The Challenges of Quebec’s Climate Activism

How student movements transformed the climate narrative in Quebec.

On Sept. 26, 2019, the streets of Montreal were flooded with colorful blue planet signs and urgent calls to action. Half a million people wearing blue and green makeup screamed, sang and danced to pressure the government to act against climate change.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg led the largest protest in Quebec history, with teenage activists as her bodyguards. “We held on by the hands, arms in hooks to form a circle around her. We were also in the middle of a procession of Indigenous delegations. That was special,” activist Albert Lalonde recalled.

Lalonde has been at the root of student-led climate activism in Montreal since 2019. Acting as Thunberg’s bodyguard on that sunny day represented the culmination of a year-long climate mobilization. 

“There was a kind of richness, a moment of collective education. There was an incredible force to that,” Lalonde recalled.

Half a million people attended this march. This year’s climate protest in September, led by the anti-capitalist group Rage Climatique, gathered only 1,500 protestors. 

In September 2019, half a million protesters took to the streets of Montreal to protest climate inaction. Photo by Kaitlynn Rodney / The Concordian
This September, 1,500 people attended the climate protest organized by the group Rage Climatique. Photo by Angie Isnel / The Concordian

In 2019, Lalonde co-founded La Coalition Étudiante pour un Virage Environnemental et Social (CEVES), a non-hierarchical group uniting climate activist groups across Quebec. The CEVES transcended the traditional normative structure of unions by organically rallying  individuals around the same values: acting quickly through direct actions and taking responsibilities for the environment.

For spring 2020, the CEVES had planned a full Transition Week strike to engage even more people.

And then, COVID-19 hit.

The uniting strength of the CEVES’s non-hierarchical structure became its weakness. Students couldn’t gather anymore, and the movement lost momentum. 

Last October, the CEVES in Montreal announced its dissolution.

That same month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the world is going in the wrong direction to keep global warming below a 1.5°C increase.

In November, the +2°C critical warning threshold was surpassed for the first time. A symbol, as states had sworn not to exceed the +2°C during the Paris Agreement in 2015. A federal audit also declared that Canada is not on track to meet the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan.

The COP28, which will take place at the end of November, will discuss the loss and damage created by the boiling era. This is a term recently used by the United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres, who said: “Global warming has ended. The era of global boiling has arrived.”

In light of these events, Louis Couillard, one of the first members of the group La Planète s’invite à l’Université, believes renewed mobilization is necessary. “The government sees that, in 2019, we were half a million in the street. Today there are maybe 3,000. We need to put pressure again,” he said.

La Planète s’invite à l’Université was created in early 2019, uniting students from Université de Montréal, McGill, Concordia and UQAM around a desire to act against climate change. 

Together, they urged their institutions to implement significant environmental measures, such as cutting fuel investments, implementing measures to cut methane and carbon emissions, and co-creating an awareness program about the climate crisis.

According to Couillard, these demands were ambitious. “Today, if you really look at it from a completely mathematical point of view, have our objectives been achieved? No,” he said. 

Before co-creating the CEVES, Albert Lalonde started school strikes and walk-out early 2019 through Pour Le Futur Mtl, which echoed Greta Thunberg’s worldwide movement, Fridays For Future. 

Lalonde felt that the government didn’t hear the warning sent by the student movement momentum, and that it instead used the call as a political recuperation. 

Lalonde cited the federal government’s “2 billion trees” program, which was recently criticized for skewing their calculations of the trees planted. According to Lalonde, this feeds into a pattern of governmental hypocrisy around environmental action.

“The government declared a climate emergency one day, yes, and voted to buy back the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion the next day, within a 24-hour window,” they said.

Sebastien Jodoin, an environmental lawyer and professor at McGill, took part in the ENvironnement JEUnesse (ENJEU) lawsuit against Canada in 2019, aiming to represent Quebecers under 35 who were directly impacted by the lack of government measures against the climate crisis. 

Two years later, the Quebec Court ruled against them. “It is a very disappointing decision,” Jodoin said. “It is contrary to everything we know from research, which shows the disproportionate impacts of climate change on young people.” Similar lawsuits are currently underway in Ontario.

Through successes and defeats, the student coalition ignited the environmental consciousness and deeply changed the media and political narrative. However, “this has become green economic development,” Couillard said. “That’s not at all how we wanted it to go.”

This “green economic development” is a greenwashing narrative that gives unearned environmental credit to political decisions and corporations. During the pandemic, La Planète s’invite à l’Université and the CEVES re-focused their messages toward criticism of capitalism and recognition of social issues.

Lalonde recounted the Gazoduc blockage in British-Columbia by the CEVES. “If there is no more propane supply because we block the trains, that’s a win,” Lalonde said. This event in co-mobilization with the Land Defenders Wet’suwet’en led to the Memorandum of Understanding signature that recognized and legalized the hereditary rights of Wet’suwet’en Chiefs in British-Columbia. 

