Driving the inland and costal highways on Vancouver Island is a never-ending road trip like no other. It involves travelling through and around dense forest, homeland of old-growth and the mythic giants called Douglas Fir. Traversing the length of Highway #4 west through Port Alberni, the green wilderness reaches right down to the roadway, filling the view in all directions.  Half-way along there’s a stop where a foot trail leads into the forest, allowing visitors a chance to observe its ancient residents, close-up and on the ground. 

Once there, you can see in a glance that their above-ground roots, long since amalgamated with the trunk, are tall enough to shelter humans should you get caught in a rainstorm.  The physical experience of that immensity is primal, like something familiar yet utterly strange. Inevitably the trees capture our human imagination given their sheer size and strength, for having lived more than ten centuries and counting.  Saplings at the time Notre Dame was being built in Paris, this group are known locally as Cathedral Grove, alluding to the majesty of their height. Formally, it is called MacMillan Provincial Park, giving a nod to history but also to the forestry company MacMillan Bloedel which donated* the land.

First impressions can be lasting, of course, so the signs along the road identifying stands of younger trees, giving the dates planted, are telling. Indeed, the language is jarring, seemly to imply the old growth forest has morphed into a cornfield tended by farmers. – tabulated, they are monitored and commercialized. There’s good reason for the nickname Cathedral Grove, though, for the reality of climate change is of biblical dimensions. Mediaeval churches of Europe took generations to build, and were constructed with local quarried stone. While they rivaled each other in design and decoration, they were all monastic. Situated far from the growing influence of cities and trade, surrounded by forest, they prompt a sense of renunciation and withdrawal.

Meanwhile the weather here on Mother Earth has been sailing off-track all Spring, with forest fires in Western and Eastern Canada.  With Europe and India recording flooding and freak fires like the one that consumed Notre-Dame’s wooden roof in April, 2019.  The main effects of the change are a long way from being localized, yet the immediate causes cannot always be explained. What we do know is that climate change was first mooted when Elders in the Arctic remarked on changes in the ice. And later, the change in the direction of prevailing winds. One change led to another, so today there is no longer room to accommodate climate denial.


Here in Canada, forests and their inhabitants have been part of human culture since the get-go.  As a source of primal support for the land and the waterways they border on, they have been essential to the life and traditions of Indigenous peoples. Moreover, ever since colonization began, the people arriving from elsewhere have worked in the woods and the fisheries. Through the nineteenth century, when industrialization and immigration coalesced to abet the exploitation of natural resources, their seafaring days continued alongside the work as lumberjacks.  Companies (including churches) set up shop, and sent in men (and later women) to run things. Clerks and clergy, teachers and technicians, doctors and nurses.

Behind the climate crisis, therefore, is a history of our exploitation of the wilderness. Including what might be called Canada’s collective environmental disconnect. In which tradition, it can be noted Toronto clocked the worst air quality worldwide in mid-June (2023). Addressing the climate crisis has itself become a public issue. Those we expect to take the lead in formulating a collective response have largely failed to do so. Not in Ottawa, nor at Queen’s Park, and there was precious little from the candidates running for mayor of Toronto this Spring. Presumably it’s over to Mayor Olivia Chow with her comfortable majority to make the change for Climate Change.

And yet, there is the example of Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados. Collective responsibility has become a matter of who knows, who cares, and who decides what we do with this knowledge. How do we deal with the threat — by now an acknowledged reality.  That may be an existential question, but the need for coordinated action is obvious.  But when will we get around to the unthinkable – the vote to leave the oil in the sands?  What would happen were we to terminate dependence on fossil fuels, leaving the extraction industries to their PR departments and the banks?

 Leaders in business and finance have instead co-opted the language. At best, little gets done. At worst, the game is manipulated.  This is where greenwashing comes in, the practice of tarting up the record to make it appear you are doing something for the environment. Whether or not the action was needed or even feasible.  This response comes in many guises, representing corporate, political, and community interests (connections) and points of view (promises).

So, how do we deal with Climate Change – now that it is an acknowledged reality? This may be an existential question, but the need for coordinated mass action seems obvious. When will we get around to the heretofore unthinkable which would be to leave the oil in the oil sands (as Star columnist Linda McQuaig puts it). Greenwashing. What would happen were we to abandon dependence on fossil fuels, or at least tone it down? Thus, leaving the extraction industries to reinvent themselves.  It is tempting to be glib.

Business and finance have co-opted the language of commercial exchange, meaning social and cultural exchange is hard to come by in that arena. There is conversation, but little happens. And that will continue until the truly egregious happens. Meanwhile, the not-necessarily earth-shattering carries on, as someone is always trying to game the system. This is where greenwashing comes in. The practice of tarting up the record on environmental cost to attract customers – or keep them.  


The word Greenwashing first appeared in an essay written in the eighties by American environmentalist Jay Westerfield. He was criticizing the hotel industry for asking guests to reuse towels in the name of the environment when the strategy was all about profit.   The term has taken on new meaning since, and the practice flourished.  Of course, it is a take-off on ‘whitewashing’ and likewise implies the manipulation of ordinary meaning.  But to what purpose? What is being suggested is the need for skepticism about claims being made about products and their environmental impact.  It refers to commerce and finance and their combined environmental impact.  It refers both to wishful thinking (in advertising and slogans), along with the downplaying of science to soften the apparent impact of a given product.

Without question, climate change is a serious and present danger to the planet and human life. One that supersedes ordinary timeframes, and demands urgent, collective action.  What then are we to make of the election of Roberta Jamieson to the board of the Royal Bank of Canada at its shareholders’ meeting last April? Given its reputation as a major funder of oil exploration and production, her election made the news. Jamieson (Mohawk, Six Nations) is a lawyer, former Ombudsman of Ontario, and the face of Indspire, a non-profit dedicated to supporting young Indigenous students at post-secondary levels.  And RBC, of course, is effectively the Finance Committee for fossil fuel industry and world-wide leader in financing that industry. Jamieson’s addition to the board is a coup from RBC’s point of view. It highlights the role of Canadian financial institutions in the development of the fossil fuel industry and its intersection with Indigenous Rights.  Specifically, land rights and how they intersect with intellectual property rights. 

Jamieson’s role effectively focuses attention on Indigenous matters, certainly those having to do with the participation of Indigenous Communities in matters requiring consent.  This issue was significantly addressed in the work of the late Gregory Younging concerning the process such agreements should entail. The approach is spelled out in the practice referred to as Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).  As a legal concept it implies a process to agreement, and a practice that addresses both the difference between communities, and the sharing of ideas through translation, publication, and performance. It implies the operation of commercial use of visual material as well as literary, where the concept of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) is explained in detail.  (See Elements of Indigenous Style, A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, Brush Education, 2018.)

The relationship between two approaches has come with saw mills and transport trucks, reservations and the Indian Act.  But with Traditional Knowledge and the wisdom of the elders, we in the non-indigenous communities need to understand the connection between climate change and human culture, including the blindness of mainstream Canadians to the crisis. 

The term has taken on new meaning in recent years, while the practice has flourished.  In old days Canada had royal commissions that on matters such as bilingualism and biculturalism, aboriginal peoples, the status of women rights, and recently on Truth and Reconciliation, where Canadians of all descriptions came together and talked in groups across the country to work out new approaches and understandings each other. 

Susan Crean is a Toronto writer and a former chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada and a member of SCAN!  Her website is at  https://susancrean.ca

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