ORGANIZING THROUGH LOSS IN THE HEART OF OIL COUNTRY
Briarpatch|January/February 2020
The story of climate justice organizing in Alberta, at the heart of the tarsands, is the story of a group of young activists learning what it means to lose, and keep on fighting
ABDUL MALIK

The gym of Holyrood Elementary School, located on a sleepy side street in Edmonton’s rapidly gentrifying Strathcona neighbourhood, is packed well beyond fire code tonight. Every chair is occupied. Every inch of the floor is packed with latecomers, sitting cross-legged or leaning against the back wall. The crowd of those who arrived even later extends well outside the door. Orange pins flash on every lapel. The majority of the older folks in the crowd wear ones emblazoned with the name Heather McPherson. The younger folks’ buttons almost exclusively sport the name Paige Gorsak.

Tension rolls over the crowd as three women make their way past the assembled crowds, two of them taking nearby seats, and the third stepping to the pulpit, introducing herself as the head of the federal Edmonton Strathcona Riding Association. She congratulates the candidates on a hard-fought campaign and then announces that, by less than 20 votes, Heather McPherson has won the nomination to be the next federal NDP candidate in Edmonton Strathcona.

For a certain segment of the crowd, it’s cause for relief. For the particularly fresh-faced, it’s a crushing revelation of what electoral politics really is. For everyone else, it’s a maddening case of business as usual.

After a long, sombre night of drinking, hugging, crying, and chatting, Paige Gorsak’s campaign team will wake up and go back to work, putting one loss behind them, having already begun planning for the next one.

LOSING STARTS ON THE INSIDE

In 2015, when the NDP ascended to power in Alberta, it gave Edmonton’s left-wing community a much-needed moment of respite from 44 years of Conservative rule. At the time, Alberta was mired in an enormous recession driven by falling oil prices. Party leader Rachel Notley campaigned on a change away from politics as usual – which, in Alberta, meant the status quo of austerity and pipelines. Notley’s campaign promised diversification and an end to Alberta’s over-reliance on oil as a primary economic driver, and took jabs at the Progressive Conservatives’ focus on export pipelines. The ostensibly social-democratic Alberta NDP took the reins with a majority government that progressives hoped would go unchallenged for at least four years. For a moment, it seemed like there was the political will to reframe Alberta around something – anything – other than oil.

The Alberta NDP (ANDP) flattened this hope within a year of the election. Chris Gusen, a former communications and marketing employee of the provincial government, explains the mood: “I started about halfway through the NDP’s term, after the Climate Leadership Plan had been released and received a lot of backlash. By then, they had decided to basically stop talking about climate change. They could see how their polling numbers went up almost as soon as they made that decision but, as we all know in hindsight…”

The ANDP government’s total betrayal of progressives on the issue of climate was made clear when the federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX), and the ANDP championed that pipeline as the solution to Alberta’s economic woes.

The ANDP’s unabashed support of the petro-state split what was once a coalition-driven community – of political apparatchiks and grassroots activists – down the middle. Grassroots leftists, who had organized their communities to get the ANDP elected, divested from both the party and the incrementalists who justified the party’s actions.

When attempting to reply to questions for this article by email, a former organizer with an ANDP campaign said, “I tried a few times and just ended up crying a bunch. There have been a lot of losses. Not just campaigns, but also people.” This organizer, who asked not to be named, spoke about the recent federal election: “This was the first election in 11 years where I didn’t do anything. And what happened with Paige, and the fact that it was by no means the first time I’d seen the party abandon/undermine a progressive person, was a big part of that.”

For Edmonton leftists outside of the NDP’s ranks – an odd assemblage of disillusioned NDP activists, environmental organizers, social democrats, labour organizers, anarchists, socialists, and single-issue political wonks – the realization that they would not, in fact, enjoy institutional support from a so-called “friendly” government was a bitter pill to swallow. New organizing projects sprang up against the NDP and pipeline sentiment. The most prominent settler-driven one was Climate Justice Edmonton (CJE). It’s a reorientation of what was once Edmonton’s local Greenpeace group, which largely dissolved after Mike Hudema, who was Greenpeace’s Alberta spokesman for a decade, left Edmonton for B.C. in May 2018.

“Around [2017], the [Greenpeace] local group was undergoing changes in membership and mission. We started [discussing] forming another group, one that identified our strong ties to locally relevant organizing and gave us the flexibility we needed to expand our base and diversify our tactics,” says Gabrielle Gelderman, one of Climate Justice Edmonton’s long-time organizers. “We sat down and started imagining what a new group would look like, what name we would organize under and what our vision for organizing in amiskwaciwâskahikan [or] Edmonton would be. After brainstorming dozens of names over the course of two days, we finally came back to one of the simplest options, suggested on the very first day: Climate Justice Edmonton.”

TAKING POWER BACK (AND FAILING)

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