Vancouver writer and musician Geoff Berner is a board member of Canada’s newest electoral political party, the BC Ecosocialists. The following is an abridged version of a presentation he made on behalf of the board at the party’s official launch, held Oct. 28 in Vancouver.
I know I’m a settler, not invited to this land by its original peoples, I know I’ve got a lot of work to do here to get right with Indigenous people and my own conscience. For me, helping to start the BC Ecosocialists is part of that work.
So here we go. I’m Geoff Berner. I’m a Jewish folk singer, writer and activist. I was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C.
I’m here as a member of the board of Canada’s newest party, the BC Ecosocialists, and I have the honour and daunting responsibility of having been asked by the others on the board to be the first to speak.
Some of you know who I am. I’ve played in bars, cafes, folk festivals and punk rock squats. I’ve played many times for people at marches, protests and picket lines, all over the world.
I haven’t been everywhere in B.C. but I’ve been more places than most people. From Ymir to Haida Gwaii to Fort St. John to Prince George to Golden to the Okanagan to the Gulf Islands to Vancouver Island. When I sing, I try to openly share my culture and my soul with people. When I do that, I find that people are moved to share things with me. And in this way, we build friendship.
Here’s what my friends tell me, everywhere I go: Things are getting worse, and nobody in power seems to want to do anything about it.
My friends in Ymir, near Nelson, showed me how the NDP-Green government is set on logging their precious watershed for only a million dollars’ worth of timber. Their NDP MLA ran for office, promising to protect their water. They are devastated by Michelle Mungall’s lies.
My friends on the Gulf Islands tell me the fishery there is nearly finished, because of poor management, fish farms and warming waters, and what licences remain mostly belong to Jimmy Pattison, the evil billionaire whom Premier John Horgan likes to bear hug.
My friends in Cawston, in the Similkameen Valley, tell me about the struggles of small farmers to stay afloat when everything is set up in favour of the big, corporate, Roundup-spraying agribusinesses. And they tell me about the routine and well-known financial, physical and sexual abuse of workers hired to pick the crops, in a province run by the NDP, a party that was once founded to give workers power. What a cruel joke that history has become.
Everywhere, my friends who are workers in resource industries shrug bitterly, as they tell me what it’s like to have to leave their families, their homes, for weeks at a time, because the man camps are the only place where they can make enough to keep their houses.
Travelling to make a living myself, I’ve anxiously choked as I rode through the endless smoke of climate catastrophe wildfires, and I’ve spoken to people who live in the woods, who told me about the terrible mismanagement of B.C.’s forests — astoundingly unwise practices of old-growth forest clearcutting, mass herbicide spraying and tightly-spaced tree farms practically designed to fall to disease or fire.
I went up and played a benefit outside Fort St. John against the Site C dam. The NDP and Greens try to gaslight the people opposing these policies, but we know the NDP and Greens promised to stop Site C and LNG. We have the video footage. How cynical and awful do you have to be to betray a promise like that, and then pretend you never said any such thing? It’s hard to imagine for ordinary people who don’t lie for a living.
My Indigenous friends tell me of the lies and the ongoing colonialism and racism they face. Their dark and sophisticated dry humour reminds me so much of Jewish humour in the face of antisemitism. They mock the obviously insincere lip service that the NDP-Green government pays to reconciliation and Indigenous rights, all the while helping industry continue to snatch and despoil more land. And this government continues to do the same to Indigenous children, snatching them into a foster care system that is bigger and just as abusive as the residential school system that these official people now make costless apologies about and cry crocodile tears over. It’s disgusting.
My friends who are frontline workers and drug users tell me of the horror of what the press calls “the opioid crisis” or “the fentanyl crisis.” We know what it really is: an artificial crisis created by the War on Drugs, which the NDP-Green government refuses to call off, consigning thousands of people to lonely deaths out of sheer political cowardice. It’s beyond enraging. It’s murder.
My friends on the front lines have to resuscitate six or seven people a night, and most can only do the job for so long because they’re traumatized from watching people die in front of them night after night. Somehow this is treated as normal. And when they feel used up and done, there is no support for them. No help.
In the cities I know lots of people working multiple jobs to pay for nasty basement apartments where the landlords don’t fix anything, and there’s nothing they can do about it because there’s nowhere for them to go. I know people who stayed for years in abusive relationships because there’s nowhere for them to go. Because this government refuses to build the public social housing people need.
And we musicians and artists are chased out of everywhere we go. Every week another music venue or arts space closes because of the neverending pressure of [former Vision Vancouver city councillor] Geoff Meggs’ condo glut. If the NDP ever intended to do good work, why on Earth would they hire Vision Vancouver’s Meggs, a chief author of our current housing and arts space crisis, to be the Premier’s chief of staff? That was a declaration of evil intent. And evil has been done to many, many people.
I have friends being chased around by cops night after night because they’re not supposed to be sleeping in their vehicles. Well where the fuck are they supposed to sleep? Fuck the police!
And I have friends in Surrey and other cities who work in Vancouver, who have to spend outrageous amounts of money on transit that should be free, to take two hours to get to work and two hours to get back. And the universally-hated Translink gives itself awards every year. Fuck Translink!
Nurses and doctors I know tell me that as Health Minister Adrian Dix relabels and rearranges inadequately funded services, what’s really actually happening is that the health care system is being made ever more centralized, with more decision-making and power being given to the management types who get paid big money to do fuck-all except attend conferences where they learn useless buzzwords.
