My story and next chapter

My story and next chapter

Monday is my first day as a Director Emeritus at Iron & Earth!

In this role, I will stay informed about the developments at Iron & Earth and provide occasional advice when it is helpful. In addition, I will aim to support the continued growth of the organization and broader movement over the long term while moving into a new chapter of my life and career.

Leading the founding of Iron & Earth has genuinely been my life’s work. Since launching publicly in 2016 it’s been a non-stop adventure with many ecstatic highs and a couple of low points that took me close to my breaking point. I’m grateful that I survived the journey and the learning curves that came with it. I am thrilled that the organization is now out of startup mode which allows me to now take a step back and let new leadership take Iron & Earth to the next level. 

Today is a monumental day for me, and for this reason I’d like to share a bit more of my personal story along with some of the additional background that led to the founding of Iron & Earth. I will also explain why I’ve decided to move on from Iron & Earth and what I hope to do next. 

My early formative years 

Starting at the very beginning… I grew up on a 10-acre farm on Vancouver Island. We didn’t have cable TV, so I spent most of my days playing in the woods and with the animals on the farm. This upbringing taught me how to work with my hands and helped me to develop a connection with nature at an early age. 

Then, when I was 13, my parents made a courageous decision to sell our home and move our family to Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific, for seven months. My dad was a volunteer doctor on the island of Tanna during this period, while my sister and I homeschooled. In our first few days there, I was welcomed into a crew of about a dozen local kids my age, and we had many adventures over the next seven months. The island was primarily self-sufficient, and my friends and I spent almost every day together spearfishing, hunting wild boars and foraging wild fruits in the jungle. I spent many days and nights in my friends’ traditional village, playing soccer underneath the banyan trees, and, at night, listening to the elders’ stories before heading off to sleepover with my friends in their grass huts. 

On our final day in Vanuatu, I was given a traditional name, “Noukout,” which means “great warrior and leader.” This name was gifted to me by chief Noukout of my friends’ village, whom I always respected. This is a name that I’ve reflected on often, and it has given me strength during some of the most challenging moments during the startup of Iron & Earth. 

When we returned to Canada, I never quite fit the mould again during my high school years. I was interested in learning about the traditional knowledge of the local First Nations and how to live off the land like my friends and I did in Vanuatu, but my classmates didn’t share these passions in the same way. 

Starting my welding career

I did, however, find some refuge in the high school metal shop. I loved learning how to weld, use large machinery, and even do some blacksmithing. My grandad was a big inspiration to me as I developed this interest—a machinist by trade, he ran one of the largest machine shops in Canada during his career. He noticed my growing passion for the steel trades and bought me my first drill press in my teens. He had also given me my first welding lesson when I was just eight years old.

So, coming out of high school, I decided to begin a career as a welder. My first job was at a gravel truck repair shop called Cats Ass Welding. It was a bit rough around the edges but a great place to develop some basic skills. I was eventually hired at a large steel fabrication shop, Ramsay Machine Works. I completed a steel fabrication apprenticeship there, building coal ship loaders and pressure vessels, drilling rig platforms, and flare stacks for the oilsands. 

Turning point

During the final year of my apprenticeship, I was given the role of lead hand to build a wind farm weather station. It was an exciting but nerve-wracking opportunity. I wanted to do the best job possible, so I started to research the technology that I was building. During this research, I came across the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” I vividly remember the night that I watched this film and the feeling that came over me when I realized that many of the technologies I was building contributed to global warming. 

I immediately realized that many of my friends in Vanuatu would be impacted by the future rise in temperatures, hurricanes, and rising sea levels. 

At work the next day, I was struck by a realization. First, on one side of the shop floor stood the wind energy infrastructure that I was building. Then, just 20 feet beside it, my coworkers were building pressure vessels for the oilsands. It was an epiphany for me that I could utilize my trade skills to either create the infrastructure that is creating global warming or build the infrastructure required to ensure a sustainable future.

That same day, I told my boss that I would be quitting my job on the final day of my apprenticeship to pursue a career applying my skills to addressing climate change. And that’s what I did. I left that job and embarked on the journey that I’ve been on now for just over a decade. 

