Public Interest Alberta Edmonton Advocacy Conference

People power is alive and well. Fighting back against powerful interests does make a difference.

 That was the message at the recent Public Interest Alberta’s advocacy conference: “People Power versus Corporate Control: Fighting for our Future, that happened this past weekend.

 The conference kicked off with Linda McQuaig who joked that she was back in “Red-monton.” McQuaig jumped right into her talk, describing the growing inequality between the super rich and the rest of us. She told of a fund manager who made 8,200 times the average nurse.

 “In what moral universe is that hedge fund manager worth 8,200 nurses? Or even one nurse?” she asked, drawing laughter from the sold-out house.

 The result of all this money in the hands of the few is that a few wield enormous political influence, and are using that influence to block efforts to deal with climate change.

Linda described the period post-World War II to the early 70s as a much more ideal time, where people had social equity and economic growth.

 Some say that globalization has changed everything. No, said McQuaig. Look to the Nordic countries. They have equality and powerful economies, and enjoy upwards of seven weeks vacation and free university. They do this in part through progressive taxes.

 With taxes, the people decide where the money goes. If Alberta had progressive taxes, there would be no deficits. Taxes help create more equal societies, which are better for everyone. What if the rich leave? Most won’t, McQuaig said. For those that do, she hoped they “had a nice trip.”

 Compare that to philanthropy, where the rich decide where the money goes. McQuaig described a privately funded school in Quebec that has two entrances. The front door is for tenured faculty, funders and special guests only. Everyone else had to enter through the back door, including assistant professors.

 We are not powerless, McQuaig said. We need to demand more equality, so we can all enter in the front door.   

 Gregor MacLennan with Amazon Watch regaled the audience with a story about how a small tribe in Peru stopped powerful oil companies from their oil operations in the fragile rainforests. The Achuar tribe stopped not one, or even two, but five oil companies, including a Calgary based corporation.

 The Achuar depend on the land for their way of life. They hunt and fish in the rainforest, and were not willing to risk the land for oil.

 This tribe, who some might call primitive, turned down offers of money, health care and education to drill on their land. Instead, they sent a delegation from their remote territory — a seven-day journey from Lima, Peru — to Calgary to speak with the oil company. With the help of Canadian advocacy, they secured the withdrawal of the oil giant from Peru.

 Next up was Crystal Lameman, hailing from Beaver Lake Cree Nation. She told a moving story how her people have not been given what was promised from government, while the land was “raped and pillaged.”

 Lameman said 90 per cent of the Beaver Lake territory was now under lease to big oil. This has a huge impact on their traditional way of life, with contaminants seeping into everything. Even the buffalo are too contaminated to eat.

 MacLennan noted that indigenous people are an early warning system for the planet. They live close to the land, and recognize first when something is amiss.

 This isn’t just a First Nations issue. “If you drink water, and breathe air, this involves you,” she stated.

 Over the next two days of the conference, presenters told of corporate power growing in India over food, tips on building people power through activism, good taxes, the US medical system as warning, and a host of breakout session geared toward skill development in advocacy.  

 The conference wrapped up Saturday afternoon, with a joint brainstorming session between presenters and participants.

 “We are like a vegetable soup,” said facilitator Eric. “We all bring something different to the table, and need a chef to coordinate.”