The Hamiltonian interviews Franke James

The Activist – Franke James

Published 02.14.12 in The Hamiltonian:

Activists and the art of activism, is an important aspect of our form of democracy. Activists and their approaches can vary widely, and can have varying outcomes. Hamilton has, and has had,  its fair share of activists and some may argue, can use more of them.

Franke James, an environmental artist and activist, brings her own brand of activism to her convictions.   She’s fought Toronto City Hall and won, for permission to un-pave her driveway and sow grass and plants instead. As if that weren’t enough, Ms. James is at the heart of a controversy around her views around Alberta’s tar sands.   In the 2006 and 2008 elections, she and her husband created a satirical “whack the PM”game online to prompt voters to “smack some sense” into federal party leaders on the environment.

Franke will be speaking in Hamilton on February 29th on the tar sands and the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. We thought it would be interesting to have Ms. James as a guest to talk about her efforts, and share some lessons learned along the way. Enjoy our chat with Franke.

The Hamiltonian Email Interview with Franke James

I. You have been the subject of controversy, in light of your message regarding the Alberta Tar Sands and your environmental advocacy. Can you tell us what it is about your message that has created such controversy and how you respond to those who are resisting your message?

This “controversy” started off very innocently. I was just doing what every Canadian believes they have a right to do – I was speaking up during a Federal Election campaign! In October 2008, I wrote a visual essay called “Dear Prime Minister” asking that the government make polluters pay (so that our children won’t have to pay to clean up the mess in the future). I asked for stronger government regulations to protect our air. I also asked why we have to choose between the economy and the environment. Because they are interconnected — you can’t have a healthy economy if the environment is unhealthy. So, if you’re scratching your head wondering how my message could be considered “controversial”, I’m with you. I was totally flabbergasted in May 2011, to hear that the Harper Government even knew who I was, let alone, objected to my illustrated stories and had blacklisted me!

Unfortunately, we have a government in power who has labeled environmentalists “radicals” and has been working to silence scientists, and anyone else who disagrees with government policies. Of course, the irony in all this is that I’m asking for stronger government regulations. But the Harper Government doesn’t want to put a price on carbon, and that puts me at odds with them. I believe that until we put a price on carbon, businesses – like the oil industry – will continue to use our sky, and our rivers and lakes — as an open sewer. That’s not fair to the people who live around those polluting industries (and are suffering from high cancer rates) – and it’s not fair to the world at large. The oil sands are Canada’s largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gases. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now at an all time high of 393ppm. The safe zone we should be in is 350ppm. But there are no signs that we’re dialing back the carbon emissions. And that spells danger for all of us, and especially for our future grandchildren. (In 2007, I wrote a letter to my future Grandkids in 2020)

When I write, I imagine I’m speaking to family, friends, and neighbours — average Canadians like you and me — who can see the writing on the wall (we’re polluting the planet), and want to know what they can do to make a difference. So, a big part of what I do are educational talks and art workshops. Many of us are concerned about the environment but feel powerless. We know that changing light bulbs isn’t enough but wonder what to do. My message is to help people realize the power they have to make a difference – starting with their own lives. I ask people two questions:

First off — “What bothers your green conscience?” (Because most people – even those who don’t consider themselves ‘green’, hear a little voice inside their heads that tells them when they’re doing something that isn’t good for the planet. Even if it’s as small as throwing a pop can in the trash when it could be put into a recycling bin.) That question helps people to gain awareness of their green conscience, and start listening to it. And once they start listening, they’ll come up with ideas themselves on action they can take. A grade 10 student in Belleville said this after taking part in my workshop, “I was about to throw away my pop bottle and then I heard a voice in my head say I needed to recycle it…”

The second question I ask is “What’s the hardest thing you could do for the planet?” (e.g. to reduce your carbon footprint). No one likes being told what to do, on the environment or any other issue. People have to look at their own lives and come up with ideas that they’re willing to tackle. My husband and I decided the hardest thing we could do in 2007, was sell our only car. I know that is not what most people would be comfortable doing — but for us, with our lifestyle, it worked beautifully. It helps us save a ton of money, we stay fit (because we walk, run and take public transit), and we feel great that we’re doing something to reduce our carbon footprint. Since that action, we’ve gone on to do other things like reducing meat in our diets, buying local organic food, and purchasing renewable green electricity. Overall we’ve discovered that challenging yourself to go green is FUN.

II. Have you been “blacklisted” by any organization/group? If so, who has blacklisted you, what form did that take, and how do you know for a fact (what proof do you have) that you have been blacklisted?

I didn’t make Harper’s “fishing buddies” list, but I did make his “blacklist” for disagreeing with government policy on climate change. I am part of a larger pattern of bullying and silencing critics. Many individuals and organizations have been attacked by the government for disagreeing with them on a range of issues including the Census, the Canadian Wheat Board, Nuclear power, and Environmental issues. Just recently my MP, Joe Oliver (Minister of Natural Resources) published an open letter labeling environmentalists as “radicals”. An access-to-information request by Climate Action Network to the Department of Foreign Affairs revealed that the media, environmental and aboriginal groups are listed as “adversaries” by the Federal Government in a public relations plan called the “Pan-European Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy.”