Integreen

After leaving Ramsay Machine Works, I enthusiastically set out to find my new path. I attended every environmental event that I could find to see if somebody could guide me in the right direction, but I was left disheartened. At one networking event, a prominent activist publicly ridiculed me for thinking that I could apply my welding skills to making a difference. I was humiliated but steadfast—I knew from my first-hand experience that my skills, knowledge and expertise applied to building the solutions that the world required. 

I became fed up that it was so difficult to make a difference, so in 2010 I founded my first not-for-profit called Integreen. It was meant to be a central hub for people to get involved in the environmental movement. However, I was so compelled by the urgency that I felt about climate change that I spent every waking hour, and some sleepless nights,  trying to figure out how to get it started. I hosted an “Action First” concert and organized some positive community action events, such as garden work parties and beach cleanups, and created a unique website. But after a year, I was utterly burnt out, and so was my bank account. It was my first big failure, but I learned a great deal and am thankful for this early learning experience. 

SocialCoast

Thankfully, as I was recovering from my burnout from starting Integreen, I met a friend who invited me to be the co-founder of a new organization called SocialCoast. Our passion and commitment quickly aligned, and, for the next three years, we ran various campaigns focused on a range of environmental and social justice issues. 

We bought a used school bus for our first project, painted it a bright green, and labelled it the Community Action Bus. With that bus, we engaged hundreds of people to take positive actions on issues ranging from local food security to protecting old-growth forests.

Our final major campaign was during the early days of Idle No More. We worked alongside local First Nations leaders to help organize an action to reclaim the traditional name, PKOLS, of a local mountain “Mount Douglas” in Victoria. During a day of action, chiefs from the local First Nations and over 800 supporters marched up PKOLS and installed a sign on the top of the mountain that describes the history and significance of the traditional place name. Efforts to make the renaming official are still ongoing. 

Iron & Earth

While founding Integreen and then SocialCoast, I had started a bachelor of arts in geography to learn more about the causes of and solutions to climate change. In between semesters, I needed to find work, and the only jobs available to me through my union (the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers) at the time were up in the oilsands of Fort McMurray. This was the last place I thought I would find myself after quitting my job at Ramsay Machine. However, I realized it would be a unique opportunity to learn more directly about the industry, and my income in three months would be enough to pay for my entire year at school. So, I went up to Fort McMurray on and off for the next six years while getting myself through an undergraduate degree and eventually a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. 

During my first year of working in the oilsands, I was amazed to discover that most of my coworkers were aligned with me on many of the issues I was passionate about. Many of them were parents, hunters and fishermen who held a shared belief about the importance of sustainability. Many of them were concerned about climate change and recognized, like me, that we could apply our trade skills to building a range of climate solutions. However, nearly all of these co-workers felt as though the environmental movement was constantly attacking them when they were just doing what they needed to do to pay the bills. 

I realized that the stories of these workers needed to be captured and shared with the world. For this reason, the second year that I went up to Fort McMurray I brought a video camera. I started to document my journey of working in the oilsands and began to interview my coworkers. Over the next few years that I worked in Fort McMurray, I collected footage that I intended to use to create a documentary. 

Then, in 2015, I was working on a maintenance turnaround at Nexen Long Lake when a significant oil price crash resulted in thousands of layoffs weekly. At the time, I was interviewing some of my coworkers about the situation. Eventually, some began to ask, “why are you spending time making this movie when we are in this emergency?” I was just starting a Master’s degree and didn’t want to launch an organization. Instead, I wanted to finish my film. But eventually, these coworkers convinced me to change course.  And so, together, on that job site, we developed the initial vision and strategy for Iron & Earth, the organization. A year later, we launched publicly, with a number of these co-workers forming the initial board of directors. 

