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In Conversation: ‘Crushing Moments’ of Wildfire, Drought Must Spur Governments to Action, Newton Says

Teika Newton is Managing Director of Climate Action Network Canada (CAN-Rac) and lives near Kenora, Ontario. In this feature interview conducted last Friday, she talks about the day-to-day realities of a climate emergency, the resilience she’s learned from other generations, and what it’s like to work on climate policy with wildfires nearby…and the winds blowing in her direction.

The Energy Mix: What’s it like working on the climate emergency when the emergency is all around you?

Teika Newton: (Looks out the window) The sky is mostly blue right now, which is really nice. Because Northwestern Ontario, like the Prairies and Western Canada, has been in a pretty severe drought for a full calendar year now. We had very little precipitation last summer and fall, went into the winter with all the lake levels quite low, and I think that was a bit of a surprise for people. We’d gone through successive seasons of flooding and big rainfalls, and it felt for about five years that that was the new normal. This year was the big wake-up call that there’s no normal anymore. There’s dramatic fluctuation. That’s the new normal.

In June, Kenora would typically get more than 200 millimetres of rain. This year, we had something like 48. So the reservoirs and lakes are quite low and the rivers and creeks are drying up. We also caught the tail end of the “heat dome”, and it hit us for about five days. We didn’t get as high as 40°C, but we were in the low to mid 30s, when typical June temperatures in Kenora are in the high teens or low 20s.

The Mix: That kind of fast change can’t be good for an ecosystem.

Newton: The forests are suffering. We can see it when we walk out the front door. It’s a big landscape of green, but heavily interspersed with red, and that’s the conifers not being able to withstand this prolonged drought and high wind. The last few weeks have settled into the July heat, but May and June were very windy, and that’s also climate-related. We’re seeing really chaotic wind patterns here at the north end of the Lake of the Woods. It’s not uncommon to have 40-kilometre-per-hour days, first out of the southwest, then shifting completely to the northeast, and that’s stressful on ecosystems. It makes it very difficult for plants to regulate their transpiration and get water, so everything is drying out.

The Mix: So you and your family are living in the middle of that.

Newton: We’re out in the forest. We have an off-grid home that we spent the last 12 years building, in a place and in a way that we thought we were setting down roots that were sustainable and would support our children and generations of our family to come. We have a woodlot, agricultural land, we’re right on a small lake, and we have all the resources we thought we needed to be safe. So we thought that whoever came after us would be able to live here comfortably and safely.

What has happened this year is that all those things that initially gave us a sense of security now feel very undermined and threatened because of wildfire risk. Relative to a lot of other properties and people in this area, we’re well off. We live in close proximity to the Ministry of Natural Resources fire base, we’re surrounded on three sides by water, so there are a lot of reasons to feel safer than many other rural people might.

But it’s still really alarming when a fire breaks out two kilometres from your house, the winds are blowing in your direction, and you might have five minutes to evacuate. The weather is so capricious that you have to be on alert all the time. And the physical experience of living through smoke all the time is exhausting. It’s hard to breathe. Your throat hurts. Your eyes itch and water. My mom is in her 60s and is otherwise in really good health, but has had to start taking an asthma inhaler. She can’t stop coughing from the smoke in her throat.

So it undermines everyone’s feeling of security. I’ve been talking with my mom a lot lately about the role of parenting through a crisis. When you’re a parent, you feel a responsibility to provide security and shelter to the people who depend on you. When crisis hits and parents don’t know how to navigate through it, it’s unsettling for everyone.

The children know their parents are struggling and don’t have the answer, either, so it feels like there’s no security in their world. We’ve had thick smoke in the past week, and it scared them. It scared all of us. There’s just a lot of extra emotional labour demanded of all of us to be caring and responsive to one another. And we’re all struggling.

I’m a middle-aged adult, but I still depend on my elders who are more experienced than I am, and they don’t have the answers, either. There’s almost no one I can turn to who can offer that security, that sense of everything is going to be okay, we’re going to get through this. The examples I keep turning to to find out how you move through times of turbulence are the real elders, like my grandmother in her 90s who lived through the Second World War. She immigrated from Germany, and she’s actually the best resource I have right now to talk about how to get through this crisis, because she knows first-hand how to make it through a war that felt like the world was ending.

The Mix: You’ve been saying that you’re finding ways to balance grief with hope.

Newton: Fundamentally, I’m scared about things burning down, but physical things do burn. You can rebuild them, or something will come after. What’s hitting me hard is the loss of wilderness and plants and animals that I’ve known and loved, places that have felt sacrosanct to me all my life, and now they’re so at risk.

