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A change in the air 

After years of fighting to be heard, local environmental groups are getting more money, members and respect. Mike Fleury sees how they’re coping with the attention.

When Emily McMillan started the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada back in 2000, she didn’t have an office on Barrington Street, she was the only full-time staff member and she didn’t have any volunteers. Basically, she had herself.

“Back then, it was just me,” she says. “I think we’ve really become an important voice in the region. We are really the only regional environmental group that works in all four provinces”—she pauses—“but at first, here, yeah. Just me.”

McMillan is preparing to leave her post with the Sierra Club after seven years of service. Her departure will open the door for a new Atlantic director—the deadline for applications is April 23—while she, ultimately, plans to pursue a PhD.

“It’s just a good time for someone new to come in with some fresh energy and continue building.”

If the last seven years are any indication, building shouldn’t be too difficult for McMillan’s successor. The Atlantic Chapter now has two offices, three full-time staffers and “lots of volunteers,” according to McMillan. There are also satellite groups, which have sprung up all over the Atlantic provinces. McMillan says that over the past few years, there has been a shift in public consciousness when it comes to environmental issues, and groups like the Sierra Club are feeling the change.

“Ten years ago, it would have been us just trying to get to listen. Now they are listening. The focus is now on getting them to take action,” she says. “Our role now is shifting to providing some solutions to some of the things that the government should do.”

Joanne Cook has also felt that change. She works at the Ecology Action Centre as the Standing Tall Forestry Campaign Co-ordinator. Cook is also one of the longest serving members with the EAC—she first became involved in the mid-1980s.

Her role at the Ecology Action Centre only recently turned into a full-time gig: Until June 2005, she worked in the private sector for an environmental and fisheries consulting firm and after working for 15 years in her former job, Cook describes her professional return to a non-profit as “coming home.”

“It wasn’t always possible,” she says. “Certainly, my current position didn’t always exist. In general, salary levels are still lower, but it’s a trade-off—you get the luxury of doing work that you absolutely believe in.”

The rapid growth of the EAC, especially over the past few years, is striking. Membership has more than doubled in the last three years, and EAC project funding has grown from roughly $300,000 per year in 2001/02 to more than $1,000,000 in 2006/07. Last year, the group worked on 35 different projects with funding from more than 40 different sources.

“What I’ve noticed even in the last two years,” says Cook, “is that we’re being taken very seriously. I don’t think back in 1988 you’d get a deputy minister or minister returning a phone call within six hours, and that’s the kind of thing that’s happening now. Back in the ’80s, there was another feeling, a kind of, ‘I wish these tree huggers would just sort of dry up and go away.’”

After years of fighting just to be heard, Cook is excited—not intimidated—that the EAC is moving towards wielding greater influence.

“I don’t anticipate any growing pains. I see it as just a tremendously exciting opportunity,” she says. “We’ve got a tremendous mass of people who care, and care enough to join a non profit…I think it’s a really joyful time. A scary time, too—we’re dealing with huge issues—but right now, we’ve got huge growth and energy and interest.”

When asked, Emily McMillan identifies one of Nova Scotia’s most troubling single issues: getting away from coal as a major energy source. But she’s hoping the next Chapter director maintains a broad focus: pushing for greater energy efficiency, improvements to the public transportation system, involving citizens in active transportation, working in schools…and more.

“It’s exciting,” she reflects. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel a bit now. There’s hope and there’s movement. It’s a great time for people to get started."



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