Understanding Canada’s Environmental Ethos

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Understanding Canada’s Environmental Ethos

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Data show that Canada ranks low in many environmental categories. So what is it that convinces the world that Canadians are stalwarts on issues like climate change?

Canadian philosopher and ethicist David Goa sat down with Worldview’s guest host Tony Sarabia to look at what it is about the Canadian mindset.

On the difference between Canadian and American narrative on nature

David Goa: Well, my sense is that the American narrative is a bit more romantic than the Canadian one. There are probably a variety of reasons for that. The Canadian landscape that Northrop Frye spoke about so beautifully is one that is colored much more by fear. I think that there are a couple factors here. One is that Canada is such a large country with such a small nation, you know, relatively few people. The other part of it, also distinct from your lovely country, is the weather in Canada is difficult, certainly in Western Canada, most of Canada. There’s a reason why it’s a late settlement area, because it’s a difficult place to live. So Canada would not have been settled, it seems to me, in anything like the scale it has been, unless there was fossil fuels. And of course that that goes back a couple hundred years, and of course we’ve had new insight into that and changes coming about. So size and weather, and then the third factor is that we are a nation of immigrants and refugees, and that gives a whole another kind of cultural framework to how Canada can move ahead.

On the environmental framework Canadians have

Goa: The idea of Canada as a great colonial project of Europe has a factor here. Canada has often been thought of as a nation of hewers of wood and drawers of water. So the natural resources of the country have been substantial and they’ve been exploited. And our economy has been so deeply deeply, I think, prejudiced by that. Now a couple factors in that and that one is, you know, I love my country so when I say critical things I do it in a loving fashion, but my sense is that Canada, because it was a colonial country for so long, there developed in Canada a colonial mentality. That mentality shifted, I think beautifully in the 1960s, from London to New York and Hollywood. So that’s a factor in how we think. The notion in Canada that reality is ultimately someplace else, not here, has colored our relationship to this place. There’s a big question of place in all of this. When you have a country that has so many immigrants and refugees, and where the settlement community took it over by storm, and when it’s a late settlement period, you have this this extraordinary struggle. I spent a lot of time in various communities across the country, speaking to them about their sense of place, so many Canadians — and certainly here in the West — their sense of place is largely still in Homeland, where they came from.

On Canada’s oil industry impacting attitudes toward the land

Goa: Our oil industry has been almost entirely in the hands of American corporations, international corporations, for a long long time. And of course when you are a nation of immigrants and refugees, you’re trying to get a second chance. You’re trying to get a leg up again. And so your focus is narrowed as a result. The other factor here is, when you think of places in Europe, I think of Germany and Scandinavia, where I’ve spent some time, the relationship those people have to the land, the relationship they have to the seasons and the berries and all of that, now some people in Canada have that, but relatively few. Of course the people that have that in spades, or at least have the memory of it in spades, are the indigenous people in Canada. But there’s been very little concourse between the immigrant populations and the indigenous people. So learning about this place, and learning to care for this place, and treasure the place we stand is something that — I think it’s beginning and it’s beginning quite rapidly - but it’s late in that process.

On the relationship between First Nation communities, other Canadians and the environment

Goa: Well I think it swings two ways. One is there are some people that have a kind of romantic, typical, 19th century European notion of first peoples communities. And a far more dominant view is very tragic and negative view towards First Nations people because of the kind of colonial box they got put in, and losing their capacity to govern themselves. So those two images have been at play in this. What is so interesting at this point to me is that the issue of climate change and the issue of caring for the land have come together at the same time when Canada has finally started to seriously wrestle with what has happened to the indigenous people. And of course they have gotten some rights, and they’ve gotten some political power and a sense that they are real players in this, so they are participating in the struggle here in Canada to sort out the difference or the deep challenge that exists between the development of the petrochemical industry pipelines etc,and issues of climate change and caring for the whole of the environment that we are given.

On public opinion of environmental issues

Goa: It’s interesting in Canada, in one of the more recent surveys or a couple years ago anyway, there was an extreme concern about climate change within about 50 percent of the population. There was a belief in that, about 64 percent of the population, one in ten people denied it. But my sense is that this fits in that larger picture, you know all of us in the liberal democratic societies have been part of a kind of cult of progress through the industrial period. Also, we have thought of human beings as being exceptional. Not so much an intimate part of nature, but exceptional to it with particular kinds of rights. And of course some people would argue that those rights include a kind of domination, and other people that have a kind of apocalyptic view: Let’s get out of nature, and we can use it all in any way we want. Now here about 50 years ago, one of our great science journalists David Suzuki began his work, and I remember talking to him and him saying that when he began, he went to the University of Alberta, to the various departments having to do with the oil industry. And he couldn’t get anybody to talk with him at all about it because they were all in the pocket of government and industry. They simply wouldn’t talk about it . So he spent 50 years working on this, but his work… the discourse was apocalyptic, it seems to me. And one of the things that has struck me, is we need to find ways to bring industry to the table, to bring concerned people to the table on all sides and change the way in which we frame the conversation. The conversation has so often been framed around those terrible people who are going to destroy our world, and on the other side, those terrible people who are going to destroy our jobs and our way of life. So finding ways to work across those boundaries and reshaping the discourse I think is absolutely central to what what we need to do and what some people are starting to do.

On faith leaders’ roles in nurturing an environmental conscience

Goa: I think this has changed very markedly recently. There certainly have been Canadian faith leaders who have been concerned about the issue of climate change, and larger than that the whole way in which we deal with our resources and our native people, and how that shapes in tragic ways our communities. So there have been some, but more recently, you know and I think Patriarch Bartholomew has been extraordinary on this, he’s been working on this for 30 years, and then Pope Francis’ recent encyclical ‘Our Common Home’ marks a real change in how this has been dealt with. But the other thing that we need to remember is that there are a lot of evangelicals. Well maybe it’s not enough by any means, but there certainly is within the evangelical world, both in your country and mine, who were on the bandwagon against a concern for climate change, doubting the science and all that for the last 20 years or so. And they have done a 180. They realize this is a huge issue and they realize the deep implications of it both for how we deal with resources, what the relationship is to the poor, what the relationship is to indigenous communities, and what the relationship is to how we see ourselves as part of the living world. A part of it. Not to separate ourselves either by thinking we can’t do anything about it, or by becoming apocalyptic about it, but realizing that we are part of the world. We’re part of this ecological world and we need to participate in it in sensible ways, in reasonable ways, and in ways that will enhance, in fact, our lives and the lives of communities when we start getting it right.

On the challenge of championing environmental issues above business concerns

Goa: It is demanding work, but I have seen people gathered around the table who had these opposing views. And if one doesn’t simply deny or not hear their deep concerns, but if you listen carefully to those deep concerns and then move the conversation to include, not just the meaning of that concern today, but what it will mean for their children and grandchildren, and to provide a vision larger than the kind of oppositional vision that has tended to shape this debate, a vision larger than that about how the common good and the good life can emerge from all this and we have an amazing mission, if you will, as human beings to actually turn around the enormous mistakes, the way in which the industrial period shaped this, the way in which the use of fossil fuels shaped it. So there are all kinds of ways for energy to be garnered, which can be used, but this is a long process. It’s not short, it’s something that is going to take us several generations, but we have to get on with it and many are getting on with it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was edited by Vera Tan. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.