Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Campaigning for the Coast

Worth protecting
Regular readers will know that I have been involved with a non profit organisation called the Dogwood Initiative (named after BC's provincial flower) for the last few months. I wrote emails, attended events and even waved a placard in support of their campaign to protect BC's coast from the threat of oil spills in 2012. But with a provincial election in 2013 (pretty critical in a federal system) it was time to take the next step - volunteer to lead a team in my 'riding' of North Vancouver-Lonsdale.

I had always admired the campaigners at Save the Children (the international development charity I worked for in the UK).  So creative, energetic and ready to get out and talk to people who might not agree with them.  But I'd always been the goal oriented project manager whose only role seemed to be to hassle them for clearer targets and their final results.  Could I actually campaign myself and encourage others too?

Leap without looking
So without giving myself time to think, I clicked 'yes' to the email invitation and put a pin on the virtual map with my details and a team name (very original: North Van for the coast).  I emailed Dogwood HQ with an honest assessment of my skills and experience: great organizer, loves politics, no campaign experience and as an immigrant, poor networks in the city. I'm not sure how delighted they were, but they sent a very encouraging and informative reply back.
Tanker in our local inlet

Why was I doing it?
In short, letting the world's dirtiest oil travel across mountains and rainforest via pipelines to be loaded into supertankers who then have to navigate one of the worlds most dangerous coastline obviously makes no sense for the environment. But exporting raw resources with no refinery profit or job creation also makes no economic sense.

For a longer answer, check out the final section!

Brainstorming and building networks
So that's the why, but what did we actually do? First job for me was to read Dogwood's awesome campaign kit; tons of info, planning tools and tips and activity guides.  We had three main jobs:

1. Form a team
I found this the hardest part. After roping in my other half and some close friends, it was time to reach out to other Dogwood supporters over email.  Lots of people were supportive but already involved in other volunteer work. Making links over email was hard - as soon as I met up with people it was so much easier to build a relationship and get them to take action.

In hindsight, my first step would have been to organise a quick get together to just meet people, without the pressure of asking them to help organise anything.  But I also should have worried less if people weren't keen to organise at first, and just try to get them to come to one event.

But a handful of us managed to form a plan to get to step 2.

2. Contact the candidates for the election and get their positions
Post gym preparations
A couple of us researched the party and candidate's positions, using Dogwood tools and then contacted them, tailoring the template and adding our own personal experiences.

The NDP opposition candidate (equivalent to UK Labour) got back quickly with a detailed response. The incumbent Liberal candidate (pretty much a UK Conservative equivalent) took much longer and, for the supposed greenest MLA, with a pretty pathetic reponse.

We used these as a basis for step 3.

3. Tell people in the riding the candidates' positions and encourage them to vote to protect the coast

Our key ways were through door knocking and phoning. Again in hindsight, I would have organised these earlier to get people to at least one, this would have built momentum and repeat participants. But we managed to get out five times, covering about 1000 households.

Our leaflets showing the different parties' positions
Everyone really enjoyed it: most people supported us, and those that didn't were polite and even thanked us for getting out for democracy.  It helped we started by asking people to sign a petition against tankers, and then told them the candidates in a non partisan way. It was interesting watching how reactions changed: in week 1 people were very undecided on who to vote for, by week 4 (just 6 days before the election) people were more defensive as they'd often been contacted by several of the parties.

Definitely not for anyone with a phobia of dogs. But as everyone in Vancouver seems to have their own, I can't imagine this would be an issue for most!  Highlight was people thanking us so profusely for being out there.  Lowlight was realising even a North Face waterproof is no match for a BC monsoon...

Phoning was less fun: its harder to not be nice to a smiley volunteer on your doorstep in the rain, easier to an anonymous voice on the phone. But one Dogwood supporter was delighted to see his donation being put to work and it was definitely quicker per household.

What did we achieve?
Well, what we wanted was for British Columbians to vote for one of the two parties who opposed pipeline expansion. But people vote for a whole variety of reasons and, contrary to every poll, the Liberal government remain in power.

But, a couple of weeks later, the Liberal government submitted their final response to the environmental review of the Enbridge pipeline project... and they opposed it!  In 2011, no one was talking about oil or pipelines and the project seemed a dead cert. In contrast, during the 2013 election, it was a top issue with questions to leaders, candidates, and lots of column inches and air time. The Liberal government felt the pressure and voiced their opposition.  The pipeline isn't dead yet (the current federal Prime Minster is from the oil patch) but BCers are now highly aware of the issue and the majority oppose it. Hundreds of people volunteered for and donated to Dogwood, and other environmental groups, and these individuals are now more engaged and motivated to keep fighting.

As I make my preparations to return back to the UK, I will be taking back my committment to the cause. If the world is serious about preventing more climate change, a good place to start is helping BC be Canada's conscience and stopping Alberta's tar sands leaving the ground...

Tar sands bitumen; needs diluting to travel by pipe
Why I did it, the long answer:
The world's dirtiest oil is drilled in our neighbouring province of Alberta (think Texas without the death penalty). It takes 5 gallons of water to drill 1 gallon of heavy bitumen oil, making the water too toxic to return to the water table (so it currently sits in giant lakes waiting for a scientific solution).

The oil companies and the federal government want to access Chinese markets by building more pipelines to Canada's west coast. To do it, they want to lift the ban on the huge 'Suezmax' tankers moving through BC's treacherous coastal waters. And overcome the mounting and loud opposition in BC.

Its a no brainer its terrible for the environment:there's a high chance of a spill from a crashing tanker (think Exxon Valdez); certain spills from the pipelines through BCs northern wilderness (the oil companies have a very poor record of clean up); and it encourages development of the climate changing and water source ruining Alberta tar sands.

Cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill, just north of BC
But it also doesn't make economic sense for BC. Sure, the increasingly foreign (mainly Chinese) owned oil companies will get a higher profit from every barrel, but that just means higher oil prices in Canada. Not investing in refinery capability means very few real jobs are created. And its not a long term plan for Canada's future: it ships off their highest value commodity at low prices, why not refine in house and allow slower development so Canada can, if it still wants to build an economy based on fossil fuels, at least make some money out of it?

You can find more information (and sources) here.

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