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John Bennett

SCC Executive Director

On a bright summer morning in 1977, three young men quietly paddled a canoe along Lake Huron’s shore to the Bruce nuclear generating station.

Unimpeded, they wandered the grounds and opened an unlocked door into the radioactive-waste storage building. A security guard finally noticed them as one photographed the others attaching a small Greenpeace banner to the containment building.

Without calling for backup, the guard took them to the gatehouse: Public relations were called and ordered the three off the site.

The action came during public hearings on the safety and security of Ontario’s nuclear power plants: Within an hour, the event, and its message that the supposedly attack-proof plant could be easily breached, was national news.

A practical activist

Move ahead to the mid-1990s, when a group based in Belleville, Ont., conducted energy audits on 1,500 homes and a special survey of a local Canadian Tire that eliminated $30,000 in annual waste disposal costs at the store.

A decade later, effective advance briefing of reporters ensured the federal Conservative government got the negative newspaper and television reviews it deserved for what it falsely claimed was a climate change action plan.

These events, and many more like them during the past 35 years, had one constant: John Bennett was at the heart of the organization and action.

Bennett brings that wealth of experience, creativity, practicality and energy as he returns to Sierra Club Canada as executive-director. It’s a homecoming to the organization he served as atmosphere and energy campaign director, and senior policy advisor from 1998 to 2007.

The knowledge gained from those past struggles and achievements is invaluable, Bennett says, but only if it’s combined with a radically new approach to revitalize the Sierra Club and restore its role as “the country’s premier campaigning organization,” at a time when effective activism is needed more than ever.

“Often, we’ve been the group that started campaigns and got them to grow from small to big. That’s faded over the past few years and the public has missed it. We want to get back to that and show some leadership. I want Canadians to be able to look to us for every kind of campaign.”

Exploring New Media

His focus will be on using the Internet and social networking tools to communicate with Canadians and initiate and build campaigns.

Relying on the mainstream media is no longer productive, Bennett says. Interest and coverage have waned; “there’s been some drawing back.” A few accounts of scientific studies are published, but very little about what the Canadian environmental community has to say.

“We have to find a way to make the environment more of an issue in the future," he says. “I’d like the Sierra Club to be the first online campaigners. We’ll design and execute campaigns through the Internet. That’s where we’ll put our effort.”

Bennett isn’t certain what online activism will look like: “I have a vision of campaigning on the Web. I’ll sit down with young, skilled and knowledgeable people to work out how to do it.

“The point of it is involving people. A campaign will grow, change and develop depending on how people understand it.”

A starting place will be a Sierra Club Canada website that offers as much information as possible, in as many lengths and formats as possible – 60-second videos, podcasts, photos, short pieces and longer analyses, and with plenty of links -- and enables two-way communication.

The aim is to make the site, “the most informative in Canada.” It will not only provide facts on climate change and other issues but also provide tools for acting on them. It will enable people to initiate and participate in campaigns, learn from each other, collaborate and develop new skills. “We’ll make that knowledge available to all Canadians across the country.”

“It’s a whole new way to democratize the operation of the Club, and make it open for members to participate,” Bennett says. “We’ll be aggressive in our message and make it clear to the Canadian public that if they’re concerned about the environment they have to do more than tell pollsters that the government isn’t doing enough.”

Holding governments accountable

The current government, and climate change deniers, has had success by exaggerating and distorting tiny grains of truth until they amount to falsehoods. The only way to counter that is by having encyclopedic knowledge and presenting it in a way that cuts through the information clutter.

Clear, strong messages are more imperative than ever, Bennett says. While there’s much talk of “saving the planet” and “living green,” as businesses churn out supposedly “green” products, politicians of all parties are doing little about climate change – the most important issue facing Canada and the entire planet – or most other environmental problems.

The federal government, in particular, “has done exactly what environmentalists feared,” Bennett says. “They’ve found a way to fight the movement to a draw. They’re doing nothing and they’ve got the media tired of what we’re saying – that the government is doing nothing.”

Governments and industry also continue to argue, against all evidence and logic, that we can’t afford to protect the environment, Bennett says. The current financial crisis could have been a great opportunity to invest in a new economy. Instead, governments acted against change, pouring billions into wasteful spending on stimulus projects and conventional polluting industries that simply prop up an unsustainable status quo.

Environmentalists can’t depend on any of the parties, Bennett says. “Although they take turns yelling at each other, there isn’t a big difference now.”

In October, for example, the federal Liberals voted with the Conservatives to postpone a vote on a Private Member’s Bill that would require Canada to fulfill it’s Kyoto Protocol commitment to set targets for reducing greenhouse gases based what the science says is necessary. “That surprised the community,” Bennett says. “It doesn’t bode well for the environment if the party that vowed to oppose the government on every issue does it on every issue but the environment.”

Telling it like it is

The false “economy first” argument, and the need to counter it, is especially evident with Alberta’s tar sands. They’re Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and a provider of fuels that do even more environmental damage as they’re consumed. As “the linchpin issue on climate change for Canada,” they will be the focus of a crucial campaign.

“We need people to understand what’s happening,” Bennett says. A lot of money is going into the tar sands, for subsidies and tests of carbon capture and storage. “We’re supposed to accept that that’s good for Canada, when it’s not at all. Our message is that it doesn’t cost more for renewable energy; it just costs different.”

