Digging In With ONN

Climate collectives harnessing the power of community

Episode Summary

This episode jumps into the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss and how the climate movement in Ontario stays agile. Our guest Tim Gray of Environmental Defence shares why the election window is such an important time to advocate for policy, the message collectives are hoping to get across to politicians this cycle, and the work that comes after election day. Guest biography: Tim grew up on the shores of Lake Huron and acquired his love of nature there. He has over 25 years of experience developing and implementing environmental policy change efforts. These have included major shifts in land conservation, forest practices and climate change. Starting out his career as a biologist and policy analyst, Tim has spent a lot of time learning skills that move complex environmental issues toward resolution.

Episode Notes

This episode jumps into the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss and how the climate movement in Ontario stays agile. Our guest Tim Gray of Environmental Defence shares why the election window is such an important time to advocate for policy, the message collectives are hoping to get across to politicians this cycle, and the work that comes after election day.  

Guest biography: Tim grew up on the shores of Lake Huron and acquired his love of nature there. He has over 25 years of experience developing and implementing environmental policy change efforts. These have included major shifts in land conservation, forest practices and climate change. Starting out his career as a biologist and policy analyst, Tim has spent a lot of time learning skills that move complex environmental issues toward resolution. 

Episode Transcription

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Tim Gray: We have no time for short-term thinking, in this election. And, we really want to try and get that point across to people.

Sarah: For 25 years, Tim Gray has been working in environmental policy change. For the last 9 years of that work, it's been as the Executive Director of Environmental Defence

As the Ontario election fast approaches, he's knee-deep and advocating alongside other nonprofits to keep parties and candidates aware of issues related to climate and community.

Tim Gray: Politicians, especially maybe more old-fashioned ones, kind of think as environment sort of as, over here, right?

But I think, you know, those who understand these issues, perhaps a bit better, recognize that you need to look at every problem through, an environmental lens.

Sarah: Today, Tim shares, why the election window is such an important time to advocate for policy change and the message he's hoping to get across to candidates this cycle. Plus the work that comes after election day.

MUSIC: Music Separation

Sarah: This June 2nd, Ontarians will vote on who will form our next provincial government. Tim Gray's work with Environmental Defence is one example of the important work nonprofits are doing alongside other organizations and grassroots groups to advocate on issues that are important to communities this election.

Last episode, we spoke with Faye Johnstone about a first of its kind in Ontario coalition. That's advocating for the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Make sure to check that out if you haven't already. And we'll still have more episodes on election related advocacy coming. Today, we welcome Tim Gray of Environmental Defence.

Let's dig in.

Sarah: So welcome, Tim, to the podcast. Could you take a moment to introduce yourself and your organization?

Tim Gray: Yes. My name's Tim Gray, I'm Executive Director of Environmental Defence. We're located mainly in Toronto, but we also have an office in Ottawa that works on some of our federal issues. We're a national environmental organization that specializes in connecting people with decision-makers to, ensure that we protect Canada's environment. And it's great to be here.

Sarah: Thanks so much. Well, it's great to have you here. We got lots to talk about today. My first question, as we think about the Ontario election, why is it important for your nonprofit to engage in this election?

Tim Gray: Yeah, it's really important because, as we know, we're facing, twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss around the world. No less so here in Ontario. I think it's really important that people focus on not just what's going to happen at the ballot box in this coming election, but what does that mean for them going forward for the next four years, given these twin crises?

And I think people really need to ask themselves, who is best going to be able to tackle these issues. In a way that is sensitive to the needs of Ontario citizens, positions us well to be successful and prosperous, creating jobs and creating a better life for people. But doing so in a way that puts us ahead of these crises and addresses them rather than contributes to them.

So, we have no time for short-term thinking in this election. And, we really want to try and get that point across to people.

Sarah: Yeah, that's a great point about thinking, as short-term thinking is not going to get us there. And we, even though I know for election cycles and for politicians, sometimes think that. The focus is on getting elected, and then getting into whether it's cabinet or working on a mandate. So that's an interesting point that we have to think long-term and hopefully, folks who really are invested in, in the province are thinking that too.

