For almost two decades, the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition helped give a voice to an animal that few people knew existed, and empowered young people to put forward a vision to protect the rare white Kermode or spirit bear.
Today, it can be said with confidence, that while the spirit bear is not saved, it is safe.
My belief that this remarkable bear will endure is grounded in the successes so many have worked hard to create, and the realization that this campaign is now far bigger than one person, or one organization.
The campaign to save the spirit bear is a full-fledged movement, owned not by the Youth Coalition, but by each of you and millions around the world. And having done all we can to take the issue this far, it is up to all of us, as individuals, to take on the responsibility of continuing to make sure that the spirit bear isn’t just safe, but will forever be wild and free.
For this reason, when the world gathered in Salamanca, Spain for the 10th World Wilderness Congress (WILD10), I announced with pride that the Youth Coalition served our mission and lived up to our promise of putting ourselves out of business; I announced the end of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition and the start of something much bigger. (View speech to World Wilderness Congress)
An Imperfect, Remarkable Journey
The Youth Coalition’s work helped forge what was the largest land protection measure in North American history, advanced the idea of creating British Columbia’s first wildlife sanctuary, and generated overwhelming support for alternative routes to an oil pipeline that would have threatened the spirit bear with potential oil spills. And yet these accomplishments are imperfect.
While we now strongly believe that oil tanker traffic will never pass through spirit bear waters, there will be years of debate ahead surrounding Northern Gateway and how Canada, as a nation, strikes a balance between our need for oil, and our obligation to protect the environment.
Though select sanctuaries have been established through hunting license buy-outs, there still is a need to create the legal framework that enshrines areas for hunters and areas for animals, preventing an impending and unnecessary culture war in BC.
And even with large swaths of land protected from logging and new measures in place to reduce the volume of trees cut and roads built into the unprotected third of the spirit bear’s last intact habitat, there remains lingering concerns. Without saving this watershed outright, we will be leaving no margin for error in our efforts to sustain the gene pool of this subspecies.
Yet the Youth Coalition’s campaign began with the idealistic dream of a kid who loved bears and believed this bear deserved a voice; the movement grew with the singular, but powerful idea that one person could make a difference. And after almost twenty years, the Youth Coalition achieved ninety percent of what we set out to accomplish for the spirit bear.
The unconquered ten percent of our original goal remains critical. But in a time when there is far too much inefficiency and redundancy in the non-profit sector as a whole and far too few resources to go around, we had to ask ourselves: is going forward as an organization the best decision? And what is the best decision for the bears?
What is Best for the Bears?
We could spend another twenty years fighting for that final ten percent, but the reality is that an advocacy group is no longer best positioned to bring about the change that is needed in this issue.
For starters, to save the final watershed, it comes down to economics and First Nation land claims. It’s complex politics and the best path forward remains the proposed Hollywood animated movie, long-stalled in production due to a lack of political leadership and unreasonable demands from some constituencies who want to have their cake and eat it too.
Ultimately breaking this logjam will require a clean slate and fresh faces, not the spotlight and pressure that an organization brings to negotiations.
Additionally, to create a legal sanctuary from trophy hunting, quiet diplomacy will be a must to bridge the divide between disparate parties. Increasingly in our social media age, it’s impossible to be both an honourable diplomat and an open institution.
More importantly though, the signature of a successful movement is when a cause outgrows its founding organization.
For the second time, the Youth Coalition has helped make the spirit bear one of the top policy issues in Canada, this time thanks to the pipeline debate. With more groups and people engaged in this issue than ever before, this movement no longer needs us to lead, but rather it needs the Youth Coalition – and other advocates – to move aside and allow individuals to step forward with new, bold ideas that can produce new solutions.
The Human Element
But possibly this is the most important point: the Youth Coalition, our team and me in particular have been at this for a long time.
Throughout this journey, we’ve been nothing more than volunteers, and though we’ve made our fair share of mistakes, we’ve tried to always act with integrity; to do right by the bear. And in attempting to lead by example, we’ve worked hard to push forward a new brand of environmentalism – one that unites, rather than divides; one built on pragmatic idealism, not idealistic pessimism.
We were young and naïve when we started, but as the years have past by, we’ve become aware that there is always the danger of staying too long at the fair.
New voices and new ideas – like the Youth Coalition, at one time – must come forward and challenge the blinders that inevitably grow with time. And we, as humans, must ensure we don’t slip into the embrace of ugly politics and its natural companion, bitterness. After all, negativity breeds failure and there is always the risk of doing more harm than good to a cause, no matter how passionate one is about it.
For these reasons, we know it is time to say goodbye and in ending our campaign, we hope it can be a teachable moment to demonstrate to all advocates that our goal should always be to put ourselves out of business.
The Power of One
In saying goodbye, most critically, we must also say thank you. After all, for all we have accomplished for the spirit bear, our greatest success wasn’t protected areas or awareness generated, it was our ability to show more than six million young people that they matter.
Each voice counted. And each voice amplified by the next not only made this organization grow and thrive, but helped protect a subspecies and acted as a role model to our world, proving, yet again, the power of one.
Over the last year, the Youth Coalition tried to reinforce this message to 100,000 students through our speaking tour and millions more through the newly launched CoalitionWILD – a social movement of rising leaders creating a wilder world, founded, in part, by the Youth Coalition.
As CoalitionWILD officially launches and as the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition writes our final chapter, the organization will transition our network into this new movement for a wilder world. Truly, this is the end of one journey and the start of another.
Never has there been a more urgent need to create a new vision for nature – one that is fueled by passion, built with integrity and grounded in innovation. We need a 21st Century environmental movement that is positive and forward-looking, but equally understanding of the human condition. Simply put: we need rising leaders to step forward with new ideas that can showcase through action that the environment is a family values, multi-partisan, geographically and ethnically diverse, human right issue that must unite every single person.
Each young person I have encountered through this campaign is a rising leader, with a personal passion and a brilliant idea for creating a wilder world. CoalitionWILD wants to give each of them a platform, the social network and the mentorship to make their impossible dream a reality.
The Spirit Bear Youth Coalition is far from perfect, but we hope that by weaving our network into CoalitionWILD’s network, we can create six million new ideas – in business, in politics, in education, and, yes, in advocacy – to help nature, giving each the tools and skills to succeed. Because succeed they will. After all, we began with just one person, with no remarkable intellect, skills or money, but armed simply with a passion.
A Final Note
This crazy, long, exhausting, tumultuous, inspiring and powerful journey began almost two decades ago and, today, in a movement that rarely gets to celebrate, we can say we did what we always wanted to do: put ourselves out of business because the spirit bear doesn’t need us anymore.
While there are hills to climb – for the bears, for the world – it won’t be the Youth Coalition writing this next chapter. It will be you.
After all, each of you has written a bright future for this undeniably, irreplaceable bear because of your passion, your donations, your letters, your time, your ideas, and your unwavering support.
With each act you take on for the spirit bear, for any issue that you believe in, you will be continuing to write the history of our generation. And I, for one, am proud of this generation for what we have achieved together and what we will continue to achieve as we work to create a wilder world.
As the kid who dreamed that impossible dream, thank you for sharing in my passion, for being part of this adventure and for safeguarding the future of the spirit bear.