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Remember a time when manufacturing workers and environmentalists seemed at odds over issues like jobs and pollution, when protecting our ecosystems supposedly meant creating more unemployment? As a growing coalition of labour and green activists illustrate, those days seem like ancient history.

Almost 700 people attended a recent conference in Toronto to discuss solutions to the crisis of unemployment, poverty and further environmental disaster. It was organized by the Good Jobs for All Coalition, an alliance of labour, social justice and green organizations, and sponsored by a host of unions and non-profit groups.

“The coalition’s goal is to develop strategies that affirm the values of a truly just society, healthy communities and sustainable economy, strong public services, equity and decent work for all,” said conference organizer Tam Goosen. “We’re living in a special moment in history. The dominant economic model of recent years is leaving many behind. We know from recent experience that other ways are possible. Together, we can build an economy with good jobs for all.”

In what is becoming a highly popular annual gathering, this is the second year the coalition has held this event. Last year, the spotlight was on the economic crisis that is continuing to tear apart the fabric of neo-liberal orthodoxy. This year’s conference was more specific, with focused discussions on youth employment, environmental equity, green infrastructure and even communications and political strategy.

Just like last year, registrations far outpaced expectations, and participants could be seen standing at the back of the room or even settling for a spot on the floor. Most striking was the number of young people under 25 who were present, not only as participants, but as speakers.

Defining New Concepts

It seems like everyone wants to be an environmentalist these days. The term “greenwashing,” a negative connotation that merges green concepts with whitewashing (to conceal wrongdoing), was overheard at the conference. Corporations greenwash their activities all the time, and public relations firms produce commercials for oil companies and other polluters that try to put a green front on unsustainable activities.

“We do not want to create a green economy that mirrors the old,” said conference co-chair Carolyn Egan. “We want to ensure that the greening of the economy becomes more than corporate rebranding. New green jobs must be good jobs that are accessible to everyone.”

This lead to further discussions about green equity and so-called “eco-apartheid,” and a fifteen minute video featuring environmental activist and former Obama advisor Van Jones was shown. Jones belongs to Green for All, an organization which calls for millions of young people to be educated in the green skilled trades. “Let’s make sure that the people who are locked out of the pollution-based economy are locked in to the clean and green economy,” he said.

Conference goers agreed that creating a green economy is meaningless if women, people of colour, youth, people with disabilities, the poor, Aboriginal peoples and other equity-seeking groups are marginalized. In fact, a well-attended and particularly energetic workshop was dedicated to youth empowerment and discussed proposals to provide more working-class youth with better access to career training, decent-paying entry level jobs and opportunities in social enterprise development in the green economy. “We need to make a movement that is strong. Adding an equity lens means ensures that the movement will last for generations,” said speaker and youth activist Tonika Morgan.

The Challenge to Change

The potential of the green economy in creating jobs and cleaning up the environment are too obvious to ignore. Ontario NDP legislative member and former executive director of Greenpeace, Peter Tabuns, discussed other western nations, especially the social democracies of Scandinavia, who have become ‘green superpowers’ by creating high-paying, secure, unionized jobs by investing into environmentally-friendly technologies.

“[Denmark] started the modern wind industry. In a country that has the same population as the Greater Toronto Area, 20,000 people work in the $6 billion a year industry,” said Tabuns. Nineteen percent of Denmark’s energy is now produced by wind turbines. While Canada, even with the huge windbelt rushing through its Prairies, comes in at a miserable 0.8%.

Other solutions were developed in the three workshops, which later reported back to the main plenary. Not all of them were necessary related to economics. Perhaps the most innovative idea of the conference was holding a workshop on campaigns and strategy, and how activists could better get the message out about the benefits of a green economy. In today’s sound bite society, winning the PR war against the well-funded oil lobby and its misinformation campaigns is half the battle.

Those in the workshop agreed that education was key, not only through reforming our schools (by putting greater emphasis on everything from environmental science to healthier meal choices), but through unions working alongside other progressive organizations to educate those both in and out of the labour movement.

There were no illusions about this challenge. “When it comes to my workplace,” said OPSEU member John Hesch, “some people just don’t care. When I talk to them about the environment, it’s not a big issue, or it’s something that will only affect people in the distant future.”

Overcoming this problem means having “green champions,” as conference goer Terry Burrell put it, in the offices and on the shop floor to help build environmental awareness from below. Who says that the greening of business and work, for example, has to come from management? Workers have the power to start the process themselves.

Seeking Alternatives

For many conference goers, the highlight of the event was final keynote speaker Clayton Thomas-Muller, member of the Mathais Colom Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, which defends people’s human and environmental rights against Big Oil and other large corporations.

Thomas-Muller addressed alternatives to the failures of neo-liberalism. “Do we really need a new economic system to eliminate climate change?” he asked. “If we’re looking at the ecological question as a whole, then the answer is yes, because capitalism’s innate need for growth always runs up against nature,” from which he received an enthusiastic applause.

This inevitably means serious reforms to the Canadian energy industry, especially those based in the West, and everyone in the room knew exactly what Thomas-Muller was talking about. “We can’t win on climate change without shutting down the tar sands. Period,” he said without hesitation.

Just don’t tell that to Prime Minister Harper, who continues to throw billions of dollars worth of subsidies at the projects each year. Heading in to a major international environmental convention in December, the federal government has come under serious criticism by environmental groups and scientists, both in Canada and around the world, for its inaction on climate change. But then again, no one in the labour or environmental movements expects the current government to do much about job creation, climate change or pollution anyway. As always with social change, action will have to come from below.

As Thomas-Muller stated at the end of the conference, “It involves us coming up with comprehensive strategies that embrace an intergenerational approach to strengthening our movement for climate and energy justice, a way to learn from our past and prepare in our present to defend our children’s future.”

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