Tim Gray: Yeah, absolutely. That's a really good point. The people who are going to the polls in some ways have more of a luxury to think longer-term about who they want to represent them and what kind of policies they'd like to see in place, then some of the people they actually elect. You know, like we all know about the, the pressures and realities that face cabinet ministers or members of provincial parliament. And quite often, it's very hard for them to think beyond the next budget cycle or definitely beyond the next election. But as voters, you can really think, okay, like who's, who's promising here to do something that is going to make the province better at the end of that cycle?

And, who do I, therefore, vote for?

Sarah: What do you think in terms of the nonprofit sector and environmental organizations, or even, you know, allies in the sector, why is it important for that collective work to be done in the sector?

Tim Gray: Yeah. I mean, we have less institutional or structural power than a lot of other influencers in society. I mean, you think of big business and others who will engage, not just during the election cycle. Like right now, we're about to head to the polls, but are continuously present at Queens park in the form of lobbying or the media through advertising or social influencers and everything else that money can buy you.

So I think for the nonprofit sector, if we want to reach people, if we want to have a voice that is meaningful and impactful, then we need to work together. We need to collaborate if we want to have a coherent voice that breaks through that noise, that paid noise. And gets us to a place where people are able to receive the information that we're generating and make wise decisions about what they want to vote for.

Sarah: And when you think about that collective work, for example, one of the campaigns you're working on is Yours to Protect. So for Yours to Protect, what are the goals and who is involved?

Tim Gray: So the Yours to Protect program started a few years ago. And it was really in recognition that the Ontario government was in the process of really dismantling a lot of the environmental protection that had been brought into play over the last 30 years in Ontario. And that we really needed to kind of go to ground, to organize at a local level against some of the impacts and some of those decisions that were being made.

So there are community groups from one end of the province to the other that are within this network. We have a steering committee that is made up of more engaged representatives from those community organizations. And then, we have ongoing webinars, regionally focused webinars, regionally focused meetings, to tackle particular issues that come up or a broader policy issues that might be being pursued at a region by region basis. Such as, currently right now, each of the regions in Southern Ontario has to come up with their own municipal plan, you know, they have to do that every five years. So that's obviously a key decision point around issues related to how the city is going to grow. Is it going to sprawl outward and gobble up farmland and do so in a way that doesn't support transit and creates low density, expensive housing, or is it going to do something different? Are we going to build more livable communities based on transit and individual mobility? And proximity to workplaces and services, and lower taxes and all those good things?

It's really important to have a network model apply to those challenges because an organization like ours, for example, we have the capacity and I guess the staff depth to have planning specialists, lawyers working for us that, perhaps a smaller group in one of these communities just would never be able to have the resources for.

But they have the personal connections. They're the ones who know the city counsellors. They know the mayor, they know the regional media. They know what happened on that street when that decision was made three years ago, and can bring that story to the forefront. So the combination of having provincial level, expert capacity, which we might have in Environmental Defence, and local on the ground knowledge and organizing power, is quite effective in making change. And we've seen some really exciting results from this work that we've done.

Sarah: I think that's an important point, too. When you think about provincially, there's obviously policy change happening at that sort of ministerial level, but that often what you see is on the ground, or locally or regionally too. And where there can be an impact, but also potential for change. And so I'm wondering, as you mentioned, with an organization that is more well-resourced, and we know that half of the nonprofit sector in Ontario is volunteer, run organizations that are run by volunteers only. So without those resources. So how do you kind of help to mobilize maybe smaller organizations or grassroots groups and how do you kind of enfold them into a larger collective?

Tim Gray: Generally what we can offer, most of the time is expertise and advice. Occasionally, we actually have some money that we can transfer as well. What we found is that the volunteers that are operating at those local levels, or in some cases paid staff, if the organizations are regional and a little bit larger, is that they bring so much energy. And so much of local knowledge of how things have worked, and how things are working. And you know, a real knowledge of how to track down decision-makers and bring information to attention. For example, we worked very closely with a number of organizations in the Ajax Pickering area, when the provincial government was steadfastly determined to fill in provincially significant coastal wetland right along Great Lakes, to build an Amazon warehouse. And they went to the legislature twice to force that, you know, previously illegal development into that wetland.