I feel grief for what my kids have to face and the uncertainty that lies ahead for them. I feel grief for my parents who now see the detriment that came from everything that happened within their lifetimes, and their generation’s contributions or lack of contribution to making the world a clean, healthy place for their children and grandchildren. I see how much that hurts my dad, and that’s hard—he’s near the end of his life and reflecting on his legacy, and his legacy is fire and smoke. That’s so painful. That’s the emotion of this weird summer.

But there’s actually this really peculiar, hopeful upside of it, too. Yesterday was the first day in weeks that the smoke lifted enough that we could be outside during the day. It was as smoggy as a bad air day in the city, but you can function in that. And my dad said, as bad as all of this is, this may be the wake-up call that everybody needs to realize that the impacts aren’t somewhere else or in some other time. It’s right here, right now, and we’re all going to suffer unless we rally together, recognize our common interest, and work together. Maybe what comes after this year is an unprecedented coming together from what was formerly divergence. Maybe we let go of all of that. That feels like a ray of something hopeful.

The Mix: You work for an organization the focuses much of its work on the slow, plodding, process-driven, absolutely necessary work of implementing the Paris climate agreement. Then you see the impacts of the climate crisis moving so much faster in real time. How do you handle that collision?

Newton: There are definitely days when it’s so frustrating to see what I see and know that the pace of change is so wholly inadequate for the moment. But I fundamentally believe there is far more good in the world than evil. I believe so strongly in the power of creative ingenuity and of goodness to prevail. Even the biggest monster or the mightiest foe is never an impediment to the survival of love and kindness.

My work is about building relationships and trust and being authentic with people. So it’s the long game. We are running out of time to play the long game, but it does seem to be accelerating in pace. It’s that this summer, when the crisis is acutely on my doorstep, I don’t feel that we have very much time left for the long game, and it’s hard to maintain that perspective of equanimity that I generally try to hold.

So I’ve had to figure out some new coping mechanisms and skills and learn them really fast on the fly. When you have children depending on you and elders who are equally in a quandary, it feels pretty intense. But it’s better today. Being able to breathe helps. Actually being able to breathe and not feel like your lungs are being seared or scarred or damaged is really quite helpful.

The Mix: What do Canada’s national leaders, regulators, bankers, and fossil fuel executives need to learn from your experience?

Newton: There was a night earlier this week when a fire suddenly flared up six kilometres northwest of our house. Our fire crews got it under control right away. But they happened to douse it at just the same time that an air current inversion happened, so the whole plume of smoke descended in a crashing wave on Kenora and surrounding areas. I was on my doorstep, 11 kilometres out of town, and within seconds it went from relatively clear to choking, thick smoke like you were in the middle of a campfire. It smelled so heavily, not just of smoke, but of fire—you become a connoisseur of the smell of smoke, and this time the smell was really close.

The whole town was covered in ash, and everybody got scared. My kids were crying. I was completely unable to console my daughter, because there was nothing I could say that didn’t come across as either pandering or just trying to placate her with false sincerity.

So it’s really a struggle. She’s 16, and she’s well aware that this is our climate and that there’s a drought. She knows what’s going on and I can’t tell her it’ll be fine next year. Maybe it will. Maybe this is the beginning of a change that will escalate through the rest of her life, or maybe not. But I have no way of knowing that, and I can’t in good faith tell her that everything will be fine, not to worry, but I have to. I have to find a way to do that.

This is what our nation’s leaders need to see. They need to see this family having this crisis right now and understand that we have elected them to lead us through this and out of this. They have a huge burden of responsibility. And I said to my daughter, wouldn’t you love it if you could just call the Prime Minister right now and have him see it and feel it?

But like my dad said yesterday, this isn’t just happening to us. It’s every family in our community, every family in Northwestern Ontario, every family in Central B.C. It’s happening all across the country this year, and you can’t have that many people experiencing these crushing moments in their souls without that translating into something good.

The Mix: How do we bring the moment of crisis home and translate that crushing experience into momentum for faster carbon cuts and better climate adaptation?

Newton: That’s been on my mind for most of this year. A lot of this is about rebuilding our local roots and doing the work of restoring public space and participatory, democratic processes. The rise of social media over the last decade has really curtailed our ability to have good, civil, respectful, productive public discourse, and that’s what we need if we want to galvanize all the emotion people are carrying in this time and harness it into something productive. We need structures that support bringing people together. Learning together. Sharing space together. Listening. Just being quiet together. Experiencing life together. 

That’s the solution. People need to feel nurtured and held. CAN-Rac is trying to do that for the whole country by creating those spaces of trust where people can come together, feel heard, and listen and learn together. Our neighbourhoods and communities need the same thing.

Follow-up: @NewtonTeika, @CANRacCanada