It’s been a tremendous and intense five years

We’ve accomplished a lot in our first five years: established multiple regional chapters, run multiple highly impactful advocacy campaigns, built a base of over 1000 fossil fuel industry workers, provided hundreds of workers with opportunities to get involved in applying their skills to building a net-zero economy, hosted multiple training programs, designed our own training programs that are now ready to scale, completed several sustainability projects, hosted many events and generated hundreds of media stories… and much more. We recently published a Summer Supporter Update with details on our exciting initiatives that you can read and download here. 

Iron & Earth is now an established and resilient organization, poised to scale its impact across Canada and the world. I’ve committed myself fully to this effort, and I couldn’t be happier with how it has all turned out.  

Why I’m starting a new chapter

In late 2019 I had the chance to speak on a panel at Africa Oil Week in South Africa and took this opportunity to work remotely for a couple of months. This experience gave me a bit of perspective, and I realized that I hadn’t taken much of a break since leaving Ramsay Machine works a decade prior. I realized then that I needed to experience and explore life for a while without the weight of an organization (and the potential for a much larger movement) on my shoulders. It’s taken a year and a half to complete the leadership transition.

Aside from my personal reasons, this is also a good time for the organization to grow under new leadership. The strategic vision and philosophy for the organization are well established, and I’m confident that handing the organization over to a new Executive Director—Luisa Da Silva, who is already capably leading the organization—will result in faster growth than might have been possible under my leadership. If you haven’t met Luisa yet, you can read about what has brought her to this role in her recent blog post.

A new chapter for Canada and the world?

With what I consider to be remarkable timing, two days ago, standing in the pipefitters training centre (UA local 740), the federal Minister of Natural Resources, Seamus O’Regan, launched the Just Transition Engagement to develop legislation focused on “helping workers and communities thrive in a net-zero carbon economy.” The core of his speech (minute 5:10 - 16:40 of this press conference video) was precisely the message that we have been delivering since our launch. 

While the details are yet to be developed, and the strength of the Just Transition Act is yet to be determined, this announcement is a turning point for Canada, and, I would argue, the world. As the world's fourth-largest oil and gas producer, Canada can play a leadership role in demonstrating how countries can rapidly mobilize their fossil fuel industry workforces to transition to net-zero rapidly.

It feels very reassuring and validating to see Canada take this leap as I step into my next chapter. 

What is my next chapter?

The energy transition is in the early stages, and there is much exciting and vital work to be done. I doubt I will have a traditional retirement, but I will turn 65 in the year 2050. With 30 of the best working years of our lives ahead of us, my generation has a unique role to play in guiding and building a prosperous transition to net-zero by 2050. My next chapter will be focused precisely on this challenge—I aim to leverage my experience to help accelerate climate solutions. 

I’m keeping my options open for now, and while my plan seems to change daily, for now I’m planning to take the rest of the year off to process, reconnect with friends, go on some adventures, surf, and do a lot of scheming. Then, if I can find support to make it happen, I’d like to spend a year writing a book about the formation of Iron & Earth and the unique organizational and operating model (The Barnacle Model) that I developed during my MA at Royal Roads to bring it to life. The book’s primary goal would be to help other people start their own organizations or similar worker-led initiatives.  Eventually, I may embark on an MBA or an Executive MBA and take things from there. 

Thank you

There are hundreds of people to thank for helping get Iron & Earth to this stage, and I hope to thank many of you personally over the coming months. Thank you especially to everyone who is making this leadership transition possible. I will be forever grateful for everyone who is stepping up to the challenge right now, providing the leadership required so that the organization can reach new heights while I step back. 

A final, personal request

Please contact me through my LinkedIn profile if you want to keep in contact, have ideas I should consider for my next steps, or know of any grants or resources that could support my efforts to write a book (or support dusting off and finishing the Iron & Earth documentary!).

In hope and action,

Lliam Hildebrand

Director Emeritus 

P.S - The Iron & Earth team is bustling and growing quickly. We are looking for good people to add to our network of potential team members so that we can act quickly when given opportunities to add people to our core team. If you would like to be considered for a position when openings arise or are interested in getting involved as a volunteer, please reach out to [email protected] with specific ideas on how you might be able to contribute to the continued success of our movement.