The aim of a tar sands campaign will be to weaken the markets for their oil, similar to the way forest and sealing campaigns have effectively targeted those who buy products from those industries. “Most successful campaigns target the market, not the source," Bennett says.

"The Sierra Club has a unique role," he says. "We don't do civil disobedience and you won’t hear of us doing big events, at least until we have more resources and ability to pull them off."

"What you will find is that we try to speak with a sharper edge than more conservative groups. Sometimes you have to speak out a little clearer to be heard above the background noise.”

And while other organizations tend to choose leaders based on their administrative or fund-raising skills, “we need at least one major group headed by an activist.”

Humble beginnings

Bennett was working for the University of Toronto Student Council in 1975 when he heard the late Bob Hunter, a revered Greenpeace founder, talk about that group’s anti-whaling campaign. It was just after the Greenpeace activists in a small fishing boat encountered Russian whalers off the California coast.

Hunter said the group, then based in Vancouver, could use a Toronto office. Bennett immediately volunteered, first working from the Student’s Council office, then, after 18 months, a first storefront. Along with Dan McDermott, now director of the Sierra Club’s Ontario chapter, he raised money for campaigns and hand distributed press releases received on a bulky fax machine from actions around the world.

A thought that “we should do something in Ontario,” led to the successful action at the Bruce plant and Greenpeace became the lead group in the Ontario campaign against nuclear power.

After a decade as a small-town newspaper reporter, Bennett returned to Greenpeace in 1989, and led the group’s first action on climate change – taking a van decorated as a yellow submarine to a meeting of environment ministers in Charlottetown, to make the point that without strong measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Prince Edward Island capital could be inundated by rising seas.

The following year, Bennett and Gord Perks – now a Toronto city councilor – organized Perks’ disruption of a news conference held by Ontario Premier David Peterson to kick off his campaign for re-election. The attack on the environmental record of Peterson’s Liberal government threw the Premier badly off track. Bennett and Greenpeace also worked with Pollution Probe’s network of door-to-door canvassers to spread the environmental message. The result: the NDP won the election and Peterson quit politics.

“The intention was never to defeat the Liberals but to demonstrate they weren’t doing enough for the environment,” Bennett says.

Rae’s government was a disappointment: “They were better than the Liberals, but in five years they failed to do transformational things.” The NDP even “threw away” effective energy conservation and efficiency programs.

The lesson, which still applies: It doesn’t matter which party is in power. They all must be pushed equally hard.

A community activist is born

In 1994, Bennett opted for more practical, grassroots work, heading up Belleville Green Check, which conducted energy audits and did minor renovations on homes in the small city, two hours east of Toronto. The need for a tool donation led them to Canadian Tire and the successful waste diversion program, which earned the group $1,000 worth of equipment.

The program ended when Mike Harris’ Conservative government cut its funding.

Bennett was assisting Cape Bretoners opposing a coal-fired power plant at Point Aconi in Nova Scotia when he first caught the attention Elizabeth May, then Sierra Club Canada’s executive-director. May liked his approach – among other things, he’d brought his wife and two daughters to a potluck supper meeting and assured the group he was there to hear from them, not issue orders. Several years – and, after an interview on a train ride from Toronto to Ottawa -- later, she hired him as the Club’s director of atmosphere and energy.

He managed environmental education campaigns; was the Club’s main spokesperson on air, energy, automotive and climate change issues; prepared fundraising proposals; and wrote position papers and research articles.

During this period, Bennett also headed the Climate Action Network, an association of up to 100 environmental, health, labour and faith organizations from 10 provinces and two territories. There, he was also the chief spokesperson, wrote releases and papers, and acted as liaison with government officials, ministers, MPs, their staffs and industry leaders. He did similar work with a successor organization, ClimateforChange.ca.

It was then that he was involved in preparing reporters for the federal Conservative government’s climate plan. “I figured we had to talk to the media. We had to meet the government head-on, and say what they were doing was going backward. We were very effective.”

The work “succeeded to the extent that when Stéphane Dion became Liberal leader, the party thought the climate and environment were where they should campaign. They were right; they just did it very badly.”

A spirit of collaboration

Most recently, Bennett was communications director for the Green Party of Canada, including the 2008 campaign in which the Greens, led by May, won nearly a million votes and was the only party to increase its total.

“It’s a well-rounded background, ranging from activist events to negotiating in the halls of power,” Bennett says. “My knowledge covers the spectrum of issues across the country.”

Bennett’s experience has demonstrated the importance of collaborating with other groups and including as many people as possible, and their ideas, in whatever work must be done. That was especially obvious in the creation of the Green Budget Coalition, which analyzed federal budgets in terms of their impact on environmental concerns.

“We sit down and try to work out common messages and strategies. It doesn’t always work, but we try. That’s been one of the accomplishments of my life – bringing groups together.”

He also wants the knowledge he and others have gained to be passed on to younger people, particularly those in the Sierra Youth Coalition, “to ensure there’s someone to take up the torch.”

The major change, Bennett says, is that groups must be open to feedback and suggestions from the public. “For an online campaign to work, it has to be two-way. Traditionally, it’s been one-way. “

Given the financial, media and political climate, “it’s going to be a real challenge to find a new way of thinking about this,” he says.

But he, and Sierra Club Canada, are up for it.

 


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