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Report from the ground at COP21: The first few days

Diane Connors

Yesterday marked the first official day in Paris of COP21, the United Nations climate conference. As part of the Canadian Youth Delegation (CYD) and a representative of the Council of Canadians, I see my role as a voice that holds our leaders in Canada and across the world accountable to the people.

The CYD’s main asks are for Canada to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and commit to a “just transition” away from fossil fuels toward an economy based on renewables (zero emissions by 2050). With the Council of Canadians, I am supporting the push for a carve-out from international trade deals so that countries taking action on climate change and environmental protection are not penalized through the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions that allow corporations to sue governments for laws or regulations that affect corporate profits. I am also helping to push on issues regarding the right to water and Indigenous rights.

Sunday night a soiree was held at the Canadian Cultural Centre near the Eiffel Tower with a room full of Canada’s most powerful people. I personally talked to Kathleen Wynne, premier of Ontario. Another CYD team member pressured her on Energy East not being in line with climate action. Wynne is familiar with the Council of Canadians and asked where Maude was. (Maude was just coming in from Germany, I believe). The CYD also talked to Catherine McKenna, federal Environment Minister. We presented her with our demands, and we may have another meeting with her today (Tuesday, Dec. 2). Other politicians and leaders from Canada that the CYD interacted with included Perry Bellegarde, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, B.C. Premier Christy Clark, and Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress. We may also get a meeting with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

It was an interesting experience, being invited into this space as civil society after the secrecy of the Harper government. Four members of our team are also in the official Canadian Delegation – something that hasn’t happened before in the history of the CYD. Many in the CYD felt discomfort with the privilege in the space, and with its parallel to the COP21 proceedings, which are intended for people with political or financial interests and power. We held the space, and made our voices heard in ways available to us. We recognize how much more we must push to have our opinions and demands taken seriously.

Monday saw over 150 heads of state gathered on the conference grounds – the most gathered in any single space ever in the history of the UN.

The CYD was pressing for a meeting with Justin Trudeau on Monday. We held a momentous twitter campaign to garner support from our followers in asking Justin Trudeau to meet with us. We do not think this is an unreasonable request, especially given that we are a youth delegation and Trudeau is the Minister of Youth. Even though we were not granted a meeting or a question during Trudeau’s panel with the premiers, our team members in the conference made our presence known by all sitting in the front row with “Climate Justice Now” stickers on our lapels. We were noted during the panel, so the leaders knew who we were and knew we were there.

We came into the conference a few days ago with some cautious optimism, which is already turning to disappointment that the Trudeau government may be fundamentally the same as the Harper government, unwilling to take bold action on climate change, but with a more palatable facade. We are still calling on Trudeau for the “Real Change” he promised in his election campaign. 

On Tuesday the most notable thing that happened to me getting in close proximity of France’s President Francois Hollande. I found a spot and called out to him to “let us demonstrate, civil society needs a voice!” several times. It was exciting and slightly terrifying given that the UN security briefing basically asked activists not to surprise anyone or there might be consequences. Later on in the day I attended the opening of the Indigenous Pavilion outside the conference, which Minister McKenna also attended. There were songs and speakers from around North America (Turtle Island), including a representative of Willie Littlechild from my homeland of Treaty 6 territory in Alberta. Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, also spoke for a few minutes about the importance of climate justice and how her understanding of relationships with Indigenous peoples changed for the better when she actually listened to them. 

Stay tuned for a blog later this week on events such as Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” workshop that Maude Barlow will be participating in, and the Tribunal for the Rights of Nature. If you’re interested in the work of the CYD you can follow us on social media. Look for our daily update, the CYDaily. We have been holding twitter campaigns that you can be a part of to help pressure our government, show fossil fuel companies that we’re watching, and push critical messages of hope and resistance.

Salut from COP21!