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.”


A year of protests in review

Photo by Sophia Loffreda

It’s been a year since over 200,000 students donning red hit the pavement on an irregularly warm day on March 22, 2012 to protest the proposed tuition fee increase of $1,625 by former Premier Jean Charest. It was the largest demonstration in Canadian history to date and marked the beginning of a tumultuous spring for Quebec. It raised questions about post-secondary education, triggered an election and gave way to unparalleled student unrest. It brought forward nightly demonstrations and forced a divide based on ideological differences in what could be argued as one of the most historic years in Quebec.

MARCH 22, 2012
Over 200,000 demonstrators pour in from all corners of the province to protest the proposed increase by the Charest Liberals of $325 per year over a five-year period for a total of $1,625. Traffic is affected for hours and protesters make international news. Not a single arrest is made.

APRIL 27, 2012
The provincial government offers a new deal to student leaders, including a revision in the tuition fee increase from a total of $1,625 over five years to a total of $1,778 over seven years. Angry with the revision, students take to the streets for the third night in the row in what becomes regular night protests for months.

MAY 4, 2012
Students arrive to protest outside the Quebec Liberal Party convention in Victoriaville, Que., a town located two hours east of Montreal. Tensions run high as the gathering quickly turns violent, pitting demonstrators against officers from the Sûreté du Québec. Over 106 arrests are made, with two officers and six demonstrators seriously injured by the end of the night.

MAY 14, 2012
Following failed negotiations with student leaders, Education Minister Line Beauchamp steps down from her position, saying that she is “no longer part of the solution” to the student crisis. Michelle Courchesne takes Beauchamp’s place.

MAY 18, 2012
The provincial government passes an emergency controversial law aimed at curbing protests in Quebec in response to large student strike demonstrations and growing civil unrest. Bill 78 imposes hefty fines for blocking access to class, suspends the winter semester for post-secondary institutions affected by the strike and requires an itinerary to be submitted in advance for demonstrations consisting of more than 50 people. A protest takes place the same night in downtown Montreal.

MAY 22, 2012
The student strike marks its 100th day by holding a large day protest in Montreal where thousands march peacefully through the streets. In commemoration, a large demonstration is held on the 22nd during the following months.

MAY 28, 2012
Approximately 700 lawyers march silently from the Montreal courthouse to condemn Bill 78. This marks the 35th consecutive night protest.

JULY 25, 2012
Léo Bureau-Blouin, former president of the the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, announces his candidacy with the Parti Québécois in the riding of Laval-des-Rapides.

AUGUST 1, 2012
Premier Jean Charest calls a provincial election set for only 34 days later on Sept. 4.

AUGUST 8, 2012
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois resigns from his position as the spokesperson of the Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante stating that the organization “needs fresh faces” in the ongoing student crisis.

The PQ wins the election with a minority government and Pauline Marois becomes the first female premier of Quebec. A shooting midway through Marois’ victory speech kills one man and injures another during the PQ’s celebrations. Charest officially leaves politics after a 28-year career.

Marois announces the abolishment of the tuition fee increase of $1,778 over a seven-year period.

NOVEMBER 20, 2012
The PQ announces its provincial budget but remains relatively quiet regarding tuition fees.

DECEMBER 6, 2012
The provincial government announces massive slashes to university budgets province-wide of $124 million by the end of the academic year. Concordia University suffers a $13-million loss.

JANUARY 23, 2013
The provincial government’s slash to Concordia’s funding runs so deep the university is forced to declare a deficit despite adjusting spending habits.

FEBRUARY 15, 2013
University rectors receive official invitations to the PQ’s planned education summit on higher learning, a two-day conference aimed to discuss unresolved issues from the student crisis.

FEBRUARY 25 and 26, 2013
The education summit leaves a bitter taste in student leaders’ mouths after the PQ announces an indexation of tuition fees by $70 per year indefinitely to match inflation. Universities face an additional $250 million in budget cuts and hundreds protest in downtown Montreal.

MARCH 5, 2013
A protest takes place to denounce the indexation of tuition fees, with over 1,000 participants in attendance. Over 53 people are arrested and more demonstrations are planned for the following weeks.

