good jobs for all people.

"In Alberta, we need industry-funded support programs to make sure there's adequate retraining, support for communities, and [that people have the] ability to actually stay in their communities so that they don't have to move for work," she said.

In addition to a federal jobs guarantee, Jackson's vision of a Canadian Green New Deal includes deep investments in already low-carbon sectors of the economy, including rolling out programs like universal child care, free public transit across the country, and a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy "in a way that massively reduces economic inequality and racial injustice."

Jackson is co-facilitating several workshops, which she hopes will help youth participants learn how to build grassroots groups.

"The aim is really to have young people go back to their cities and have the network and supports in place to organize on campuses, in their communities, and reaching out to put demands on people running for office, or even stepping up and running for office themselves," she said.

Developing bold climate policy

Central to organizers' goals, PowerShift, Jackson and Deol both noted, is building a strong youth movement that can effectively target elected officials and translate into progressive electoral gains in the October federal election. "We're making it known that we're watching and we're going to hold our politicians accountable," said Deol.

Youth were the biggest voting block in the last federal election and were largely responsible for buoying Justin Trudeau's campaign.

"But the Liberal government is failing on all fronts," said Jackson. "A government that's willing to spend $4.5 billion on a pipeline is obviously not a government committed to addressing climate change or that's able to get us out of this crisis."

Election campaigns allow organizers to bring new people into the movement and broaden the public's imagination and discourse around policy possibilities.

"We need to [...] start seeing the bold policy we actually want to see being championed by our electoral officials," Jackson said. "There's never been a more important PowerShift than this one."

Sophia Reuss is rabble's Assistant Editor.

Image: PowerShift/Facebook

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