Hindsight is 20/20

By John Bennett

Last week we stepped in it. Rather big. We ran an appreciation promotion after a long-time supporter who operates an outdoor equipment store donated a very expensive made-in-Canada jacket. We were thrilled that we’d be able to give it away to a supporter – a way of saying thank you.

Sierra Club Canada is a not an animal rights organization; we take no position on hunting and trapping. We are a conservation organization and, for strategic reasons, we must work with a broad range of organizations. Sometimes we even work with hunters -- including Canada’s Aboriginal peoples -- in order to achieve our goal of protecting the environment.

We sent out the promotion email and immediately received a storm of protest (apparently I'm good at arousing people, but not always in a good way). The jacket contained goose feathers and a fur collar, we were angrily told. I should have put more thought into this promotion and, in hindsight, it was a very insensitive move.

Sierra Club Canada has always been very sensitive to the treatment of animals. This incident was an innocent and unfortunate oversight on my part. But there are no excuses - it was a mistake and I sincerely apologize.

The situation was fast-becoming ugly and some of the emails even contained threats. But it turns into a positive story, and I'm very glad to have met Lesley Fox as a result.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND…

The very first action I organized was a Save the Seals demonstration in Toronto back in 1976. We wanted to draw attention to the brutal commercial seal hunt. This small little demo in downtown Toronto turned out to be the foundation of my philosophical approach to environmentalism.

We chose to demonstrate in front of a Hudson Bay Company store because of their long association with the seal fur trade (even though there were no harp seal products in the store). So I was conscious of our need to have a clear message and made sure everyone on the picket line knew what to say. What I didn't anticipate, however, was the behaviour of some of our protestors.

It was a very cold day in late February and Torontonians were bundled-up as they walked past us. At one point a couple walked by in leather coats - not an uncommon sight. One of our protestors -- to my astonishment -- let loose a barrage of abuse upon them. I could not believe my ears - a man who a few months ago was soft spoken and cooperative had turned into… I don't know how to describe it.

Out of the corner of my eye I could a TV crew getting out of a truck. Were “we” going to be tonight’s news and not the commercial seal hunt? “Oh no,” I thought to myself.

I instinctively pulled our protestor away from the leather-clad couple and told him: “What are you doing? We are here to make friends not enemies!" I guess it was that moment, right then and there, that I committed myself to convincing people, and not condemning them. It was a watershed moment in my personal life and activism career.

That couple in leather was not our enemy to be despised and abused. It just might be that they never thought about the issue. Perhaps if we had approached them in a respectful manner as we expressed our concerns – they might have come around some day. After all, everyone has the capacity to change. But how many people change because you yell abuse or threats at them?

BACK TO THE FUTURE…

These memories all came back rushing back as I read through the ugly emails. An overwhelming majority of the emails made no attempt to communicate or convince us, but just heap abuse, vulgarities and threats.

In hindsight, after 40 years of campaigning to stop the commercial seal hunt, the quota for Harp seals is still huge (it’s set for 200,000 seals in 2012 alone). Stopping the commercial seal hunt -- one of the biggest, most expensive and longest running campaigns that I'm aware of -- has failed to make a dent in the seal slaughter. Could it be because the approach has been one of condemning rather convincing?

And then Lesley Fox called - she's Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals (based in Vancouver). "Did you know we have investigated the company that made the coat you’re offering and we have grave concerns about their practices and the treatment of the animals used to make these coats?" she said.

I explained Sierra Club Canada does not take a position on hunting and trapping because conservation work often entails working with allies we simply can't afford to alienate. She accepted this position as reasonable and strategic.

Then she blew me away by offering to replace the fur-clad coat with one of equal value without fur or animal parts.

The replacement jacket – an Arc’teryx Fission SL – is also made in Canada (Arc’teryx is Canadian company based in North Vancouver), and is equally high quality and technical. It’s warm, lightweight, waterproof and windproof, and also features GORE-TEX®. The jacket is available in colors cayenne, black or squid ink, and retails for $750.00 (before taxes). Arc’teryx has a great eco-policy too!.

I think Lesley was trying to convince me in the hope we could turn a negative into a positive, and I really appreciate the step she took. It is only by building our movement, and making room for multiple opinions in our big tent, that we can win our battle to protect the environment and its inhabitants.

So now we’re re-launching our promotion with a new coat and a new ally!

If you entered your name in the promotion last week, don’t worry! We have your name and you’re still eligible to win the new jacket!

If you haven’t entered your name, here’s how. There are three easy ways:

  • Make a $10 (or more) donation via our secure website;
  • Even easier – make a $10 dollar donation using your cell phone. Just text SIERRA to the number 45678. To donate $20, just do it twice; or
  • Send us a cheque or money order for $10 (or more) in the mail - our address is below.

Please note the draw will be held on December 1st at noon – so be sure to enter your name soon!

Again, I’m sincerely sorry to anyone we’ve offended. And thanks again to you, Lesley Fox. You’re a real inspiration.

Yours sincerely,

John Bennett, Executive Director
Executive.Director@sierraclub.ca
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