National conversation launched for Canada’s 150th

Faye Wightman, President and CEO of the Vancouver Foundation

What do minting a $150 bill, writing love letters to Canada, and tackling climate change have in common?

They were all suggested as ways to commemorate Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday on July 1, 2017  at the launch of 2017 Starts Now –  an initiative that aims to spark a nationwide conversation about Canada’s big day and which kicked off in Vancouver on April 5.

The speakers, who ranged from singer-songwriter Bif Naked to SFU President Andrew Petter, focused on bringing people together to celebrate Canada and to tackle political issues.

Civic engagement seems to be something that Canadians need more of – at least in Vancouver.

“People in Vancouver feel isolated, disconnected from their neighbours, and disconnected from their community,” said Faye Wightman, the president and CEO of the Vancouver Foundation, as she discussed a Vancouver Foundation survey of more than 3,800 Metro Vancouver residents that found that 31% of people in Vancouver find it difficult to make new friends, while only 25% have ever participated in a neighbourhood event or project.

From block parties to building a network of parks along the Fraser River to a train that would travel across Canada and be inscribed with hand-written messages from Canadians from all walks of life, the roster of speakers had plenty of ideas about how to bring people together.

Others highlighted Canada's political problems, including the challenges faced by First Nations communities and environmental issues.

Environmental activist Tzeporah Berman told the audience about the disconnect between the fact that the majority of Canadians are concerned about environmental issues and a lack of civic engagement with these issues.

She noted that the expansion of the tar sands is both preventing Canada from meeting its climate targets and negatively impacting our democracy.

“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the last year working on these issues, it’s that oil corrodes. It’s corroding our pipelines  [...]  but it’s also corroding our institutions, ultimately the preconditions that are necessary for democracy to thrive,” Berman said, noting that the Harper Government had denounced environmental organizations as “anti-Canadian” and muzzled federal scientists.

Meanwhile, UBC professor Michael Byers described climate change as “the challenge of our century”, as he noted that 40% of Canada lies in the Arctic.

“I first sailed through the Northwest Passage in October 2006,” Byers recalled. “I’ve gone back to the Arctic many times since then. In the space of 4 years, I saw a glacier disappear. In my lifetime, we have seen 20% of the Arctic sea ice disappear.”

In spite of the gravity of climate change, Berman told the VO that it can be difficult to engage the public with the issue.

“There’s a disconnect between how serious the problem is and what we’re told to do,” she said. “You know, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, change your light bulb, right? So the result is people turn off and they step away from it. ‘Too big, too complicated, I don’t know how to deal with that’– and its a huge mistake. Because these issues will define the way that our country works.”

“I think the future of environmentalism is in serious data-led campaigning  –  list-building, engagement with Canadians, town halls,” Berman explained. She noted that policies won't change until more Canadians are engaged with environmental issues and make sure their elected representatives are aware of their concern.

"Until our issues are vote-determinative, most politicians will take the easy way out," she said. 

Perhaps increasing civic engagement requires showing people the potential of the contributions they can make.

Wightman said she was saddened by the Vancouver Foundation's survey results, which showed that many people didn't get involved in their communities because they didn't feel they had anything to contribute.

"We can learn so much from other people," she explained to the VO, noting Vancouver's rich cultural diversity.

Berman also pointed to the importance of individual connections: "I think if we start [engaging with these issues], all of us – around our kitchen tables and with our MLAs and with our MPs, we'll shift the dynamic in this country."

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