Photo: Michelle Valberg
Holding on to Hope with Canadian Social-Justice Activist Maude Barlow
In her new book, "Still Hopeful," the uncaped Canadian crusader tells us how to cope with massive global upheaval / BY Maude Barlow / March 3rd, 2022
Veteran social-justice activist Maude Barlow, 74, one of Canada’s uncaped crusaders, has been arrested on Parliament Hill, chased by baton-wielding policemen in Hong Kong, survived a stun-gun attack by police in Johannesburg and blasted with a water cannon and body-slammed by Turkish security guards in Istanbul.
She has travelled the world bearing witness to everything from the environmental devastation wrought by a Canadian-owned mining operation in Mexico to the impact of Bolivian water privatization on poor residents in urban slums and remote communities.
After 40 years, she has every right to be consumed by eco-grief and paralyzed by the enormity of saving the world, but Barlow chooses optimism. In her 20th book, Still Hopeful: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism, she draws on decades of knowledge and experience to explain why – and how – “to take hope from the goodness of others.”
Part of her optimism stems from working with young people, who are “knowledgeable and savvy” about the environmental crisis and “committed to creating a more just and equitable world.”
In spare prose, Barlow lays out a well-sourced testimony to what humans can achieve if they lean on one another. She remind us that economic globalization, with its “growth imperative,” drives unbridled demand on natural resources, because it is predicated on the tenet “more is always better.”
Excerpt from Still Hopeful: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism
I have been contemplating the notion of hope for a long time. I have been a social justice activist for over 40 years and have found hope to be a prerequisite for creating change and inspiring others. Hope has been built into the DNA of my life.
I come from a family dedicated to social justice. My father was a pioneer in the field of criminal justice and led the fight against capital and corporal punishment in Canada. I have an early memory of watching him debate Canada’s official hangman on black-and-white TV. Canada’s hangmen were always known as Mr. Ellis, and they wore a hood to disguise their features.
With our morning oatmeal, my two sisters and I were taught that we owed something for the privilege of living in a place of such opportunity. We were taught that hope is a moral imperative, and it has been my lifelong mantra.
Recently, however, it has been getting harder to remain hopeful against the relentless tide of negative information that threatens to drown us in a sea of despair. It is hard to pass a day that we don’t read of more fires, hurricanes and drought, each year hotter than the one before; the mass melting of the planet’s ice cover; the sixth great extinction; the devastation of insects, bees and birds; the destruction of rainforests and watersheds. We are entering a time of great economic uncertainty and devastating hardship for many millions of our fellow humans. Even before COVID exacted its terrible toll, the UN announced that three-quarters of the world’s workers are in precarious jobs, without pensions, security or even a livable wage. Now, with whole industries collapsing and countries facing alarming drops in their GDPs, fear is setting in for those who face a compromised future.
In my social justice work, it is getting harder to stay positive in front of my colleagues, many of whom are such experts in the details of the crises we face that it is hard for them to offer hope themselves.
The idea for this book came to me on a lovely June evening in 2019 in a packed Ottawa church. I was on a panel about the Green New Deal with David Suzuki, Avi Lewis and a few others. Some spoke in language that I can only describe as apocalyptic, the message hammered home that there are only ten years left of a habitable planet. I noted that there were a lot of young people in the audience, including my 16-year-old granddaughter Eleanor.
In my presentation, I spoke of hope and about building movements and offered examples of winning campaigns.
This elicited some debate from the other panelists and a caution from Suzuki that we do not sugarcoat the facts. I have known, admired and worked with David for years and have watched him become increasingly and understandably frustrated with the glacial pace of change in the face of a worsening environmental crisis. Long a beacon of hope himself, he was angry this spring evening — as were we all — that the federal Liberal government had recently bought a pipeline and the NDP/Green coalition government of his home province of British Columbia was going ahead with the infamous Site C dam and an expanded fracking industry. Hope was in short supply in that Ottawa church.
After the event, a high school student came up to me in tears and thanked me for my hopeful words, saying she and her friends had sat devastated and paralyzed throughout the panel discussion until I spoke. What could they do in the face of such overwhelming evidence of ecological collapse, she asked. I had many ideas. On my walk home, the air fragrant with apple blossoms and lilac trees and the evening too lovely to feel anything but joy, I made a vow to help that young woman, and my grandkids, to find the path ahead.
How could I share what I have learned — including all the mistakes — in over 40 years of fighting for social and environmental justice? Do I and others of my generation have something to offer individuals and organizations working in equality, justice, democracy and environmental protection? Could we inspire young people to see that the life of an activist is a good life, one that gets you up in the morning thinking about more than yourself? Could we help arm them for the hard work and many disappointments ahead? Could we help them find the joy in the struggle to make a better world? Could we help them not to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead?
Standing under a newly leafed tree silvered by a new moon, I remembered the words of a PEI farmer friend who always said that when he is overwhelmed, he stops thinking of the enormity of the challenges he is facing and instead asks himself one simple question: What is the next appropriate step to take? Then he takes it.
Well, for me, the next appropriate step to take was to write this book. I offer it to you, with hope.
Excerpt from Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism by Maude Barlow. Published by ECW Press. Copyright 2022 by Maude Barlow. Reprinted with permission.