The Sustainability Picture

14 Oct

After cycling all across the country, what did we find out about sustainability in Canada?

We spoke with over 50 people across the 10 provinces. Our encounters were amazingly varied, and each story was unique. We were inspired! Many Canadians we met are acting to move towards sustainability. Some of them don’t necessarily associate their actions with sustainability; others are aware of the way their actions fit into the sustainability picture. It is amazing that, even without seeking out “sustainable people,” we came across so many relevant initiatives.

Now, we can step back and look at the big picture, looking for patterns in the stories we collected and making some generalizations about the Canadian perspective on sustainability. Here’s what we found.

Consumerism and Waste

Q: What did one garbage can say to the other?
A: “I got totally trashed last night!”

Many Canadians are concerned about the vicious cycle of consumerism: work more, buy more, want more things, repeat. But once people are aware of it, they are better equipped to break free. Randy from Newfoundland sees this happen to people who go to work in the oil sands. Although he has worked in Fort Mac himself, he knows his limits: he won’t buy a skidoo or a big truck if he doesn’t need one!

There’s also concern about another side of consumerism: excessive production is detrimental to the environment and creates a lot of waste. Emily from Saskatchewan was inspired to minimize her own consumption: she re-uses things by shopping at thrift stores and garage sales. At the Nelson Food Co-op in British Columbia, a documentary about waste inspired the members to vote for banning plastic bags in the store. That’s 10 000 members reusing their bags every time they shop! Charlie from Nova Scotia used all reusable dishes and cutlery when she hosted an event for 200 people to reduce waste from single-use eating utensils.

Local Economy and Community

Lots of people had concerns about money draining from smaller communities and businesses to large corporations. Co-operatives offer one solution: they follow a business model that can be accountable to the communities they serve. In Grand Forks, British Columbia, a food co-op has re-started, providing an alternative to shopping at the chain stores in town. By connecting the residents with the local farmers and making the price fair to both farmer and customer, the co-op is improving the local economy. We found many other, similar food co-ops as well. For example, the Penokean Hills Farms co-op in Ontario is helping cattle farmers to butcher and sell their meat locally.

In some places, people were concerned about a lack of jobs in their area. The Bear Claw First Nations casino and hotel in Saskatchewan is a striking example of a community creating jobs for itself. The White Bear First Nations fought hard to make the resort a reality. Now it employs a large part of the community. The business is run by community members whose mandate is to keep the community in mind, providing income, job training, and funding for community projects. We also encountered a radically different solution to the jobs issue: people in Hutterite colonies live communally. Everyone helps out, and everyone gets what they need.

Self-sufficiency

Many Canadians are growing their own food. We’re not talking herb gardens: people manage to feed themselves, at least for most of the season. The Thiessens from Saskatchewan grow their own vegetables and only rarely need to buy food. Justin in Ontario grows vegetables and raises chickens on his permaculture farm. Gabriel in Quebec raised his own goat. Marianne from Prince Edward Island grows enough vegetables for 3 households and shares her harvest with her neighbours. Rose in Nova Scotia is fattening up two pigs for the winter. Kevin in Nova Scotia eats the mackerel he catches from his kayak and the organic vegetables he trades for his excess mackerel. If you’re lucky like Bridget in Newfoundland, and you have friends who are hunters, then you are guaranteed to have moose meat feasts for a while.

A significant number of people strive to be self-sufficient with their electricity and energy needs. This is especially true in Ontario, where we saw solar panels everywhere. Thanks to Ontario’s government subsidies and the FIT program, people see solar panels as an investment and even a source of income. Pat and Sherri, for example, have enough solar panels to supply them with 110% of their annual electricity needs.

Several people we met were self-sufficient for their water needs. At the permaculture farm in Ontario, a pump connected to a solar panel channeled water from Lake Huron to the house and garden. Dany and Maite in Quebec draw water from a well for household use, and obtain their drinking water from a nearby spring.

Health

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: It can go wherever it @#*&ing wants, it’s a free-range chicken!

In Calgary, Alberta, Maria was buying some free-run eggs at the grocery store and the guy behind her in line commented to the cashier about how ridiculous the term sounds in French. They had a full 15-minute discussion about it in franglais. But many people we met were much more interested to know how their food was produced and where it came from.

A lot of people care about staying healthy, and one way they can improve their health is by eating better. Fresh, organic fruit and vegetables are important. Equally important is dairy, fish and meat produced in a healthy environment where animals are fed quality feed without antibiotics or growth hormones. Whether through local food co-ops and farmers’ markets or by growing their own food, many people we met found ways to obtain healthier food.

Several times the topic of vegetarian vs. meat diet came up – which is healthier? Jesse from Quebec became mostly vegetarian after moving to the city from his parents’ organic cattle farm. Fresh organic meat was in abundance when he was growing up but that was not so much the case once he moved to the city. On the other hand, Dwight who used to be vegan started eating local meat and dairy when he moved to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. When choosing between highly processed, genetically-modified soy products from overseas and fresh organic meat from across the street, Dwight prefers the meat.

Some people do encounter challenges with trying to eat healthy food. Everyone seemed to know the story of a couple in Quebec that transformed their front yard into a beautiful vegetable garden, but due to a ridiculous bylaw they were told by the municipality to tear down the garden or face a severe fine. A campaign was launched to save the garden and recent news celebrate their victory! Though it was an intense struggle for the couple, the campaign was all over the news and raised a lot of awareness, which brings us to our final category.

Education and Awareness

Spreading the message about living more sustainably can be a challenge. In some cases, information is not readily available: in New Brunswick, where the Irving family has a monopoly on the forestry and newspaper businesses, news is often biased. Several media co-ops have started up, providing people with a more objective and complete story.

Even when the information is there, it is not always easy to get people to listen. As Jesse from Quebec told us, those who work in inherently unsustainable professions, like mining and oil extraction, avoid the topic because they don’t want to be blamed or feel like they’re doing something wrong. Others, suggests Dany from Quebec, are just resistant to change and don’t dare to do something different. Aaron in Manitoba says that some people are just lazy.

At the same time, we did find several educational initiatives on our way, where dedicated people are taking on these challenges. Aaron in Manitoba started a sustainable campus group at the University of Manitoba to network and share knowledge among students. The permaculture farm on Manitoulin Island in Ontario holds permaculture design courses. Pat in Ontario teaches sustainable building design at Fleming College. Sustainable Antigonish in Nova Scotia invites guest speakers and sets up movie nights to raise awareness and share knowledge.

We also met parents who are passing on knowledge and values to their children. Charlie in Nova Scotia is teaching her kids about growing vegetables. Dany and Maite in Quebec are teaching their son Mateo about re-using by making crafts out of cereal boxes.

So many good things are happening all over Canada. Our project is not a scientific paper: we are not claiming to have gathered an unbiased statistical sample showing the current trends. But every story described and every person encountered is real. We hope that the stories we shared have informed and inspired our readers as much as they inspired us.

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One Response to “The Sustainability Picture”

  1. Alex October 18, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    Whenever I want to feel good about the future of the environment, I can read this post.

    Whenever I want to panic about it instead, I’ll listen to this: http://grist.org/climate-energy/my-tedx-talk-on-climate-pimped-out/

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