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Notes from Canada’s Young Activists: A Generation Stands Up for Change

by Severn Cullis-Suzuki et al., eds.

The “activist” label can serve both as an honorific – especially when applied to figures such as the late June Callwood – and as a derisive epithet directed against those who agitate for social change in street protests. In an era when the language of protest is co-opted by advertisers, governments, and even weapons-makers (e.g., the “peacekeeper” missile), the activist moniker is undergoing a fundamental shift.

Nowhere is that more clear than in this new collection from two dozen “under 40” Canadians, the genesis of which, ironically, was a federal leadership program that provides mentors from two worlds that are usually the target of activists: business and government. While one may question the use of the term “activist” for some of the wide-ranging activities catalogued here – indeed, some of them sound no different than the charitable works of the Rotary Club – there is no mistaking the infectious energy, creativity, and enthusiasm that mark this anthology, an antidote to an age marked by cynicism and perceived powerlessness.

Though a number of the book’s short pieces are written by well-known figures – such as Craig Kielburger, whose Free the Children has won international fame for its campaign against child labour, and Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who at age 12 addressed the Rio Earth Summit to great acclaim – there are also lesser-known individuals here, struggling with questions of racism and Canadian identity.

While all the contributors are unquestionably involved in good and necessary public works, the volume as a whole could have been strengthened by addressing two nagging questions: is activism only a function of youth, and do our good works ultimately serve as temporary Band-Aids that fail to address root causes? The answers, unfortunately, are only hinted at here, and then only by writers who are comfortably situated within the very system that causes the social inequities that lead to protest: a commodities trader, a manager for a major oil and gas producing company, a Liberal Party insider, and a bureaucrat for the Canadian Border Services Agency.


Reviewer: Matthew Behrens

Publisher: Greystone Books


Price: $21.95

Page Count: 226 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-55365-237-3

Released: April

Issue Date: 2007-7

Categories: Criticism & Essays