She is quickly scribbling numbers on a pad of paper, eyes darting from train car to train car in search of the diamond shaped metal plate with the Materials Identification Code. Because what my eight year old understands is that, more than the danger in the air from the combustion of diesel, what rumbles continuously past our house inside of tanker cars are large quantities of toxic materials. And she wants to know what they are.

Inside and online, she carefully cross-references the codes from Transport Canada’s website which contains a list that is a little terrifying.  Most of her detective work turns up diesel fuel and other oil derivatives. Which brings her to the really difficult question: what now to do with this information?


It is the end of the summer in Toronto and I will admit it: I love the Canadian National Exhibition. Not because of the rides or the midway, or the deep fried sugar soaked food. It has to do with being amongst people enjoying the final days of summer, and the Ferris wheel-like return to the patterns of autumn life.

And, as an activist, I love the Whac-A-Mole game.

In case you have missed the opportunity to see this game first hand, it’s essentially a large wooden box with five holes in the top. You are handed a large poofy mallet and when the buzzer rings, furry moles begin to pop their heads up out of the holes at random. Your job is to thump them on the head so that they retreat. They continue to pop up again in different places until your time runs out.

For me, the brilliance of the game is not in playing it- I haven’t in decades- it’s that it makes such a poignant metaphor for what can go so terribly wrong with social justice activism. In attempting to deal directly with what’s above the surface- even with the best of intentions, we are left with the ongoing roots of the problem that, left untouched and not discussed, perpetually pop up again. No matter how well we deal with the visible, it is the invisible that continues to haunt us, negating our work as activists.


Which brings us back to a knock at our front door: it is a local city councillor who is again running for a seat in October’s municipal election and who would like to know what we care about. I turn the floor over to my eldest. She has been thinking about strategy.

“We can find out what’s in the tanker cars using the Ministry of Transportation’s website,” she says. This is news to the councillor, who is, to her credit, paying very close attention to my eight year old. “But if we pressure the government to stop transporting the dangerous things by train, businesses may move the stuff into tanker trucks on the highways. That’s more dangerous, because the chance of a spill is higher.”

In a picture perfect world, the solution appears and the final credits roll. But so far, no simple solution has appeared. A friend has decided to find out what the dangerous chemicals are for, and then boycotted those products. Nail polish is now off of the shopping list. My eldest has learned how to use iMovie software and is in the process of making a documentary about the issue – “Diesel: The Wrong Side of the Tracks”.

In the end, the point is not ‘what we do’ so much as ‘have we thought carefully about the consequences of what we do, the direction it takes us- or doesn’t take us’. Because as endearing as the fuzzy moles are, it is their complete absence that marks our success.



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