Across the Ottawa river from Parliament, the unofficial opposition to the Harper government met this Friday evening. They were young, boisterous, brilliant and dedicated to a singular goal: system change.

I walked into Powershift 2012 not really knowing what to expect. Perhaps a decent sized conference of committed climate justice activists, one which was generating buzz across the country, but whatever I expected, Powershift immediately exceeded my expectations.

What struck me first on arriving at the Museum of Civilization (an oh so timely venue, in light of its name change and newly politicized mandate), was the sheer number of people in attendance. Organizers informed me that over eleven hundred people were registered for the weekend-long conference, with more than that number attending some events. The floor of the Museum’s lower floor was packed as participants crowded in to hear speeches by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Melina Laboucan Massimo and Joshua Kahn Russell.

The evening was MC’d by ‘rogue page’ Brigette DePape, and Clayton Thomas-Mueller of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and featured a beautiful opening prayer by Algonquin elder Annie St. George, who said “we must speak from the heart…So future generations of our people can survive…In our time there is no time”

“We are not just facing an ecological crisis, but a moral human crisis” Laboucan Massimo of the Lubicon Cree First Nation explained in an emotional speech about the struggle faced by First Nations in the path of tarsands expansion and pipelines, “People think one day soon that the land around the tarsands will become unliveable”.

Kahn Russell, an experienced facilitator, got the crowd moving with a raucous chant of “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”

“We are teetering on the brink of extinction” he said. “We have that urgency, and a timeline imposed by mother earth… To play to win, we need to break the rules. Because the rules serve the powerful, and the powerful keep changing the rules”.

Russell, who spoke last, brought the crowd to their feet with a call and response of “It is our duty to fight! It is our duty to win! It is our duty to love and care for each other!” before ceding the  stage to Tricot Machin, who closed the evening with music and mingling.

For me the most striking part of the evening, with apologies to the great speeches given by Laboucan Massimo and Kahn Russell, was the speech by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. Incendiary, brave and, dare I say, revolutionary, Nadeau-Dubois gave activists from the rest of the country a taste of why he is so well respected within the activist community in Quebec.

Speaking in French, “because Canada is theoretically a bilingual country”, Nadeau-Dubois began by arguing that the climate crisis “is no longer hypothetical”. He went on to recite a long list of the accomplishments of the environmental movement, such as recycling and compact florescent lightbulbs, before startling the crowd with his proclamation that all these advances are essentially meaningless.

In fact, he argued, individual gestures of environmental responsibility are dangerous and counter productive. They allow us to believe we are effecting change, while nothing changes.

“The problem is not consumption, it is our economy and production. Our system is broken on a systemic level. The destruction of our environment is a natural and inevitable result”. He went on to argue that it is easy to identify the cause of our environmental crisis, and that cause is capitalism.

“We will not get a second chance. Without radical change we will be faced with extinction. Resistance in these times is not an option, it is a duty”. In closing, Nadeau-Dubois laid out the situation as he sees it with remarkable clarity, “the choice for our generation is clear: liberty [from capitalism] or death.”

As he left the stage the crowd, boisterous throughout the evening, reached a new and delerious high, jumping to their feet to send him off with a sustained standing ovation. These thousand odd young people, counting some of the best and brightest of our generation among them, know their enemy, and that enemy is capitalism.

For so long we have been so scared to be radical, to speak of revolutionary change, but in this critical moment in human history, nothing less than radical change will do. Nadeau-Dubois’ is leading the way for a new generation of revolutionaries, who may well be all that stands between us and the inevitable catastrophe our current system is inexorably leading us towards.

In fact, although he used the boldest language, Nadeau-Dubois’ point was echoed throughout the weekend. Everyone here understands that the climate justice movement cannot be separated from other movements, such as labour, student and indigenous. In all our movements, here and around the world, we are struggling against symptoms of the same broken system. We must stop fighting symptoms and address the root cause if we are ever to make progress, rather than simply temporarily staving off the worst excesses of austerity.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of my Powershift 2012 recap, including an interview with Naomi Klein, and the story of a spooky ‘toxic trick or treat’ march!