Canadian youth “disillusioned” ...but what about the protesters?

Michael Ignatieff’s appearance at UBC on January 15th may have been the most eventful yet of his cross-country tour of Canadian universities. However, the lively and varied debate was overshadowed by a demonstration staged by Greenpeace, who interrupted the event to protest Ignatieff’s stance on Alberta’s tar sands.

The protest began during the question and answer portion of the event. Jessie Schwarz from Greenpeace asked Ignatieff how he justified his support of the Alberta tar sands, the fastest growing greenhouse gas emitter in Canada. The sands, located in the northeast of Alberta, are among the largest natural deposits of crude oil in the world.

As Ignatieff began to respond to the question, however, a dozen or so members of Greenpeace stood up with banners and signs, and began to chant, “When I say ‘Stop the’! You say ‘Tar sands’! Stop the! Tar sands!” Many students in the audience began to boo the protesters and one individual yelled, “We’re trying to have a town hall!”

Two students on stage held up large banners that displayed quotes from Ignatieff on the tar sands issue. Ignatieff remained calm, and when the chanting died down after several minutes, he interjected,You asked me a question,” to which Schwarz responded, “There’s the answer right there,” pointing to the banners.

Ignatieff defended his position on the issue, saying, “One of the key things about politics, one of the key things about Canada, is that we can’t pick and choose which facts we like. The tar sands are a fact of our national life. We have one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world.”

He explained that his primary concern was to make the sands sustainable. “I’ve made it very clear that we need tough federal regulations and a cap and trade system that gets the emissions down … But if you’re asking me to shut down the tar sands, it’s not in my power to do so, and frankly, it’s not in the national interest of our country to do so.”

The sands are a major political issue, as the Albertan provincial government refuses to halt their development despite their environmental impact. In addition to high greenhouse gas emissions, the destruction of Canada’s boreal forest and the alleged poisoning of people living in the area are issues attributed to the tar sands.

Later, Ignatieff addressed the issue again, saying, “Greenpeace is right, this is affecting the international prestige of Canada and the international credibility of Canada. I get all that … [But] I am not going to establish my street cred by running against an industry that employs thousands of Canadians and contributes six billion dollars a year to the federal change.”

The Greenpeace activists remained standing, holding their banners and signs, for the remainder of the meeting. At one point Ignatieff asked that they put them down because they were blocking other students’ views. Security was not involved, and although RCMP officers were called to the building, they did not take any action against the protesters.

The event at UBC drew the largest crowd yet on Ignatieff’s series of “town hall” meetings with students across Canada. The venue reached its capacity of 400 quickly, and hundreds of others were moved into an overflow room. But while Greenpeace’s demonstration revealed that some audience members had a strong political agenda, the majority of students seemed open-minded and unaffiliated with any particular party or message.

These students, whom he has called the “unconverted masses”, were the ones Ignatieff hoped to reach. In his speech, he condemned the “cynicism” and “disillusionment” of Canadian youth on political issues. He noted that only one in five 18 year-olds voted in the last election, insisting that this trend was “producing a social change we should think about hard.”

Ignatieff also criticized the Prime Minister’s unilateral decision to prorogue Parliament on December 30th. This decision came at a time when the federal government was under pressure to respond to allegations of Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan prisoners. Ignatieff claimed that in proroguing Parliament, “[Harper] gambled on your cynicism … and interestingly, he gambled wrong.”

During the question and answer period, Ignatieff fielded a variety of questions from students on everything from marijuana legalization (“Flat out, no”) to whether he would lift the ban on gay men donating blood (“Absolutely”). Canada’s role in distributing foreign aid also became a focus of the discussion, as was also discussed, to which Ignatieff said, “The Harper government has walked away from Africa. We want to walk back.”

Despite a return to focus on other issues, comments after the discussion largely focused on the protest.   Josh Hutchinson, one of the organizers of the town hall and President of the Young Liberals of Canada in British Columbia, called the protest “very disrespectful… not just of Ignatieff, but of the students who were waiting to ask him questions.”

When asked how effective she thought the protest was, Schwarz said, “We got a lot of good responses from students afterwards. [Ignatieff] is sidestepping this issue, and we put the pressure on him to answer the question. People’s lives are at stake, and if that means interrupting his speech, so be it … he failed to make a distinction between his politics and Stephen Harper’s politics.”

//Laura Kane

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