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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future


International Youth Ambassador,
United Nations Environment Program

The youth movement's agenda is straightforward: we want to see some change.

For us to begin to make that change, we have to have access to the structures and organizations where we see problems. And I think there are two ways that youth is beginning to win that access.

The first has to do with population. More than half the world's population is under the age of 25.

That is a tremendous power base; a tremendous number of youth pushing against the system, looking for ways that they can have a voice, ways that they can express themselves.

The other way that youth make a difference became apparent In 1989, when a series of popular revolutions swept across Eastern Europe.

In Czechoslovakia, for instance, students played a strong role in touching things off and beginning things. But, the riot police moved in and beat a lot of students. For the better part of a week, Czechoslovakia was silent. There was absolute terror. Nobody knew who was going to be next; who the riot police were coming after. Nobody knew who could speak for them. And nothing was changing.

Then, a man named Phillip Mareck gathered a few of his friends and companions and decided that something had to be done. Six or seven of them went out to the street corner where the riot police had beat the students and Philip began to talk.

And he just spoke about what he thought was wrong with the system, what should be changed.

Before long there was a crowd of about 25, but before the riot police arrived another group came and set up across the street on another corner and a few minutes later another group, a little farther down the street.

By nightfall, there were 25,000 people on that street and within a week there were 250,000 gathering everyday in the square... and the government had fallen.

The most interesting thing about that story is that Phillip Mareck – the man who touched all that off – was 15.

And for me that is the most powerful statement about what a youth can accomplish.

I think it is important to realize that not only in Eastern Europe, not only in China, not only with some of the movements under way in Africa – but everywhere – youth are beginning to seize the opportunity to act.

I think that is what is at the heart of what youth are up to today.

We don't understand the things we are doing all the time. We are scared and we are confused and we don't always know where we are going, but we are going to try anyway.

I think that is a sign that youth today are ready and able to take part in the decision-making process and, in fact, I think that they need to take part in the decision making process, but the message that they are getting is that they can't be part of the process.

My own work with environment exposes me to that a lot. The thing I hear most often is that youth have to work hard, you will inherit the earth. I think that is bullshit, I think we live here now, this is our planet now, we are not going to inherit it, it belongs to us today.

I think it would be a wonderful thing if the Baby Boomers could be the first generation in history to begin to share the ability to make decisions with younger people. Because, I have some news for you – you don't have a choice.

Just as Aaron made a comment during his presentation about no teen alive has ever committed suicide. I think there is a similar analogy in that no society in the history of the planet has been able to avoid handing over power to its children.

There has been some suggestion this weekend that this exchange is already under way. Perhaps it is to a certain extent, but I think what change has come so far is largely superficial.

It was suggested, for example, that the political parties by giving youth a voice in their national conventions are opening themselves up to youth. But, until the parties open up the decision-making process, until the youth have their own voice in caucus, in Parliament, and yes, even in Cabinet, we have no real voice at all.

There are many people who claim to speak for us, but I think that we are quite capable of speaking for ourselves.

I think that is an important message for Couchiching to carry forward, as it begins its planning for future years.

I have talked a fair bit about activism.

Where I direct most of my activist energies is into the twin concerns of environment and development. And I want to address a number of misperceptions of environment that have been presented this weekend.

First off I would like to say that environment is not about lions and tigers and bears...and it is not about catching unusual fish in the River Thames.

Environment is about survival. It is about life and death. It is about making sure that future generations can even exist.

At a meeting in Norway last year, the scientific community gave us 10 years to turn things around. Ten years before the environmental destruction that we are causing begins to have huge impacts on our population.

Baby Boomers faced nuclear annihilation.

Today, the enemy by way of our destructive lifestyle, by way of our unsustainable way of living, is not some remote killing machine. Our enemies are our elected leaders, our employers, our parents, ourselves.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly had Pogo put it best, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Solutions to questions like these are not easy. And the big problem is where do we look?

A good place to start for us in Canada is with our Native Communities. They have for thousands of years espoused a system of values and ethics far different from ours and

in our search for solutions I think that we should turn to them first and begin to co-operate to bring ourselves all into a new era of thinking.

But to implement any change in structure or in values, we have to look to youth. The willingness to change, the fact that we are not staked to the system, not co-opted by it makes us the last best hope for change.

That is the challenge for our generation and it is also the challenge of the older generation, because we can't do it alone. It will require co- operation between generations that has never been seen before.

But, it is probably the most important thing that we will ever do.