We were really working that at a provincial level and in the courts, with our partners. But you know, the people that really made a difference on the ground, were those local folks. Can you imagine? After the issue had become that toxic, you're building your warehouse in a community where everyone in the community is not very welcoming to you? It's not a great, not a great business case.

Sarah: Yes. Yeah. Even if it is going to be, you know, that job creation, model or argument.

Tim Gray: Yeah, Absolutely.

Sarah: How do you see that in terms of collective work? And how do you, even when it takes a long time, how do you keep up that motivation to keep going?

Tim Gray: I think the local wins are particularly important, and they're always important. Because it makes progress and environmental issues real to people in the places that they live and work in every day.

But they're particularly important when you have a government in power that has been deeply regressive at a policy or legislative level, because that is the place where, you know, if they're not careful, if they've been a little bit sloppy on how they've changed the rules, is that you can really figure out how to get around those changes and still accomplish good things at that local level.

Sarah: And I was mentioning the planning work that has been underway in Hamilton and Halton and the other regions. And in both of those cases, by working together, at the community level, us and, and local organizations, like environment Hamilton and Stop Sprawl Haltan, we were actually able to move the city councils or the regional councils to adopt a zero hector growth plan, concentrate all of their development inside of the city. Yeah, no for sure. And I think as you mentioned that that's my neighbourhood, Halton. That's where I live. And so, yeah, and seeing that on the ground is, getting my, my local updates from council. It is really exciting to see that, and the connection between local, and then also provincial and what that, and other regions too learning from other regions is really exciting.

So that's a, a great example. I'm wondering about this election, Tim, I'm seeing lots of examples in the environmental sector of coalition. So for example, we've seen the launch of the Ontario Climate Emergency Campaign, which isn't just environmental nonprofits. It's also other, organizations in the sector, such as the Workers Action Centers.

That's a really exciting development to see that, sort of cross-sector or cross sub-sector as we call it at ONN. So I wonder if you can speak to that in terms of how that kind of coalition-building comes together?

Tim Gray: Yeah, that is important as well. You obviously want to build as many coalitions as you can, depending on the issue. You know, when the previous government was in power, we built a coalition called the Clean Economy Alliance, and that was the industry labour and environmental community. And we were working on helping design the Cap and Trade Program. And it was like a different time when you could actually have business labour and enviros-- [chuckles]

Sarah: Remember those days. Yeah.

Tim Gray: -- Yeah. Develop a reasonable and functional emission reduction plan that would recycle revenue in further reductions. Remember the good old days. So, that was obviously very powerful and actually, we heard a story from the Premier's staff.

That was the day that the Cap and Trade legislation was introduced into the legislature. And of course, the opposition was standing up saying, this is terrible, it's going to shut down the economy. And she was able to hold up the press release that we'd put out as a coalition that morning with all these large emitters from the business community and the labour unions who worked in those big emitters and the environmental organizations saying this is a great thing. and we really want to see this move ahead.

And I mean, what's the opposition gonna say that? Right. Like it's just really hard. So, those things can make a huge difference and move public policy along. And of course in the election period, being able to reach across or, or among different, organizations. And having a similar message around what people should be thinking about as they go to the polls is really, really cool.

Sarah: I think it's an interesting point too. We look at the sector and the different sub-sectors. I don't think all sectors either already or do this kind of coalition-building the way that I see environmental organizations do. Now to be fair, I think there's been a long time in terms of that collective work and perhaps building relations. But I wonder, are there any specific drivers, do you think for the environmental sector that makes it maybe easier or a better environment or more enabling to do this work together?

Tim Gray: Yeah, that's a good question.

