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Mantle of late Elmira activist taken up by a new generation

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. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

A pair of novels set in the post-apocalyptic near-future in which most of humanity has been killed off hardly sounds uplifting, but the late Michael Purves-Smith 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 Purves-Smith 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.”

Michael Purves-Smith [File photo]
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 government, 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 zero-carbon, 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.”

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