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Disturbin' Durban

On Dec. 7, 2011, James Hutt woke up at 6 a.m. in Durban, South Africa. He hid his T-shirt underneath a dress shirt and caught a shuttle with 17 other young Canadians. Hutt was attending the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

On Dec. 7, 2011, James Hutt woke up at 6 a.m. in Durban, South Africa. He hid his T-shirt underneath a dress shirt and caught a shuttle with 17 other young Canadians.
Hutt, a fifth-year King’s student who just finished his degree in International Development Studies and Spanish, was one of 18 Canadian Youth Delegation members attending the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They’re the group that’s working toward finding an international agreement against climate change.
“We were in a rush, trying to get everything together and make sure that everyone knew their roles,” said Hutt in an email from Japan, where he is representing Canada on the Ship for World Youth, an international environmental awareness program sponsored by the Japanese government. “I think we were all full of anxiety.”
Hutt and his companions were nervous because of what six of their T-shirts represented. They read “People Before Polluters” across the front and “Turn Your Back on Canada” on the back.
The six members of the Canadian Youth Delegation were preparing to deliver this message to Canadian Environmental Minister Peter Kent in response to his decision to back out of the Kyoto Accord. They would be doing so in front of representatives from around the world.
“What compels me to fight for action on climate change,” Hutt said, “is the fact that the poor suffer the worst impacts, and that millions of people are already dying (each) year while our government (continues) to expand the tar sands and block international progress.”
The group sat down in the plenary room and tried not to look suspicious, he says. It was more than three hours before their moment came.
“It was painful,” Hutt said. “Time could not have been going any slower, and almost every representative gave calm, sterile speeches. It felt like watching politicians rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
For Hutt, the long wait was tense. “I felt like at every second I was being watched.”
Then Kent stood up.
Hutt held his breath, he says. Kent delivered his opening words in both English and French, and then Hutt’s fellow delegate Sonia Grant tapped her lap. As planned, the six youths took off their dress shirts and stood up.
They turned their backs on Kent’s address.
“Time stopped,” said Hutt. “I clasped my hands together in front and felt my heart thundering. What seemed like half an hour standing there was probably 20 seconds.”
The crowd before them was restless for a few seconds before standing up and taking out their cameras. Security guards came over and asked them what they were doing and to leave, but the delegates didn’t respond.
“Matt (Chisholm, another delegate) told them that this was a peaceful action and we didn’t say a word to them,” said Hutt.
Then two things happened. Kent said, “For Canada, Kyoto is in the past,” recalls Hutt. According to Hutt, this is all Kent said while they were standing. Then members of the audience both behind them and in front of them began to turn their backs, too, and they started applauding.
“At the moment all the nervousness and worry I felt disappeared. I felt powerful,” said Hutt. “That wave of support was empowering, and when it happened I knew that we had taken power away from Kent and our government.”
The protest lasted for three or four minutes, says Hutt. The security guards came back with more support and “grabbed” the six Canadian youth. The delegates were led out a side door into a backroom where they were questioned. When they refused to answer, the guards took their accreditation.
“They kicked us out, which we knew would happen,” Hutt said. “But it was not only worth it, but necessary. We had shown the world that our leaders do not represent our interests and that Canadians want real action on climate change.”
Awareness, especially of the environment, is something that’s important to Hutt. He’s worked on both Canadian coasts for the cause. In the east, among other things, he’s worked as the Water Coordinator for the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, promoting consciousness of water quantity and contamination. Friends Uniting in Nature, which educates children about sustainability, brought him to Vancouver, where he worked as the Program Coordinator.
“Education is the only way we can go beyond the current structure of our society and create a new paradigm where we stop seeing the environment as a commodity for our exploitation,” said Hutt, adding that he knows this will take a long time.
In 2011, the Nova Scotia Environmental Network (NSEN) gave him the Youth Environmental Leader Award. He won mostly for his two-time participation in and promotion of the 25 Litre Challenge. The challenge requires one to use only 25 litres of water in 30 days.
Hutt notes that he doesn’t consider himself an environmental advocate or an environmentalist. His real interest, based in growing up with an awareness of and frustration with poverty, is social change. It wasn’t until he took International Development classes that highlighted the link between social and environmental issues that he saw a connection.
Nevertheless, the NSEN’s award was an honour for him.
“It was a really nice piece of recognition that I’m on the right track and that my actions are making a difference,” said Hutt, who will return to Canada Mar. 5. “Often, working on social change can be frustrating and feel fruitless, but it’s hard to see all the impacts you’re actually creating.”
Hutt says that the media coverage of the Turn Your Back on Canada action has also helped him feel his own impact.
“People have told us (the six members of the Canadian Youth Delegation) that we inspired them,” he said.
This awareness, he says, dispels any regret he might have had about breaking the United Nations’ rules.
“We disrupted the plenary,” said Hutt, “but Canada had been disrupting the entire (Kyoto) negotiations.”

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