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Beaton the brave: Activist wins national award for protecting the planet

April 17th, 2010 · No Comments

Courtesy: Sharon Weatherall

By Beth Macdonell

“All the skills I have, I use to protect mother earth,” said Danny Beaton as the early morning sun shines across our table at Future Bakery (483 Bloor St. W.).

The photographer, filmmaker, flautist, writer, and teacher has kept an office at the corner of Brunswick Avenue and Bloor Street for 20 years, and it’s obvious when we walk into the bakery that the staff know Beaton.

“I’m going to have my latte,” said Beaton to the smiling young man behind the counter.

Beaton said his office started off as a place for him keep his photo negatives and “was a good place for me to have a telephone.”

Two decades later, Beaton refers to his office as “the headquarters” of his environmental activities.

It’s stacked full, not just with negatives, but a lifetime of memories and work devoted to environmental justice. Pictures of Beaton and colleagues are pinned up on the door and walls from some of his most passionate projects.

On March 26, Beaton was awarded a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Environment and Natural Resources. As a member of the Turtle Clan Mohawk of Grand River Six Nations Territory, he was one of 14 remarkable Aboriginal Canadians to receive this special distinction, presented on Global TV from Saskachewan.

This Earth Day, Beaton said action is the most important way to protect the environment. “Sacred Mother Earth needs to be protected if we and all species are to survive,” he said.

One of Beaton’s early accomplishments was in 1991, when he successfully organized a gathering of North and South American Natives in Toronto to share their concern for the environment and the need for society to return to spiritual values. With the support of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, the Toronto Board of Education, and the United Nations Program for the Environment, Beaton and others were able to speak publically and directly to Toronto students about the environment and the need to protect it at a time when the threat of climate change was being scientifically validated, he said.

In 1992 he received the Governor General’s medal for outstanding contributions to his fellow Canadians.

Since then, Beaton hasn’t just worked locally. He’s helped successfully defend great caribou herds in Alaska, help save sacred remains in Florida, worked with the indigenous in the Amazon, and many aboriginal peoples across North America. He’s also given talks and played his flute for audiences as far the United Kingdom and Japan.

Over the past year, Beaton also worked diligently to stop the construction of a landfill site in Tiny Township, Ont., near the shores of Georgian Bay. It’s been a battle between the county, residents and activists for over 20 years and threatened contamination the Alliston Aquifer know for having some of the cleanest and purest fresh water in the world. Some say it was Beaton’s support that made all the difference. People “saw him as a leader. It was almost like he was in the background being very comforting,” said Gisela Benke, a real-estate agent and Tiny Township resident who was opposed to Site 41, on the phone from her home.

Courtesy: Sharon Weatherall

In the summer of 2008, Beaton organized a walk from the site to Queen’s Park to raise awareness. Months later, Danny was arrested at a protest outside the dump, and spent a weekend in jail. Benke said he was never aggressive and “just played his flute.”

“I believe it’s really long overdue,” she said on Beaton receiving the environmental award. “There isn’t anyone more deserving.”

Robertjohn Knapp, one of the elders that came to Toronto back in the 1990s, said he agreed that Beaton was totally deserving of the award. “What’s beautiful about Danny is there is no pretence about him. He just keeps going,” he said on the line from Claremont, California. Knapp said one of his best memories of Danny was two years ago when the two of them walked though the Chattahoochee river in Georgia, what is said to be one of the dirtiest rivers in the United States. He said Danny has an incredible energy, that despite severe heat and humidity, he was able to just “keep walking and talking,” focusing on the task. “That’s why I love him.”

But having this kind of success wasn’t always the case for Beaton. Until the 1980s, Beaton struggled with being addicted to alcohol and drugs. “I was stoned for 19 years… it’s something I’ve struggled with all my life.” Beaton said the turning point was when he “felt like dying.”

“My body couldn’t handle it anymore. I had to re-evaluate my life.”

Beaton said it was after a dream he had of an Orca whale in pain that he was able to follow a path devoted to protecting the planet. “It was a vision of pain and suffering and that’s when my life started.”

Beaton said receiving this award is going to help his work because it reinforces the work of environmentalists and helps spread his message about the environment.

“If society would focus on the positive instead of the negative, there would be more creativity and less destruction,” said Beaton. He said the most important thing now is advice he got from his wife. “We all know what’s going on. We all know the facts now. What we need now is action.”

Beaton said it’s time the Kyoto Protocol gets enforced, action is taken at the international earth summits and fossil fuels, such as the tar sands, are cut back.

But on a personal mission moving forward, Beaton said what’s next is making sure the waters of Georgian Bay are protected. “The great lakes are the largest fresh body of water in the world.”

He said he’s working with the Canadian Environmental Law Association to stop the certificate of approval on Site 41, which would prevent Simcoe council and the Ontario government from restarting construction for a landfill.

He will also continue to work out of his Annex office.

“I have stayed in the Annex because my office is in a respectable area and it is in the heart of Toronto, the people here are down to earth and I have always loved it here.”

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