I'm not sure. I mean, we have worked towards doing more of this. You know, I think that. You know, strangely enough, that the level of cooperation collaboration around the political cycle and electoral cycle has increased markedly since the attacks by the Harper era government on charities. On trying to shut them down for being too political. As in being involved in public policy, not too political as in being partisan. And I think, as a result, people really did dig into the rules, that guide charities and non-for-profits, and, and started a conversation about, well, actually we can do this stuff. We should be doing this stuff. In fact, we're being a bit negligent by not being more aware of our role in decision-making, by the public, when they go to the polls. And I saw a lot more collaboration starting during that time. For example, the kind of policy arm of our Yours to Protect work is that we have something called the Priorities Group, which is most of the larger environmental organizations.

And we start about a year and a half before every election and sit down and think about like, well, what are the policy recommendations that we really feel that we would like to put in front of parties? And then we finished that last fall, and then we go through a whole series of meetings with all the political parties, trying to influence what they're going to put on their platform based on the information that we have.

And they don't. I mean, if you've ever spent any time working with a party platform committees, I mean, they're, they're not exactly policy experts usually. Right? They're mostly thinking about, okay, what can we put in the window so that we can get reelected? So it's a really great time to go in there and say if you're interested in doing something that's meaningful on the environment front, here's a bunch of things that would be, and here's why, and here's what the consequences would be, here are the costs. And, it's a great opportunity to inform the people who are making those decisions. And then we go from there to ask a series of questions to the parties based on those, those platform requests that we've had, and measure their commitment against them. And we'll be publishing that in the next 10 days or so that people can know which of these ideas are being picked up by the parties. And if you care about that, then you can make help make your decision about which of the parties you'd like to vote for.

Sarah: You mentioned a couple of things there, Tim, that I want to touch on. And in terms of that lead time of how much time really it does take, you mentioned a year and a half. And I think that can be eye-opening because that's a long time to be preparing and meeting with folks who would be writing party platforms.

I think this election for 2022 has been a much shorter timeframe. I think for a lot of organizations they're finding, organizing has been difficult. And some of those factors could include some of the new paid advertising rules in Ontario, which are making that more challenging. But I think it's great to hear of an example that long-term thinking takes long-term planning to do. Even if it feels like the election is far away, it's still really useful to get started on that work sooner, rather than later.

Tim Gray: Absolutely. And I think, you need that time if you're going to be doing something that's meaningful on a collaborative basis so that you can actually hash out what you want to ask. You can't ask for everything. So there has to be some process of winnowing down, you know, about things that you're going to put as priorities into your requests and enter the conversation with the parties.

Sarah: So what's one thing that you want provincial party leaders and candidates to know for this election?

Tim Gray: I think if I had to say one, it's that you need to look at the future of Ontario through an environmental lens. And environment, I think in this day and age means, biodiversity conservation and climate change. Some of these changes, are locked in and therefore we're going to have to figure out how to adapt to them. But the world, if it's to survive, if our civilization is to survive, will make a transition towards a cleaner economy.

And so what does that mean for a place like Ontario? Which is, even as a province, it would be a fair size country, its economy, and the number of people who live here, what does that mean for us economically and socially? Are we likely to be successful if we pretend that these changes aren't coming?

 Is gobbling up the best remaining farmland in Canada, and some of the best farmland in the world that surrounds our cities and Southern Ontario. Does that make sense in a world of growing food scarcity and growing food prices? Increasing transportation costs? Or would we be better to preserve that farmland for local food security, greater economic diversity, mitigation of climate impacts such as flooding and from big rain events, or should we pave it all over and have to get to all those places in individual cars instead of by public transit?

Tim Gray: So a lot of these things all come together. You know, through a lens of, almost every problem that we face in our society can be looked at first through an environmental lens. You know, quite often I think, politicians, especially maybe more old fashioned ones, kind of think as environment sort of as over here, right?

Like there's all the things you need to do that are about society and the economy. And then if you've got time and some money, then you just think about like the environment over here, but it's not necessary. You can always leave it till later.

But I think, you know, those who understand these issues, perhaps a bit better, recognize that you need to look at every problem through an environmental lens.

Sarah: So it's not thinking about the future. Yeah. And I've heard that very recently, perhaps in the car with my partner, about working on current problems and thinking about addressing current problems and thinking about more environmental protections, you know, in the longer term, because we have immediate crises, like especially, you know, food prices increasing, for example, and housing affordability and things like that.

