09/14/2015 05:16 EDT | Updated 09/14/2016 05:12 EDT

Why Water Is an Election Issue

Water Surface with baubles in motion. High speed shutter.
Water Surface with baubles in motion. High speed shutter.

It may be an obvious understatement that it is easier to get kicked out of a Harper campaign event than it is to get in. Recently, I did both.

Last week I attended the Conservative's invitation-only, high-security Harper campaign event in North Bay, Ont., and walked up and stood shoulder to shoulder with Stephen Harper while wearing a shirt that read, "Water Not Harper." My hand-lettered shirt was to bring attention to how there is more security at one Harper campaign event than there is protection for all of the lakes and rivers across the country. Specifically I talked to media afterwards about how the proposed Energy East Pipeline runs right through the sole drinking water source here. Just as security can be breeched, pipelines will leak.

This was my first time at a Harper campaign event. I was surprised by the level of security (they even searched the media with a sniffer dog), and I was confused when they played Bob Marley just before Stephen Harper emerged. The local candidate's speech strived towards personal rather than world leader status by introducing Harper as "my friend and yours."

National media were allowed four questions and a fifth question was saved for local media. Most questions were easy, a reporter asked Harper what he thought of the other parties' fiscal position. My faith in journalism cringed. As if the election was lacking in opportunity for jabs.

But then the media switched tone and asked about the refugee crisis in Syria.

"Military action," replied Harper. Specifically, Canada's current bombing campaign.

Answering how you are going to help humans fleeing a war-torn region by saying you're going to drop more bombs on the country they are fleeing is an awkward answer. So national media used their next question to repeat the previous one: yeah, but what is Canada doing to help the refugees?

All along, I had been trying to fit in with the pre-screened crowd so that I wouldn't look suspicious and be kicked out before I could deliver my message. I had learned to smile amiably when Harper made attempts at being playful. I had learned to clap with the utmost earnestness, even when the principle perplexed me. When the party faithful cheered, I clapped. Luckily, the overheated warehouse and the over-the-hill crowd made for a low-key level of enthusiasm, easy to keep up with. But even though the claps were quiet, it made me wither in misery to feign enthusiasm when Harper said he's going to help refugees by bombing their country more.

By my math, more war means more refugees. Canada has been dropping bombs on people in Syria since April, breaking international law.

With my head swimming in remorse for clapping at this, I thought back to an article I read recently, titled "Climate Change Helped Spark Syrian War, Study Says." Prior to the devastating civil war, extreme drought made farmers abandon their farms and head to cities. The internal displacement of two million people contributed to social unrest that helped trigger what we are seeing now. Climatologist researchers determined that natural variability alone was unlikely to account for the severe drought, and that it was worsened by climate change.

The availability and use of fresh water was at the root to this conflict. I thought about my still-concealed shirt, "Water Not Harper." I thought about the huge threat to drinking water the proposed Energy East pipeline would bring. It would be the biggest pipeline in North America, bigger than the hotly contested Keystone XL. Being a mega project, water isn't the only concern. Linking the soon to be revealed message on my shirt with the question posed to Harper about refugees, I thought about how the climate implications of this pipeline are massive too. Hardly responsible climate stewardship.

It was at this time that my moment for action arrived. I took off my plaid shirt, revealing a "Water Not Harper" shirt underneath and walked up and stood shoulder to shoulder with Stephen Harper. I stood rigid like cardboard so that the words on my shirt could be read. Harper stood rigid like cardboard too. For a moment we were twins.

It was also about this time that Alan Kurdi's body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. Alan and his family set out before dawn that very day. Alan's aunt in Vancouver and had been hoping to bring her family to Canada. Successfully navigating the sea of red tape must have seemed more difficult than successfully navigating the Mediterranean. Especially after another family member's refugee application had been rejected by Canada because it lacked the kind of documentation that isn't even provided to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

If I thought that the vetting process of getting a ticket into a Harper campaign event was difficult, that's nothing compared to the bureaucratic rigamarole of coming to Canada as a refugee.

Photographs of me with a shirt that read "Water Not Harper" standing shoulder to shoulder with Stephen Harper, raced through my community.

Photographs of young Alan's body laying on a beach instantly brought the issue of refugees to the forefront of Canada's election. Even Harper included this tragedy in his subsequent speeches -- albeit, again as a pretext for more military action. That sentiment needs to stop. There is only one way to immediately help refugees and it does not include bombs.

Attention needs to be paid to the cause of this mass movement of people. We need to consider all precipitating factors, including climate change. What happened in Syria is going to happen elsewhere, and it's likely to get worse as weather alters more. Climate change causes human cruelties.

Too bad there is only so much room on the human torso to write words and deliver a message. In properly protecting our drinking water from risky pipeline projects, we are also acting as good stewards of the climate and thus even ending conflict by stopping it before it starts. I hope Canada makes a committed effort to welcome refugees into Canada and together we'll make sure there is clean drinking water here for them when they arrive.


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