Councillor Cado: CANOE Lessons

Part 6 in the Councillor Cado series

CHERYL LYON – On “Councillor Cado Part 5: The Night of The Banner,” we left the Watershed Peterborough Councillors on the verge of a vote for an urban farm or a housing development on a vacant piece of land. Emotions were running high. C.A.N.O.E. – the Council Action Now Or Else youth delegation made a poignant, silent reminder of the prevailing climate emergency. Then suddenly, the lights had gone out in the chamber. It was evacuated. Outside, a large banner hung on the face of City Hall.

Two weeks after the unsettling incident of the night of the banner unfurled from the roof, Councillor Cado was on his way to City Hall

The heat wave was unrelenting: morning temperature was only three degrees “cooler” than yesterday’s high of 44⁰C. He descended from the bus and began walking into City Hall to the beat of a popular song he had always liked. It had been adapted and performed by a kid about the same age as him when he attended his very first climate action, a 2023 rally in Confederation Park:

“We got each other’s backs, backs, backs and we’re ready to go, whoa
Come and join us and we can wonder
At the earth’s laws that we live under
Who are we? We’re the kids who have what it takes.”

Adapted by Norah and Ziysah von Bieberstein from the original song lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda as written about in “A Young Activist Dreams

But his steps slowed as two words from the event at the last Council meeting crept back into his brain: ‘or else.’ That banner dropped from the roof of City Hall: “Council Action Now Or Else.” Or else what? Was this a threat? Was something violent in the making? The worsening climate crisis was ratcheting up tensions, violence and conflicts everywhere.

A few years back, he himself had participated in a nasty demonstration at a fossil fuel company HQ in Alberta as that industry aggressively resisted the global phase out of fossil fuels. There, he had relived the trauma of his own father’s death back in Nigeria for a similar action. Mercifully, at the Alberta demo there had been no deaths.

But Cado was also seeing climate reality sinking in across Canada since the 2020’s stark warnings about the small, ten-year window for truly meaningful action. Maybe actually reaching one of the first “tipping points” – the melting of significant glaciers – had sobered people up. Prince Edward Island’s diminishing size due to sea level rise even had its government seeking union with Nova Scotia.

Arriving at City Hall, Cado needed time to think. His office would be a busy distraction. So he ducked into the big, empty Council Chamber for peace and quiet. As he sat, he was drawn to the small wooden plaques carved by local Anishinaabe artists on the inner surface of the circular Council table. From their honoured place, both Councillor and public could see them. Their representations of water, trees, animals and First Nation culture in the local watershed were constant reminders of both respect for the land and the Treaties in all decision-making, and of humans’ utter dependence on Nature.

The plaque with a single canoe drew his attention. Was the C.A.N.O.E. banner that night trying to say that the climate crisis had put everyone in the same canoe so we had to paddle together? The “or else” began to take on a new light. But why the power outage? That could have ended very badly, he mused half aloud.

Still wondering, Cado wandered back toward his office. As he reached to open the door, a sudden tap on his shoulder. “Uh, sir, can we…?” Cado whirled around to face a group of people about his age. A jumpiness, left over from that night of fear and threat, still clung to him. “Can we have a bit of your time please? We have something for you.” Cado kept his hand on the door knob.

Then he noticed the narrow box about half a meter long carried by one of the group.

Uh oh! Is this the “what else” at last? What’s in that box? Should I call Security? He chose instead to take a chance, to set aside fear for the moment. “Come in, sit down,” he invited, keeping a nervous eye on the box. How had it made it past the extra security laid on after the night of the banner?

“Ok, come in,” he said warily.

The group squeezed itself into his small office. Cado wanted to take the initiative and ask if they had anything to do with the banner. But he chose to wait for them to speak first while he checked that his cell phone was handy.

“We’re a group of local First Nation Trent students and grads of the Youth Leadership in Sustainability Program from the ‘20s,” one began. “We take direct action for Shkaakaamikwe – Mother Earth – and our community’s survival. And yes, that banner was ours.”

Another quickly chimed in. “We’re willing to take any consequences. But we know that any investigation will find no violence in our actions. As for the power outage, it wasn’t our doing. We don’t know how it happened.”

Cado was impressed by their openness and readiness to take responsibility.

“I have to ask why you said ‘or else’ on that banner,” he began.

“We’re here to talk about what’s next for both of us,” said another, not directly answering his question and sounding like a party to negotiations. “But first, a gift.” They handed him the box.

Every possibility went through Cado’s mind! Would the box blow up in his face? Was it a distraction and he’d be taken hostage? Politicians had faced such things as anger mounted at inadequate responses to southern Ontario’s warming twice as fast as expected in the past decade. But he chose to trust them and carefully opened the box.

Inside lay a replica-sized birchbark canoe. Suddenly, the “or else” on the banner began to sound less threatening.

“M’gwetch,” he said, “I’ve been taught that the canoe is an important symbol in Anishinaabe culture, right?”

All eyes looked at him, waiting.

“So… uh… I’m thinking this one maybe represents that we’re all in this together? I mean these big heat waves and the whole climate thing?”

A woman in the group came to his rescue. “That, for sure,” she said. “It also symbolizes connection and community. We were there that night to remind everyone of that.”

“But what does it have to do with the decision between a community urban farm and housing that night?” asked Cado.

A fellow wearing a T-shirt with the canoe symbol from the banner on it sighed and said, “Our Elders advised us to remind Council to guide the ‘canoe of community.’ There’s not only one way through a river’s rapids. You have to account for all the possible paths to any decision, and not lose sight of keeping us all together in a good way. There’s been too much division and violence. We didn’t get the chance to say this that night.”

The words reached that part of Cado that had often despaired that old divisions and ways of thinking in his community were defeating the immense work needed. The message of this group was not the usual “vote this one way or else.”

He struggled for words. “You mean, get in the canoe, keep paddling, find another way?”

No one spoke. He struggled on. “So, maybe it doesn’t have to be either a farm or housing?”

Someone quietly said “maybe both.” Someone else added “or neither.” A third voice said “look at who’s missing from your canoe.”

Cado met the eyes of each one in the group. He picked the canoe reverently from the box. “I have some work to do,” he said. “M’gwetch.”

And the results of the official investigation and report on that night at City Hall? It confirmed that the banner had been ingeniously designed to eject from a strategically-placed cylinder with a timing device. How it had gotten on the roof was “undetermined.” (Many preferred to think “undisclosed.”) The power outage had been sheer coincidence: the river’s record low water level at the generating station supplying City Hall had exposed a normally submerged cable. An inquisitive snapping turtle had shorted it out just at the same time as the banner unfurled. The significance of the Turtle was not lost on many.

Councillor Cado: CANOE Lessons © 2023 by Cheryl Lyon in The Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

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