Schools are the new centres for activism

MARK NICHOLS September 17 1990


Schools are the new centres for activism

MARK NICHOLS September 17 1990



Schools are the new centres for activism

In June, 1989, a band of 18 grade-school students, accompanied by teachers and parents, gathered on the banks of the Little River, a sluggish stream that wanders along the eastern city limits of Windsor, Ont. Part of the region’s storm-sewer system, Little River over the years had become a trash dump for local residents. Despite that, the stream’s wetland habitat still supports a population of turtles, muskrats, herons and other wildlife. Wearing hip waders and armed with shovels and rakes, the children and adults began cleaning up a 100-yard stretch of the river. In just over two hours, the volunteers made a pile on the shore that included more than 100 automobile tires, two kitchen stoves,

a washing machine, a plastic children’s swimming pool, cans, bottles and rusted auto parts. Stephanie Hayne, an 11-year-old who started Grade 7 last week at Windsor’s Concord School, said that Little River should be restored to its natural state and expressed scorn for the people who polluted it. “They need an attitude change,” she said.

Because of the dramatic growth in environmental teaching that is sweeping Canadian classrooms, many of the children now in school are likely to grow up with strikingly different attitudes, about such issues as consumption and waste, than their parents. Even though government guidelines in many provinces do not prescribe courses on the environment,

education officials say that teachers across the country are increasingly instructing their students about ecological issues. Douglas Super, district principal in charge of academic studies for the Vancouver school board, for one, says that environmental topics are popular with both teachers and students. Said Super: “It’s definitely in the air. Almost every school in the Vancouver district probably has some sort of environmental project on the go during the school year.”

At Concord School, the environmental zeal of one of the school’s teachers, Ian Naisbitt, resulted in the Little River cleanup project. Since Naisbitt led members of his Grade 6 science class on the first cleanup expedition, students from the school have been back to the river four times and have now cleared rubbish from a 100-yard stretch of the two-mile river. Throughout the project, said Naisbitt, he has tried to drive home the same environmental lesson to his students. “I show the kids Little River,” he said, “and I say, ‘That’s what we’re doing to the world.’ ”

The message is not lost on the students. Said Jennifer Goulin, 13: “We are really starting to see that we have a problem with the environment. But a lot of people have the attitude that maybe we’ll do something about it tomorrow. If we think like that, nothing will ever get done.” Added Stephanie Hayne: “People have to get away from the idea that it’s OK to throw things just anywhere. They have to understand how pollution hurts everyone.” Naisbitt began encouraging environmental projects, such as setting aside a section of the school yard as a habitat for local birds, after he started teaching Grade 8 science at Concord School, in Windsor’s east end, three years ago. Then, early in 1989, he received a letter from the Ottawa-based Canadian Wildlife Federation explaining that $200 grants were available to community groups that wanted to restore damaged wildlife habitats. The father of one of Naisbitt’s students suggested that he consider Little River. Naisbitt, 41, moved to Windsor from England with his family when he was 7 and remembers catching tadpoles in the river when he was a boy. When he revisited the junk-strewn waterway last year, Naisbitt said, “it was a sad sight. It really hurt me. I thought, how could we have let this happen?”

Since Naisbitt and his students launched the cleanup project, other groups have joined in. Indeed, on April 21—on the eve of Earth Day—a total of about 200 people, including students from the University of Windsor and children, parents and teachers from five Windsor grade schools, worked at removing rubbish from the river. By June, Naisbitt said, volunteers had pulled out of the shallow river about 240 automobile tires, five washing machines, two kitchen sinks, a large kitchen freezer with double doors, and a small mountain of car parts and other abandoned objects. In June, Naisbitt and some of his students returned to the banks of Little River and spent two days planting 450 shrubs and trees, including 30 black spruce and 50 white ash, obtained from the provincial government and a local environmental group.

At schools across the country, children are engaging in a wide variety of environmental projects— from reports to cleanups—and they are becoming

increasingly knowledgeable about environmental issues. At the Cedar Street School in Beloeil, 20 km east of Montreal, Grade 4 teacher Judy Sheel noted that the school is located just five kilometres from StBasile-le-Grand, Que., where a warehouse containing a large quantity of toxic PCBs burned down in 1988. “So you can imagine these kids know about environmental disaster,” said Sheel. The Richelieu River, which has been polluted by runoff from area farms, flows past the town. “For natural science class, we study the river,” said Sheel, “because the kids want

to know why they can’t swim or fish in it.” She added, “It is important that the children do not think everything is negative, so we also write letters to politicians and company heads who are doing positive things for the environment.”

As evidence of the growing interest in the environment among young people, the Vancouver-based Environmental Youth Alliance now claims a membership of 17,000 people between the ages of 13 and 24 across the country. The alliance, which draws many of its members from high-school environment clubs, was founded last year by Jeffrey Gibbs, a native of Vancouver who took part in the 1985-1987 campaign to halt logging of the old-growth forest in the South Morseby region, a group of islands 600 km north of Vancouver. The organization serves as a link between student groups and distributes information on environmental issues. Gibbs says that environmentally conscious young people are becoming a potent force for change. “Politicians take students seriously,” says Gibbs, “because they know they’ll be voting in a few years. The power there is incredible.” Indeed, some of Ian Naisbitt’s students are already trying to use the political process. With the help of his father, 13-year-old James Henderson wrote a letter to Shelley Peterson, wife of outgoing Ontario Premier David Peterson, asking her to help prevent a piece of marshland beside Lake St. Clair from being destroyed during the development of a proposed golf course. Mrs. Peterson wrote back, saying that the provincial government was looking into the issue. Said the boy: “I think the government will do the right thing—at least I’m hoping.” Joseph Franklin, 14, was less optimistic about government policies. “Governments,” he said, “don’t usually do anything until it’s too late.”

Not all of Naisbitt’s pupils have become convinced environmentalists. When he was asked what he would do if he owned shares in a company that polluted, 13year-old Steven Chang replied that “to be honest, I wouldn’t sell my stocks. You can’t stop every industry from polluting. You can’t reuse or recycle everything, can you?” But some of Ian Naisbitt’s students say that they are afraid that the world will become a grim and inhospitable place in the future if the human race does not mend its ways. Said Joseph Franklin: “I think if we don’t save the environment, there won’t be anything left for

future generations—no place to live, no place to find food. Civilization will just cease to be.” Added Jennifer Goulin: “The previous generation didn’t know what environmental damage they were doing. Now, instead of taking a lot out of the environment, we will have to put a lot into it to save it.” But carrying out that simple prescription will likely prove far more difficult than ridding Little River of its burden of manmade litter.


Percentage favoring government effort to improve drinking water, even with higher taxes.-

British Columbia:.........42






Canadians dispose of about 23 million tires each year. Piled in dumps—or thrown in rivers— they can take 80 years to decompose. In Japan, tires must be shredded before they are dumped.


Environment Canada’s Partners Fund will pay community groups and clubs half the cost of recycling and conservation projects—up to $200,000 over three years.


The cleaning solvent perchlorethylene (commonly known as “perc”) is used in dry cleaning, although it is a suspected carcinogen that contaminates groundwater and landfill sites when dumped. Technology is available that allows dry cleaners to reclaim most of the fluid for reuse, thereby reducing their costs.