Teen, in­spired by men­tor­ship of Michael Purves-Smith, takes up lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist’s work

The Woolwich Observer - - FRONT PAGE - FAISAL ALI

A PAIR OF NOV­ELS set in the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic near­future in which most of hu­man­ity has been killed off hardly sounds up­lift­ing, but the late Michael PurvesSmith had a hope­ful out­look in mind while pen­ning Rocky Moun­tain Lo­cust.

It was with a sense of op­ti­mism that he turned much of his time to press­ing is­sues such as the en­vi­ron­ment, which in turn served to in­spire oth­ers to do the same. When PurvesSmith suc­cumbed ear­lier this year to a sud­den bout of can­cer, there was a twinge of life im­i­tat­ing art in his pass­ing. Just as the char­ac­ter in his novel sought to cre­ate a bet­ter world for pos­ter­ity in the face of so much death, Purves-Smith too, in death, has un­doubt­edly passed along such a legacy.

“He leaves big foot­steps be­hind,” says young Kitch­ener res­i­dent, Niara van Gaalen, of her friend and men­tor. “Big foot­prints. He was an amaz­ing per­son as an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and as a mu­si­cian, and I’m both of those things as well.”

The void Purves-Smith left in his pass­ing is some­thing that van Gaalen is help­ing to fill. At just 17 years of age, van Gaalen could cer­tainly be de­scribed as an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist. Just this month, she suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned the Cana­dian fed­eral gov- ern­ment, calling for more ur­gent ac­tion on cli­mate change.

It’s a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­tak­ing for one so young, and van Gaalen cred­its Purves-Smith for help­ing spark that drive and pas­sion in her.

To get a pe­ti­tion into par­lia­ment, it re­quires the spon­sor­ship of an MP, as well as a min­i­mum of 500 sig­na­tures within 120 days, cri­te­ria van Gaalen was able to so­licit. From there the MP that spon­sored it, Raj Saini, will be able to ta­ble the pe­ti­tion, af­ter which the gov­ern­ment has 45 days to pro­vide a re­sponse.

“The pe­ti­tion asks the gov­ern­ment to cre­ate a new fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity. It’s sim­i­lar in con­cept to a war bond in that it al­lows the gen­eral pub­lic to in­vest money in a cri­sis for a crit­i­cal cause,” ex­plains van Gaalen.

“The money would go to two im­por­tant goals: pro­tect­ing 90 per cent of Canada’s land and aquatic area as a per­ma­nent nat­u­ral re­serve and a move to ze­ro­car­bon, hope­fully by 2024. That’s the goal.”

It’s an am­bi­tious tar­get at that, but van Gaalen be­lieves Canada is po­si­tioned uniquely, in both tem­per­a­ment and abil­ity, to tackle it. For one, while pro­tect­ing 90 per cent of Canada’s geography from ex­ploita­tion and de­struc­tion may seem a mas­sive con­straint, most of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion is al­ready re­signed to a very small por­tion of the coun­try. Ninety per cent of Cana­di­ans, for in­stance, live within 200 kilo­me­tres of the U.S. bor­der.

“The idea is not to pre­vent peo­ple from go­ing on that land, it would just pro­tect it so that wildlife would be safe on that land,” says van Gaalen.

“The land should be main­tained and re­stored

ob­vi­ously, like a gi­ant na­tional park but this would sim­ply ex­pand on our na­tional park sys­tem as we al­ready have it. And it should be ex­ten­sively re­searched so that we un­der­stand the na­ture of this land and wildlife sys­tems that com­prise it.”

Mov­ing to net-zero car­bon emis­sions in just six years, mean­while, is an­other ex­tra­or­di­nary ask, van Gaalen ad­mits.

“How­ever, if we want to stop cat­a­strophic global warm­ing, we re­ally need to move to re­new­able sources of en­ergy as soon as pos­si­ble. And re­ally this hasn’t been done as proac­tively as it should have been and so now is the time to act quite dras­ti­cally in my opin­ion be­cause there’s no other way we’re go­ing to pre­vent the cat­a­strophic con­se­quences of cli­mate change.”

It’s not just a mat­ter of ask­ing, ‘can we do it?’ Rather, more and more, the im­por­tant ques­tion be­comes ‘how can it be done?’

“[Michael] was more pes­simistic than I,” says van Gaalen. “But he did have hope. He did be­lieve. He did be­lieve it was pos­si­ble for us to com­bat cli­mate change.”

Van Gaalen re­calls the lengthy dis­cus­sions and ar­gu­ments they would have: about the en­vi­ron­ment, about art; about any num­ber of top­ics. Purves-Smith was also some­thing of a sec­ond mu­sic teacher to her. Van Gaalen started tak­ing lessons from his wife, Shan­non, when she was about 8; and Purves-Smith, him­self a univer­sity mu­sic in­struc­tor, was often called out of his study to pro­vide the ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

“As a lot of peo­ple said at his fu­neral, I wasn’t the only per­son he men­tored. For so many peo­ple, stu­dents – and not just mu­sic stu­dents – but for a lot of peo­ple he showed them that if they re­ally wanted to do some­thing, it was pos­si­ble,” re­calls van Gaalen.

“He was there for so many peo­ple and I think that his legacy of sup­port­ing peo­ple and their pro­jects, and help­ing with their creative ideas and try­ing to make the world a greater, more beau­ti­ful place. I think that is his great­est legacy.”


Kitch­ener teen Niara van Gaalen, tak­ing up the en­vi­ron­men­tal work of the late Michael Purves-Smith, man­aged to get a pe­ti­tion calling for ur­gent ac­tion on cli­mate change onto the radar of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.


Michael Purves-Smith

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