And more and more work and responsibilities are pushed down on health care workers on the front lines, who already do the lion’s share of the real work, but now also must complete educational modules on “overcoming burnout in the workplace” that advise them to drink more water and do more yoga. But the fact is that health care workers burn out because they get tired of confronting the fact that they can’t take care of people. They can’t house them, keep them safe, nurture them, give them hope. The things they signed up to do. They can only patch people up and send them back out to suffer, needlessly. Good luck surviving on welfare rates designed to kill. Burnout.
My teenage son and his friends tell me that their clueless principals lecture them in school assemblies about the dangers of social media. How they should stay off their phones, because their phones are making them anxious. Well maybe they should actually listen to what the kids have to say about what makes them anxious. Because here’s what my son tells me: they’re anxious about having no reasonable expectations of a decent future. No job security, no housing security. They’re going to be saddled with massive unpayable debt if they go to university to try to get ahead. (At universities, by the way, everyone except the elites of administration and tenured professors are treated like disposable garbage or worse) and what’s the point of trying to get ahead on a barren wasteland of a planet? It’s not their phones that are making them anxious.
So what are we going to do for these kids? Just tell them that the Liberals would be worse, so suck it up? That the Greens were right to prop up austerity and the doubling of our carbon output? Because it could be even worse?! Is that our message to the youth?
I marched with these anxious young people against the climate catastrophe, with 200,000 in the streets of Vancouver, my hometown, and there they all were, full of hope, and also outrage and frustration. And How dare you! And no one to vote for. No one to vote for.
I watched, agog, as the same politicians that are doubling down on fossil fuels and austerity, effusively praised these kids, who were literally begging for their lives.
Is that the best we can do? Leaders like that?
Were we made to be dominated by corporate power? Were we made to step over our fellow human beings in the street? Were we made to sigh and shrug, when our friends, our relations, tell us, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month. And I don’t know how I can deal with all this debt.” When they say, “I keep having to work more, but I’m so traumatized by what’s happening at work that I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up.” Were we made to sigh and shrug when the scientists duly report AGAIN, as they have been for 40 years, that everything around us is fucking dying? People, were we humans beings made for despair?
No. We were not made for that. We refuse to accept that. As a point of human honour, we refuse this death cult that our society has become, that our political parties have become.
So we have set out to do something. We don’t know if it’s going to work, but we’re going to try.
And when a bunch of us got together to collaborate on policy, in every category, we set ourselves a question:
What if we just decided not to be assholes about everything? What if we acted like everyone, every person, really mattered? Mattered as much as Jimmy Pattison.
What if we just did the right thing for a change? Didn’t throw people, or nature, under the bus? And as for the money to pay for doing the right thing — what if we took away the wealth of obscenely rich people, like Jimmy Pattison and Chip Wilson from Lululemon and the people whose boys go to elite private schools like St. George’s? What if we took their wealth away, to pay for doing the right thing? Like we used to.
Millions of people want us to do the right thing. The people who lifted up Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, Bernie Sanders, Jean Swanson, Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn.
Ecosocialist movements are growing in other parts of the world. So we decided to build a party here. We reached out to Indigenous people. We reached out to the tenants’ rights groups. Environmental activists. The union activists. Student activists. The disability rights activists. The small farmers. The queer and trans activists. Sex workers.
We asked: What is the right thing to do, regardless of the so-called cost?
We wrote our policy collaboratively, and that’s how we’re going to fix the policy, as we move along. Yes, we’re going to screw up, but we’re going to listen to people and apologize and take responsibility for our mistakes, and we’re going to keep fixing our policies to make them always, always, answer the question: what is the morally right thing to do, if we really do value each and every person equally?
Because what we want to make is an electoral funnel.
A funnel, to take all this rage and frustration and urgency and hope and pour it into a bottle, set it on fire and huck it straight at the oh-so-complacent powers that be.
If we can earn the support of enough of the people who were out there marching, we can shake this province. And this country. And one day, we’re going to win. You watch.
So that’s what I think we’re here to do. And if you agree, I challenge you to join us, and fight for that together, by going to our website, and signing up as a member. It only costs a dollar. And then we’ll take it from there.
And then together, let’s really build a better world together. Not just pretend we are, while everything goes to shit. Let’s raise welfare to a rate people can live decently on. Let’s call off the War on Drugs. Let’s actually return land and power to Indigenous people. Let’s stop all fossil fuel projects. Let’s have a real Green New Deal, with real jobs, not just destroy the Earth and buy a few electric cars to feel better about it and call that a climate policy. Let’s give people universal dental care, child care and pharmacare. For everyone. And eliminate billionaires in this country, in the process. Those are the right things to do. And there’s no good reason not to do those things, dammit.
As I mentioned, I’m a Jew. I’m part of a leftist Jewish tradition that reaches back to the Yiddish Bund, and beyond, for centuries. Jews are taught to never bow down or kneel to any ruler. Never.
So I will leave you with the words of the great Rabbi Hillel. These words ring down with the same purpose as when they were first spoken thousands of years ago. These words I’ve been repeating to myself every day, lately, to give myself strength, I share with you. I’ve made a tune to sing them to:
If I am not for myself, then who will be / Who will be for me? / If I am only for myself what am I then? / If I am only for myself what am I then? / And if not now / If not now / If not now / Then / When?