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Still Hopeful book by Maude Barlow

‘Hope is a moral imperative’: A review of Maude Barlow’s new book

Paul Moist

Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism
By Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow has been on the frontlines of change for most of her life. A prolific author, she has written with passion about social justice issues and exposed injustices here and abroad. Her new book opens with a recollection of being on a panel on the Green New Deal along with noted climate activists David Suzuki and Avi Lewis, in Ottawa, in June 2019.

There was anger and frustration in the air over the worsening climate crisis and the slow pace of meaningful governmental response. Maude Barlow’s message was that citizens should not give up hope, that building a broad-based coalition to advance the Green New Deal was possible.

At the end of the event, a high school student approached Barlow, in tears, thanking her for her message, telling her that she and her friends were afraid for what the future held. That conversation was the impetus for Barlow’s latest book, Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism.

Through her four decades of activism, Maude Barlow was the voluntary chairperson of the Council of Canadians and a senior water advisor to the UN General Assembly, among countless other roles within the national and international global justice movement.

Still Hopeful outlines the major lessons she has learned from a lifetime of activism that began in the women’s movement.

Here Barlow outlines the many achievements and challenges that remain for women. She also acknowledges her own white privilege and the whiteness of the movement she worked in in over 50 years ago, saying, “the only way to build a healthy women’s movement is to honour the perspectives of diverse women.”

The early 1980s saw Barlow on the front lines of the labour-civil society opposition to free trade. She clearly outlines the combined effects of deregulation, privatization, and free trade, which she terms, the “cornerstones of globalization.”

In Canada, this agenda led her to high-profile roles in the formation of the Council of Canadians, as well as the 1988 federal election, which was fought over the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement.

Barlow writes in a clear and concise style, explaining the often-complicated world of global trade. She explains the so-called Washington Consensus, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the successful pushback against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Her frontline activism in Seattle (1999), Quebec City (2001) and elsewhere around the globe, provides an informative snapshot of the broad-based opposition to globalization.

In September 2003, she attended the WTO ministerial gathering in Cancun, Mexico. South Korean farmers were present in large numbers protesting their way of life being ended by new foreign import trade rights. Barlow witnessed their leader, Lee Kyung-hae, commit suicide in public, surrounded by colleagues wearing signs that said, “WTO Kills Farmers.” It was a scene, Barlow says, that “will haunt me to the end of my days.”

Amid this global activism, Barlow is consistent in a couple of key themes, including that building coalitions, bridges between different groups, is hard but necessary work. She also argues that success cannot be measured by the numbers of campaigns that are waged, or whether they were won or lost. The true test is to create ongoing linkages between civil society groups, labour, faith-based communities, and indeed all progressives.

Barlow’s work on the water file, in both national and global campaigns, is both impressive and daunting. The scope of the challenge here is staggering. She writes of two billion citizens drinking contaminated water each day. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas. Even if the world’s climate change issues were resolved overnight, these critical water issues would remain.

Fighting the commodification of water has been a lifelong battle, a highlight of which was the July 2010 vote by the UN General Assembly to recognize water and sanitation as “essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.” It is a moving testimony to the global water movement she has been at the center of.

Still Hopeful does not sugar-coat the magnitude of challenge that social justice activists face around the globe. But it is a refreshing take on the power of people-based movements, and as Barlow reminds us, “hope is a moral imperative.” The book’s opening lines from famed artist Banksy is one she often quotes in public forums: “When you are tired, learn to rest, not to quit.”

A worthy message from an iconic Canadian social justice activist.

Paul Moist is the former National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Still Hopeful is available at local bookstores or from ECW Press.