The Summer of Consultations: Ottawa and the Theatre of Listening

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Last spring, the Premiers of the country met in Vancouver. The meeting led to the Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change. This meeting was the follow-up to the government committing to 1.5 degrees’ maximum of global warming in Paris, last fall. In Vancouver, the federal government decided to set up a public consultation process across the country regarding climate change and what needs to be done. It declared it would use these consultations to elaborate a national climate action plan, and set its sight on meeting again, in Vancouver, to release a completed plan this fall.

In late April, Catherine McKenna kicked off the consultation process with the first of these consultations in her riding of Ottawa Centre, where nearly 400 people came out to voice their concerns in a town hall meeting. While doing so, she also asked all other MPs across the country to conduct similar town hall meetings, and announced the creation of an online portal where people could go and submit their comments and suggestions.

15579882438_80935ec146_bOn July 20th this summer, Ottawa wrapped up the last of its climate change consultations with a final meeting in the riding of Orléans. Like in the other town hall consultations about climate change, members of government, citizens from the riding and city, as well as Ecology Ottawa volunteers attended to voice their concerns about climate change as the government draft their climate policy and make a key-decision about the Energy East pipeline.

In the end, 7 consultations happened in the City of Ottawa, out of 8 possible ridings. Two of these consultations were entirely organized by volunteers of Ecology Ottawa, in Ottawa South and in Ottawa Vanier. In the entire country, we’re told that less than 60 consultations happened, meaning that 12% of the country’s consultations happened here in our city. It’s the highest concentration of consultations in the country. So much for the stereotype that Ottawa is not passionate!

Ecology Ottawa and its volunteers and supporters participated in all 7 of these consultations. From notifying supporters in each riding to fully organizing two of these consultations instead of the MPs (or their staff), this, in spite of some of them claiming that ‘activists’ were stacking their consultations, even though said ‘activists’ were their very own concerned constituents.

26979690890_0619a925b1_oConsultations varied in size and formats. Sometimes, like McKenna’s own, they consisted in large rooms divided by topics and using a round table discussion format, where participant would discuss in subgroups of 10 to 15 people. The second half of the consultation would then consist of the moderator, often the MP herself, walking around the room and allowing one or two minutes for a representative of each table to summarize the table’s conclusions. Other consultations were simply a presentation by the MP, followed by passing the mic around the room and hearing what everyone had to say. Personally, I found the round table approach to be much more efficient and leading to more elaborate and detailed suggestions and comments, while the ‘open mic’ approach gave far too much room to climate change deniers and other… interesting… ideas (shipping our garbage to the sun much?).

After all is said and done, a few questions remain. The current government has been on a consulting binge lately, consulting the population on every single topic imaginable. But are they really listening, or is it all just a big exercise in pretending they consulted to ‘invent’ their much sought after social license for fossil fuel infrastructure projects like Energy East? Felipe, our writer in residence, put it eloquently in his last blog post, and I invite you to read his analysis of the final Ottawa consultation in Orleans.

But there are a few elements that lead us to wonder. First is the use of the online portal to register comments. Even through the consultations, ultimately, McKenna and other MPs running consultations were asking people present in the room to go and file their comments and table conclusion through the government web portal. Were they actually listening through the process, or will some bureaucrats just sift through the thousands of comments submitted through the portal? Were all the table conclusions properly reported through that portal? A quick look at the portal forum seem to indicate that a handful of organized climate change deniers are attempting to hi-jack all comments and discussion (even though the consultation process is based on the fact that human caused climate change is very real).

Let’s give the benefit of the doubt here, but we didn’t put much stock into the web portal system for these consultations. Instead, our objective was to send a clear message to each MP in the area, that Ottawa residents, their constituents, care about climate change and want to see it addressed. We decided to use the consultation events to make sure that people in the room were confident and equipped to voice their very own opinions, and not intimidated out of their right. If the consultations were to only be theatre, then we’d use theater to get the message across! In the end, I believe we achieved our goals. In every consultation, the message was clear, people want the government to move away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment, they want the government to stop subsidizing the industry, and they want the government to insure a just transition into a clean energy economy without leaving the oil workers behind.

This leads to the second elements which leads us to doubt about the honesty of consultations. The day after McKenna’s first consultation, she blogged about the event. I was present at that event, and distinctly remember that more than half, if not most tables, clearly concluded that fossil fuels were a thing of the past, subsidies needed to end, and Energy East was not wanted. I remember distinctly because I felt a rush of hope and pride and hearing table after table addressing this issue and hearing the entire room cheer on every time it was mentioned. McKenna’s recollection of the previous evening, however, seemed to ignore that altogether. I guess we each have different highlights.

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Throughout the summer, in various consultations, some happenings fed that doubt of honesty. Some misguided comments about activists hi-jacking consultations, not advertising consultations at all or waiting at the very last minute to announce them and thus denying many people the possibility to even attend because they didn’t know it was happening, or evening combining such an important consultation process with other topics (like defense) and thus seriously limited the possible consultation time (or its worth). These are all nagging elements that make me wonder about how seriously this government is actually taking climate change. Meet the new boss they say?

Full disclosure, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I tend to be cynical, if not openly pessimistic about our politicians, so take what I say with a grain of salt. In the end, though, time will tell what the government’s true intentions are. That being said, they’re not helping themselves with ‘winning’ that social license the way they are currently running things. When the premiers convene in Vancouver again this fall, and the process comes full circle with the release of their action plan, we’ll have a clearer idea of what their game is, and if they’re really making science based decision, and not carrying on with the business as usual pandering of the industry. Until then though, we must be relentless in not letting them get away with anything. We must hold them to account. We must remember that last year’s elections were only step one. This government wasn’t elected because we thought it was going to be great, it was elected to get rid of the old one. And we mustn’t let them forget that.

This summer, we played the government’s game, we played our act in the theatre of consultations, but we must not allow the government to turn around, ignore what was spoken by the people, take a short sighted decision and then claim that they have a social license to this decision because they consulted with us.

The best way to do this? Join us.

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Categories: Campaign, Clean Energy, Climate Change, TarFree613

Author:Alex Tétreault

Clean Energy Organizer for Ecology Ottawa. Eternal student. Socio-anthropology of migration and tech in development. Environment. Occasional photographer.

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  1. Calls for action resound at climate consultations | East End Against Line 9 - September 2, 2016

    […] The Summer of Consultations: Ottawa and the Theatre of Listening  (by Alex Tetrault) […]

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