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After the Ontario election, remember: climate action is about leading government, not following it

The Progressive Conservatives, the party with the least ambitious environmental plan, have been re-elected. But Doug Ford has shown he’s sensitive to criticism and investigation, so it’s time to summon hope and keep pushing for real efforts on climate change

On Thursday night, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won a second term as Ontario’s government. And not by a little — they came out of the election with 83 seats, more than they’d gone in with, even though they won fewer votes. Their victory was bolstered by the resignation of both NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca, meaning the next parliamentary session will open with a pretty weak opposition. 

I’m not going to lie: this probably isn’t good news for the environment. While the Liberal and NDP platforms weren’t exactly thrilling, the Conservatives put forward the least ambitious conservation and climate action plan. Given their environmental record over the past four years, it’s hard to believe they’ll prioritize the file this time around. 

Ford and his party have also done a great job at dodging accountability for their actions, environmentally and otherwise. During the campaign period, Progressive Conservative candidates dropped out of debates across the province, dodging a reckoning with their record and their promises. His government is also fighting the release of its mandate letters: instructions given by a premier to their cabinet which Canadian governments generally release as a matter of routine, but which the Progressive Conservatives are resisting, all the way to the Supreme Court. 

And while some journalists (and us! always us!) tried to fill that gap with dogged reporting, too many seemed content to let the Progressive Conservatives set the environmental agenda. The incumbent premier did just one media interview, with the Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn, whose column didn’t mention “environment” or “climate” at all and was criticized by other journalists as being far too soft and starry eyed. In the end, Ford managed to make it to election night without answering hard questions about the deaths, school closures and health care collapse he’s overseen during COVID-19, let alone his failure to meaningfully address global warming. 

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So yes, there’s a pretty dark cloud of greenhouse gases hanging over Canada’s most populous province. But Emma McIntosh, Fatima Syed and I are still here at The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau. And we expect to be busier than ever as we continue to hold the government accountable on a range of topics, including emissions, farmland, the Ring of Fire, clean electricity and more. 

We’re doing this reporting because it’s our job, but also because — hasn’t climate action been an uphill battle since the very beginning? Between powerful, duplicitous fossil fuel companies and complicit, weak-willed governments, I think we all knew by now that the goal of building a beautiful, more sustainable way of life was up to each of us, not the people who say they’re in charge. 

Emma points out that it’s important to have a clear-eyed view of how 2022 is different from 2018. While our Ontario team hasn’t found enough evidence to confirm the narrative that Ford is a changed, more mature leader, it’s true that public pushback has forced him to shift on environmental issues. He kicked off his tenure ready to bulldoze the Greenbelt, then pulled back after public outcry. Now, he’s pledging to expand the protected area (a little). 

Ford has flip-flopped on his plans for the Greenbelt, with his latest promise of expanding the protected area amounting to few actual changes. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

In the wake of the derecho storm, Ford spoke about how the climate crisis is real and needs addressing. The Progressive Conservatives have promised to make electric-vehicle manufacturing a priority. They’ve also pledged to achieve their emissions-reduction targets. And the federal government has stepped into the fray over Highway 413. These are all cracks in the fortress: opportunities for citizens to demand their elected officials live up to their promises, and which journalists can peek through to get an idea of what’s really going on. 

The Ontario election results shouldn’t change how any of us view the real, hard work that needs to be done to mitigate and cope with climate change. It’s not going to change how we do things at The Narwhal. It’s totally fair, though, to take a few days to bolster your resolve. Here’s how I try to do that. 

One of the best books that I’ve read in the past year is We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by the American police and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba. It’s a collection of essays by and interviews with Kaba, who has spent decades working to end a massive and deep-rooted injustice: the racist policing and prison industrial complex. 

The book introduced me to the phrase she’s perhaps best known for: “hope is a discipline.” In this interview with the podcast Beyond Prisons, which is transcribed in the book, Kaba explained the concept. 

“The idea of hope being a discipline is something I heard from a nun many years ago,” she said. “The hope that she was talking about was this grounded hope that was practiced every day, that people actually practiced it all the time.” 

Kaba expanded on the idea in an interview with The Intercept last year:

“It’s less about ‘how you feel,’ and more about the practice of making a decision every day, that you’re still gonna put one foot in front of the other, that you’re still going to get up in the morning. And you’re still going to struggle, that was what I took away from it.”

“It’s work to be hopeful. It’s not like a fuzzy feeling. Like, you have to actually put in energy, time and you have to be clear-eyed, and you have to hold fast to having a vision. It’s a hard thing to maintain. But it matters to have it, to believe that it’s possible, to change the world. You know, that we don’t live in a predetermined, predestined world where like nothing we do has an impact. No, no, that’s not true!” 

Anti-racism work and climate action are interconnected: both are about dismantling deeply flawed, harmful systems. Both aim to take power away from an avaricious few and share it more widely, with the goal of building a dignified, just and healthy world. So another idea that Kaba articulates in the Beyond Prisons interview also resonates with me — that of actually finding solace in just how small we each are, and seeing our work as a part of something that started before we were here and will continue after we’re gone. 

“I take a long view, understanding full well that I’m just a tiny, little part of a story that already has a huge antecedent and has something that is going to come after that … my little friggin’ thing I’m doing is actually pretty insignificant in world history, but if it’s significant to one or two people, I feel good about that. If I’m making my stand in the world and that benefits my particular community of people … I feel good about that.”

This sentiment is, of course, reflected in the idea of living with the next seven generations in mind. That’s an Indigenous value with its roots in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy that can get watered down by non-Indigenous people. But if we actually look to Indigenous nations, we see the philosophy in action, in stories The Narwhal is proud to report on: about the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs asserting sovereignty over their territories or the Tyendinaga Mohawks rebuilding back stolen foodways, honouring the generations that came before and keeping all those that come after in mind. 

And so here we are at The Narwhal, making our living and trying to grow. We genuinely believe in the journalism we’re doing in Ontario right now, especially given this government’s track record of secrecy. Emma and Fatima have already done great work uncovering secrets: in March, Emma wrote about a report on the state of Ontario’s natural resources that the government tried to suppress. In May, Fatima wrote about the quiet sale of clean energy credits by Ontario Power Generation, through a program that others in the renewable energy sector said they hadn’t known about, and which seemed to contradict the Ford government’s dismantling of carbon pricing early in its tenure. 

I can assure you, they’re still doing that digging. I hope you’ll take a deep breath, then come along.

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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.