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Blue Dot Tour brings sadness and hope

By: | September 30, 2014

Enlisting help from across Canada could move protected areas agenda forward

Douglas Ballam
The Green Space examines issues affecting the natural world we live in, with an in-depth focus on Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Island of Newfoundland. Photo courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC.

On Sept. 24, my daughter and I attended the Blue Dot Tour event in St. John’s. I’ll get to the sadness part of the column in a minute, but first I’d like to tell you about the evening.

It was wonderful. Organized by the David Suzuki Foundation, it was the kick-off for a 20 stop tour across the country (kudos to the organizers for starting their tour in St. John’s – too often we see “national” tours that start or stop in Halifax). The goal of the initiative is to create a groundswell of support for the seemingly commonsense idea that our right to a healthy environment should be enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Apparently, a majority of the world’s countries has already done this.

The David Suzuki Foundation’s plan is simple: get citizens to encourage their towns and cities to agree. Then, the municipalities will engage the support of their provincial governments. Once that’s completed, the provincial governments will come together and convince the federal government. It’s a simple plan but they are often the best. Well organized and delivered, I was impressed by the number and sincerity of the blue-shirted volunteers. With genuine smiles, they handed out postcards to the full house and asked people to sign and indicate their support.

A wonderful evening

My daughter Katie and I thoroughly enjoyed the event. It was a mixture of a concert, speeches and celebrity appearance. One of the first acts was a group of Mi’kmaq youth from Miawpukek (Conne River). The costumes of the young Mi’kmaq dancers and singers were dazzling. Their performance included native songs, recitations and dance. Their age belied their professionalism.

Another highlight was Amelia Curran. An experienced performer, her songs were captivating. She seemed so comfortable and natural on stage that I was surprised when she confided in the audience: “I’m a little nervous.” It certainly didn’t show – I felt as if I were in her kitchen, holding a mason jar of homebrew while she took her turn entertaining friends.

David Suzuki kicked off the Blue Dot Tour Sept. 24 in St. John's. Photo by Justin Brake.

David Suzuki kicked off the Blue Dot Tour Sept. 24 in St. John’s. Photo by Justin Brake.

The night culminated with a speech from David Suzuki. I’m of the age where we had two television channels to choose from growing up, and one of them was CBC. Luckily, that meant I watched The Nature of Things every week. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I eventually went into the environmental field. Dr. Suzuki, looking remarkably well for someone in his late 70s (he sheepishly admitted to having smoked for much of his life), was as engaging and motivating on-stage as he was on the small screen. Maybe more. He managed to convey the dire need for action while instilling pride in our country. My public talks are usually quite depressing – I will definitely take a page from his book.

Why does it take a celebrity to make us care?

Now, let’s get to the theme of this column. As I was winding my way through the large crowd to take my seat, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of melancholy. Where did all these people come from? I shook my head in bewilderment. I have been active in the conservation field for more than 20 years in Newfoundland and Labrador and never – never – had I seen such a large enthusiastic crowd attend an environmental event. When I asked Katie, she looked at me with unbridled teenaged wisdom and said, “Dad, you never had a famous TV show.” On one level she’s right. A celebrity like David Suzuki will draw a crowd. But I couldn’t help feeling there was more to it. What I do know is that my colleagues and I are not achieving as much success in engaging the public of this province in our local issues.

There are many local issues to choose from. Take, for instance, our protected areas plan, or lack thereof. Regular readers of this column will know that we are 20 years behind the rest of the country in this regard. Not only have we not implemented our plan, we haven’t released one for public debate. Everyone else did this in the 1990s. But, do you think we could draw a crowd of hundreds to a speech about this? No way. I know, because I gave a public talk on the subject a week before the Blue Dot Tour launch, on Sept. 18, to about 30 people.

The Blue Dot Tour has lessons for us

We need help. We need to engage well known public figures or national organizations as vehicles to carry our urgent message to the public in this province. Another thing I’ve learned is that we must go to them – they will not come to us. Some of the melancholy I felt was because this is not the case in other parts of Canada. Take, for example, the extraordinary letter sent by 500 scientists across the world a couple of days ago to the Government of Quebec. They urged the government to fulfill its commitment to protect large swaths of the province. Or, take the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society campaign to reverse the Government of British Columbia’s recent changes to its parks laws, which will allow for mineral exploration and other developments in B.C. parks. How is it that I know about these issues in other provinces but our local issues remain as isolated as our island? It sometimes seems like protected area issues on the mainland gain national attention, while ours remain our own.

I remember cornering Monte Hummel in 1997 in the lobby of the then-Newfoundland Hotel. He was the head of the very successful national effort to increase the number of protected areas, called the Endangered Spaces Campaign. That year, our government had gotten rid of another 28 provincial parks. I accosted Mr. Hummel and asked him how come his organization hadn’t said a word about this travesty. He said, “They’re only privatising the operations, not the park lands.” He was wrong, of course, and I told him so. He left shortly after, and his group never did confront the Newfoundland and Labrador government about it.

But, that’s in the past. Now, as a provincial election is being planned, my colleagues and I are meeting and discussing how to move the protected areas agenda forward. We’ve tried to do this in advance of other elections before. While we’ve been successful in getting commitments, they are never followed through (see the PC’s Blue Book for the 2011 election if you don’t believe me). But I know one thing – I will be reflecting on the tools and approaches used in the Blue Dot Tour and I hope we can bring some of these to bear in our beautiful but under-protected province.


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