12/09/2011 11:09 EST | Updated 02/08/2012 05:12 EST

The T-shirt That Stopped the UN: Canada's Youth Delegation Protest


"You're not listening to me!" is a familiar, self-centered whine from kids to authority figures. But just occasionally, the accusation is not a whine. It's serious, anything but self-centered and the authorities would do well to listen.

Such is the case of six young Canadians who have just been thrown out of the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa. Their anger towards their government, whom they accuse of not listening to their people, is not wild and selfish but steely and responsible. Their point is that their government's atrocious record on climate change -- promoting tar sands, for example, and dragging its feet in UN climate talks -- do not represent the democratic will of most people in Canada, but only the will of Canada's gas and oil industries. If a government listens to its polluters rather than to its people, they feel it is their duty as young citizens to challenge it.

But how can a handful of young people challenge a powerful, recalcitrant national government? They figured out a simple but striking action. They took seats in the UN plenary session where Peter Kent, the Canadian Minister of the Environment, was on the platform. When he began to speak, they stood up and peeled off their sweaters. This unexpectedly theatrical moment for a UN plenary was just the overture. Underneath, the young people were wearing plain white T-shirts with the slogan "People before polluters". Then came the third act. They turned around and showed the back of their T-shirts, which bore the slogan "Turn your back on Canada."

Laughter and a spontaneous round of applause broke out in the plenary hall -- a bigger round than the one received by the Minister, according to Cam Fenton, another young Canadian delegate. UN security guards quickly bore down on the protestors and moved them into a holding area where they took away their accreditation tags (without which no one gets to come inside the conference halls) before ejecting them outside for good. No more UN sessions for them.

Did they not mind, having come all this way to South Africa? They were unrepentant. "Today the six of us stood up and turned our backs on the Canadian government, just as the Canadian government has turned its back on us by actively negotiating on behalf of the tar sands and compromising our futures." What would they prefer the Canadian government to be doing? "Ending the fossil fuel subsidies, creating a green and just economy for Canadians, investing in job creation for young Canadians."

Sounds totally sensible. So why should such sensible young people get kicked out, never to return? Wearing a white T-shirt in a nonviolent, silent protest... What was the big deal? The UN is used to people dressed in all kinds of garb, even polar bear suits. My guess is that the protestors would not have been thrown out if they had stood still, facing the front. But turning one's back on someone -- anyone -- when they are speaking is an impolite gesture: turning your back on speakers at the UN, a place with a higher concentration of diplomats and diplomatic protocols than anywhere else on the planet, is asking for trouble.

As for keeping silence, no words may have escaped their lips, but enough escaped their clothing. And though the young people had made no noise themselves, their slogan and its mirroring action had triggered laughter and applause. A pun is a trick, and a physical pun is a 3D trick, with laughter the trickster's reward. The UN session was held up and distracted, however briefly, by what the protestors had done.

The best-known kind of trickster is the jester. He is allowed to speak truth to power -- as long as he frames his insights obliquely and amusingly ("in jest", indeed) to make his master laugh. But if the jester dares to get the court laughing openly at the master's failings, that's a very different risk he's taking. Then he could get kicked out -- as these young people were.

Canada's government, the jesters' immediate master, would naturally be embarrassed by their protest. But what about the UN, the bigger master? Since the UN's purpose is to provide a structure to enable global fairness, should it be marginalising the recalcitrant governments -- who are the ones that have been whining self-centeredly, like teenagers finding endless excuses to delay doing their fair share of family chores -- rather than the young Canadian jesters whose attitude to climate change is far more responsible?

The young Canadians say they are very inspired by the people-power of South Africa, and feel they have a duty to represent voices that are not being heard, voices not only of young Canadians like themselves with compromised futures but of those impacted worldwide, if the government's myopic love affair with the fossil fuel industry goes on.

The poet WH Auden would have saluted them. "All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie," he once wrote, with his usual spare brilliance. "... the lie of Authority/ Whose buildings grope the sky." What might he have done with a T-shirt?

NB: You can see an interview with the protestors on OneClimate. And if you haven't had a chance to follow the UN climate talks, you can check out OneClimate's much-praised blog and video-blog coverage and summaries.