But I do think you're right and the lens needs to be there first. In terms of environmental impact and what do we want to see? I think we talk a lot about thriving communities, folks who are healthy and inclusive communities, and that has to involve an environmental focus as well.

So the last question for you in terms of plans post-election, you've got all these great coalitions that you're part of, a lot of work going on right now. What happens after June 2nd?

Tim Gray: Yes. I mean, obviously, we'll have to evaluate who forms the next government. But if we see a government come into power that has made significant commitments to develop new, environmentally focused policy and those areas we discussed today. That a significant amount of resources will be needed to focus around supporting those changes, making sure that they weren't hollow promises, you know, all the things that need to be done to move those issues through Queens Park.

If we end up with a government that is doubling down on some of the more aggressive things that have happened over the last years, I really do think that that will require an even deeper pivot to the local level and a focus on long-term organizing. And really trying to do what is possible to secure outcomes, which are within the decision-making authority of municipalities, for example. Those who are within the authority to influence or decide on the federal government. And also for ones that are within the decision-making ability of the provincial government, if they're deeply regressive at a local level, just make it so politically unpalatable, even outside of an election cycle, that you can stop them from happening. And, you know, we have done that sometimes as well.

Obviously, the preferred position would be to be in a place where, the parties all make commitments to do meaningful things, to address some of these problems that we face in the province. And that we'd be working collaboratively with them to bring the public, to the decisions, to the progress, to the outcomes.

But, we'll have to wait and see the outcome of the election.

Sarah: And for these organizations having worked together for a more specific or time-specific purpose, how can they continue this relationship building and their work?

Tim Gray: Yeah, I think they will. I know that for us, in many of the groups that we have worked with, the last few years have been in some ways, a real rediscovery of, some rusty tools. If you think 20, 30 years ago when the environmental movement might've been in its kind of very nascent stages and we had very little connection with decision-makers. The environmental movement was considered very marginal in say 1970 or something. Almost all of the activity was really at that grassroots community organizing level. Because that's the only place we could work. No one would let us in the room to have a conversation with government.

Well, the last four years in Ontario have been kind of a return to that. You know, I had some very early meetings with cabinet ministers in the current government and they were very clear that we would be having very limited influence or very limited conversations with them and that they, weren't not interested in our perspectives.

So, yeah, that's a pretty clear signal that you really need to think about other ways of getting your message across. In some ways it's healthy. Whenever there's a crisis, there's opportunity. And I think we will continue, all of us to invest in that new opportunity.

Sarah: And I appreciate that even as a more established movement, that it's not that the attention paid to, or recognition continues. It does ebb and flow, according to I guess, the government of the day and what they're paying attention to. I appreciate that.

Especially, we were having a conversation with Fae Johnstone who's leading a coalition for Queer Vote Ontario. And she was speaking to the fact that she calls it sort of a baby sector in terms of 2SLGBTQ+ organizations, really coming together for this election and it's new for them. So they're really starting to build the movement, not the movement itself, but I think the movement in terms of provincial election advocacy.

So it's good too that it does, that there are more learnings that can be made and they can build on those relationships. And it's not that it's going to be perfect the first time. And they'll learn as they go.

Tim Gray: Absolutely. You know, you gotta get your feet wet before you can figure out how to swim.

Sarah: That's right. Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Tim. It was such a great conversation. Really appreciate the experiences that you've shared. The example I think of organizations and nonprofits across Ontario, I think they're eager to work together, but it's great to hear some examples of how it can be done, especially during an election period.

Thanks so much.

Tim Gray: Well, thanks for having me and best of luck to everyone who's working on this election.

Sarah: Thanks so much for joining the second episode of our special Ontario election coverage. In the coming episodes, we'll bring you more of the amazing folks working to bring issues that matter to nonprofits, to Election 2022 to make sure you know when our next conversation goes live, please subscribe to the show.

And if you enjoyed it, please feel free to rate and share with your friends, family, and network. This has been Digging In With ONN.