MARCH 22, 2013
Police swiftly end the one-year anniversary protest not even 30 minutes after it begins for violating municipal bylaw P-6 that requires a route to be submitted beforehand. Only a few hundred attend.


Where do we go from here?

Photo from last week’s Nov. 22, 2012 protest (left) by Madelayne Hajek. Photo from the Nov. 10, 2011 demonstration (right) by Navneet Pall.

Several thousand protesters weaved through downtown Montreal in support of free education Thursday despite the Parti Québécois’ reversal of the tuition fee increase implemented by the former provincial government led by the Charest Liberals.

Starting with speeches from the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, students and their supporters gathered at Victoria Square at 1:30 p.m. to promote accessible education in solidarity with the week-long International Student Movement from Nov. 14 to Nov. 22 and address the quality of post-secondary institutions.

The Vanier College Student Association voted this week in favour of a strike and administration cancelled courses at Vanier on Thursday. As the only Anglophone institution to collectively go on strike, many were present for the march including VCSA student representative Nhat Martien Pham.

Photo by Madelayne Hajek

“After the tuition hikes were cancelled, we […] thought that it could have been over, since the purpose of the protests were to oppose the hikes,” said Pham. “I liked that we could show that we are still socially and globally conscious. I was happy to participate, and I was happy Vanier participated.”

The contingent marched for hours without incident before arriving at Place Émilie-Gamelin. While an itinerary was not provided before the march, the Montreal Police allowed the demonstration to continue since it remained peaceful.

Many expressed concern over the provincial budget presented by the PQ last Tuesday. While a higher education summit is planned for February to address concerns associated with the governance of universities and CÉGEPs, the budget provided little information on tuition but reversed the increase in bursaries.

According to Anthony Kantara, a VCSA Mob Squad member, the protest served as a warning to the PQ to abide by its promises.

“It is a statement and reminder to the current PQ government that we are watching and have not forgotten what has been promised,” said Kantara. “We hope that going on strike [will] help put more support in for the major student associations, like ASSÉ.”

L’ASSÉ announced Sunday it will send representatives to the higher education summit.

Photo by Madelayne Hajek

“We remain distrustful of this consultation,” said spokesperson Jérémie Bédard-Wien, “and we stress that only a large, collective action can bring social change.”

Therefore, the ASSÉ will bring the notion of complementary education to the discussion and organize a protest beforehand so “all voices will be heard.”

Conversely, other student associations including the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec and the Concordia Student Union, championed for a rollback and freeze of the tuition fees but not the abolishment of fees altogether.

“The CSU has no mandate for free education,” said VP external Simon-Pierre Lauzon. “We’re mobilizing our student body in order to get a clear idea of their wishes. Once this idea is clear, we will push for it at the education summit.”


Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois to appeal guilty verdict

On Friday, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, former spokesperson for the Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, announced his decision to appeal the guilty verdict handed down Thursday by Judge Denis Jacques.

Jacques declared him guilty of contempt of court, saying he encouraged students during the student strike last semester to disobey an injunction filed by student Jean-François Morasse against students picketing classes at Université Laval.

The guilty verdict was based off a statement made by Nadeau-Dubois in a television interview in the midst of the student conflict: “We find it legitimate that people take the means necessary to uphold the strike and if that means picketing, we believe that is legitimate to do.”

In a press conference held Friday morning, Nadeau-Dubois told media that his message was for students to continue fighting for accessible education — not anarchy.

“My words last May were not mine — they were the words of the thousands of students who were fighting against the tuition hike,” said Nadeau-Dubois.

He also noted the irony of the situation emphasizing the adoption of Bill 78, or Law 12, only weeks later that cancelled injunctions.

Nadeau-Dubois could face prison time, fines up to $5,000 or community service for his offence. The sentence is to be handed down next week.

“For me in 2012, in Quebec, [this decision] is a precedent that cannot be allowed to stand. We cannot accept that people still have to defend their political views even if they are expressed by thousands of others,” he said.

Though ASSÉ, CLASSE’s base organization, has announced its “unfailing support” for Nadeau-Dubois, the organization will not be paying his legal fees. Donations will be collected online for Nadeau-Dubois so as not to exhaust the organization’s coffers and free resources for the other students who face legal fees from the student strike.