That event was a significant turning point in the message of the CEVES. “We really wanted to bring the imperative of this transition outside of capitalism,” Lalonde said, explaining that climate justice cannot be discussed without social justice. “The communities most vulnerable to the system are those who suffer the most.”

Couillard, who is now working for Greenpeace, emphasized the importance of students remaining active and voicing their concerns through mobilization. His optimism goes to the Coalition de Résistance pour l’Unité Étudiante Syndicale (CRUES), an inter-university student union created this year with strong social and environmental values.

However, he believes environmental activists have to collaborate on a bigger scale, through three levels of mobilization: students clubs, civil unions and larger NGOs. He thinks that bigger NGOs have the responsibility to help Indigenous groups and student movements to gain knowledge and independence. 

Lalonde, now the communicator and events coordinator at David Suzuki Federation, learned from the successes and failures of the CEVES to create Horizon Commun. This project is slowly being launched after three years of incubation. It aims to empower regional communities, particularly Indigenous nations, with independent political structures. The initiative seeks to reshape social organization with climate-merging measures.

For environmental lawyer Jodoin, these social ideals aren’t realistic for the general society.

“Social change takes a lot of time, we don’t have that much time to solve the problem,” he said. 

Jodoin sees the climate dilemma in a more pragmatic way, where people have to act at the individual level through their own financial and physical capacities. For him, technology, geo-engineering projects or innovative businesses are part of the solution. Jodoin thinks anti-capitalist speeches and grassroot activism are important, but not enough. “It will continue to play its role, but there are other initiatives that must be developed at the same time.”


Partnering with 18-30-year-olds for climate change: Here’s how it can happen

Student Energy launches a report that shows what young people want for the environment

During this week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), held in Glasgow and streamed online, Student Energy launched their outlook report. The report brought attention to a global commonality of how most governments lack engagement with their young people in battling climate change.

The Global Youth Energy Outlook report is a global initiative created by Student Energy, a Canadian-based youth-led organization that empowers young people to have a voice and get involved in research and conferences about sustainable energy and climate. They wanted to fill in the data gap that exists about what changes 18-30 year-olds wanted to see in the future to protect their environment, climate, and energy systems.

“Young people have identified government willpower as being both the biggest barrier and the biggest opportunity to change and transform our energy system,” said Helen Watts, Student Energy’s Toronto-based senior director of global partnerships, while introducing the report at the conference.

According to Watts, the data represents “the way to bridge the communications gap that exists right now between young people calling for more, and leaders who don’t seem to really be hearing what they are asking for.”

In the report, almost 70 per cent of young North Americans are incredibly concerned about the current type of energy systems in place, and the pollution they are causing. However, they are not given the space to engage in the dialogue around climate change.

“The majority of the global population are young people, yet there is a minority of young people feeling like their voices are being heard,” said Linette Knudsen, Student Energy’s regional coordinator for Europe. “Create representation,” she added while discussing the importance of creating councils for young people to feel heard in policy spaces.

In Montreal, young adults take on many initiatives to voice their opinions on climate change. For example, the Coalition étudiante pour un virage environnemental et social (CEVES), who helped organize the climate marches in 2019, have created a space for young voices to be heard, and put pressure on the government to listen to them. Blane Harvey, an associate member of the McGill School of Environment, thinks that young people should have practical, authentic experiences that give them a voice starting in school.

“We know that young people are going to bear some of the biggest brunt of the impact of climate change,” said Harvey. “We talk about future victims of climate change, but what about them as agents for designing what the future, under changing climate, will look like?”

Student Energy discussed how disconnected from decision-making young people are. Harvey explained that there are perceptions about young people being dismissive of politics and policy, but in his experience, that has not been the case. “There are some really good examples of youth being really powerful agents of change.” For instance, Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, challenges world leaders to take the appropriate action to better our environment and has become known worldwide for her advocacy.

Canada’s minister of natural resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, addressed young people at the launch about the overall lack of engagement when battling environmental issues. “There’s two sides to that, one that’s on us as elective leaders, and one that’s on you,” he said.

Wilkinson explained that elected leaders need to create forums for younger people to be part of the conversation and that they want to hear about different changes, perspectives and views on these critical issues. However, he said that young people need to reach out.

Wilkinson was appointed as minister of natural resources in October after a few years of being the environmental minister. During the intergenerational dialogue, he explained that the conference has provided insight for him as he starts this new position and how he can include the voices of young people to better the fight against climate change. Wilkinson explained that he wants to keep the conversation going, to engage both the government and young people.

According to Watts, we can see a change in the engagement of youth in the conversation around climate change and over the last two years “millions of young people around the world [are] really advocating for more concrete actions from decision makers and people in power.”


Graphic by Wednesday LaPlante

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