In my case, the Harper Government interfered behind-the-scenes, ultimately causing the cancellation of my 20-city solo European art show which was to inspire youth to take action on climate change. Let me give you three documented examples of their interference:

  1. The producer of my art exhibition (Sandra Antonovic, Director of Nektarina Non Profit) was warned by the cultural officer of the Canadian Embassy in Croatia, not to show my art because the artist, Franke James, “speaks against the Canadian Government”. This news was published in the Toronto Star, and on Nektarina’s website.
  2. Access-to-information documents (ATIP) obtained by me on October 31/11, show that Jeremy Wallace, the Deputy Director of Climate Change at DFAIT, stepped in to cancel all financial and even no-cost moral support for my show. This cancellation was after the cultural officer at the Canadian Embassy was already notified that $5,000 in funds for the project was approved. Surprisingly, government spokespeople denied in the media that funding was ever approved or withdrawn. The ATIP documents prove that this is not true.
  3. Access-to-information documents obtained by me on December 13/11, show that Scott Heatherington, the Canadian Ambassador of the Baltic States, interfered behind the scenes to dissuade people from supporting my show. Ambassador Heatherington shared with his Canadian Embassy colleagues that my essay on the tar sands was the reason that he could not support my art show. PEN Canada and the Writers’ Union of Canada published a press release in late November expressing their concern over the Government interference. “The government of Canada has no right to determine what is an acceptable opinion for an individual citizen, on climate change or any matter of public interest,” said Charlie Foran, President of PEN Canada, “To do so is clearly not in the spirit of the Charter and the long history of freedom of expression in Canada.” Greg Hollingshead, Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada said, “The right to freedom of expression includes freedom from official disapproval, including the sort of bureaucratic interference encountered by Franke James.”

III. You will be speaking in Hamilton on February 29th on the tar sands and the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. For Hamilton and for Hamiltonians who may miss the function for whatever reason, what message do you want to send them?

Most Canadians expect the Government to vigorously protect Canada’s natural resources and the health of all Canadians. But when we believe that government policies are not working hard enough to protect all Canadians, and our valuable resources, we need to speak up (the tar sands and the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline are a case in point).

Each of us has the power to make Canada better. Here are seven ways:

  1. Vote for MPs who represent your values
  2. Speak up: Write to your MP and tell them what you want
  3. Make your views public on the web and in social media
  4. Publish your views by writing to newspapers
  5. Share with family, friends and neighbors the vision you have for Canada.
  6. Creatively collaborate: Meet with others to exchange ideas and learn. Strategize how to broadcast your message to all Canadians.
  7. Aim to change laws (not break them).

IV. You’ve obviously adopted a cause, or several causes, and have mobilized yourself to be heard and to draw attention to your convictions. What advice might you have for the average person, who may want to make a difference on a particular issue, but has never moved from an intent to do so, to taking action. In other words, what advice might you have to someone who would like to become an activist? Any Do’s Don’ts?

To be an effective activist, the most important thing to do is to look in the mirror first. Ask yourself what you can change in your own life. By doing that you will create a ripple effect. Friends and family will take note. And they may feel competitive and want to outdo you. Yeah! That’s great – already you’re having an impact. You’re inspiring others.

V. What lessons have you learned through your efforts?

Sometimes life’s biggest challenges are our biggest opportunities in disguise. When I look back on major events in my life, I have always benefited by speaking up and not being satisfied to let things ‘slide’. It is not for the faint of heart. It does take careful thought, courage and perseverance, but the rewards in terms of feeling that you can make a difference and help make the world a better place, are well worth it. (And besides it’s fun.)

VI. Is there anything else you would like Hamiltonians to know about your work?

They can read my book “Bothered By My Green Conscience” and see the fun I’ve had in going greener. I’d like to hear from any Hamiltonians who take up my challenge, “What’s the hardest thing you could do for the planet?” Look at your lifestyle and pick one thing that you could do that would significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Then let me know what you’ve done and how it’s impacted your life, your view of yourself and your relationships with others.

VII. Are there any links on the internet, where people can go to find out more about you and your work?

Banned on the Hill 
Read it as a visual essay or watch it as a video. My visual essay gives an overview of what happened, and how I have fought back by mounting a crowd-funded protest art show on paid ad media (like bus shelters) in Ottawa. One of the key messages in the show was, “Dear Prime Minister, Please stop blacklisting our environmental messengers.”

Blacklisting index  which includes articles, videos and links to the ATIP docs.

Thanks Franke for engaging with Hamiltonians on The Hamiltonian

Interview published February 14, 2012: The Hamiltonian


12 Responses: 2 Comments and 10 Tweets

  • Lexy Cameron says:

    This is a great interview. Very comprehensive. I sometimes wonder just how much money the Harper govt spends on tracking and monitoring individuals and organizations around the country – simply because they love their country and the planet! Personally, I think it is an abuse of taxpayer’s money.

    And for what it is worth, the PMO’s office doesn’t even reflect the recommendations of civil servants. e.g. When the internal document indicating that “media, environmental and aboriginal groups are listed as “adversaries” ” by the govt, I noted that the Northern Development and Aboriginal Affairs Dept (formerly Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) submitted their opinion to the Northern Gateway hearings, cautioning the Hearing, saying that more input was required by First Nations groups. To me, that sounds like the civil servants had the best interests of First Nations whereas the PMO considers them adversaries. Well, I guess in his little world, one would see everyone else as an adversary!

  • Sian Loyd says:

    Yes i agree, great interview and i especially liked the section on To be an effective activist, the most important thing to do is to look in the mirror first. Excellent advice and i think if things are to change it will take a great deal more than just Greenpeace style antics.
    The only way the world will ever change is if we all do a little, and then it has a knock on effect
    One of the most amazing achievements i think we have witnessed in the last few years is the huge decline in smoking due to public smoking being banned in most countries, This of course still confuses me somewhat into how it took so long to implement yet had such a massive effect and so quickly.

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