So far, Nadeau-Dubois has collected $74,000 to offset the costs of legal fees.

In an effort to show their solidarity, about 200 demonstrators marched the streets of downtown Montreal, Thursday night, in protest of the guilty verdict.

Demonstrator Wina Forget views the decision as unjust.

“There are politicians accused of stealing hundreds and hundreds of dollars, getting away with next to nothing,” said Forget. “Whereas a young student who led a noble struggle finds himself in a courtroom with the threat of prison and high fines to pay.”

Forget also cast doubt to the partiality of Jacques.

“We know that in [2004] the judge was a Liberal candidate and we see clearly that [he] has political convictions pour a certain party – completely unacceptable for a judge,” she added.


Fight against tuition hike ‘far from over’

Photo courtesy of FEUQ President Martine Desjardins.

MONTREAL (CUP) — Despite a Parti Québécois victory in last week’s provincial election, student leaders say the movement is far from over.

“This is not a complete victory,” said Éliane Laberge, president of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec. “It’s going to be a complete victory when the Parti Québécois is going to cancel the tuition fee increases.”

Also, speaking at the election result party hosted by two of the largest student federations, Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec President Martine Desjardins expressed doubt that the election would put an end to student demonstrations.

“It’s only a baby step,” she said. “This is not the end of the mobilization. Our goal is not obtained yet; we need a resolution and a real outcome.”

Jérémie Bédard-Wien, an executive of Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale, said that for students the main course of action in the coming days would be to “keep the pressure on the government” to ensure the PQ follows through on its promises concerning education.

“The Liberal hike has been cancelled however the PQ’s vision is very similar to the Liberals and we expect them to propose an indexation of the fees on the cost of living. This is not something that we consider acceptable,” said Bédard-Wien on the PQ’s proposed education policies.

The day after the election, Premier-designate Pauline Marois stated in a press conference her intention to order by decree the abolition of the Charest government’s tuition hike, to abolish the controversial Law 12 and convene a summit meeting to discuss higher education. The same day Marois reportedly called Desjardins personally to state the importance of settling the student conflict.

Whether the PQ will be able to implement its promises remains to be seen according to Concordia political science professor Harold Chorney who specializes in public finance and policy.

The economic viability of abolishing the tuition hike is realistic to Chorney, but he noted that the details of the “financing formula” could cause problems — particularly if the province’s budget, passed by the National Assembly every March, runs a deficit as a result.

“Governments have to present and get approved in the assembly a budget and if you stand outside of the budget you are in political trouble,” said Chorney.

Marois promised to abolish the tuition hike through an order in council, a process that, theoretically, could be issued by the minister of education unilaterally.

“It’s an interesting gambit that Pauline Marois is going to try to play and something I actually agree with — I think there ought to be what she suggests, a tuition fee hike freeze until they figure out a better way of financing higher education. That’s a good idea — but that doesn’t mean that’s going to be politically winnable.”

Marois’ final promise in her first address as premier-designate was a promise to convene a summit on higher education — a step that university rectors and staff have wanted to take for years, according to Concordia University political science professor Guy Lachapelle.

“We never had the debate about the place of education in our society and I think that’s very important,” he said. “I think it will be very interesting to watch – to see who’s nominated to be the chair, to sit on the commission,” Lachapelle added. The details of the summit have yet to be made public.

The upcoming summit will be the next major focus for CLASSE as it will be a key opportunity to communicate the associations’ plan for education, said CLASSE executive Bédard-Wien.

“We’ve always fought for a radically different vision of education — education free from tuition and from the corporatization — and so we’ll keep fighting against that and so, of course, the summit is a crucial point in that strategy,” he said.

According to Bédard-Wien, the real victory for the student movement is the central role issues and debates around education assumed throughout the general student strike.

“The strength that we built through leverage in numbers allowed us to put these debates on the political map and the fear that such momentous times in Quebec society will replicate itself is the main reason why the PQ is actually following up on these promises now,” he said.


Red square movement marks five months of protest

Thousands of people flooded the streets of downtown Montreal on Friday June 22 to protest the tuition increase and the actions of the government as the movement heads into its fifth month.

In keeping with the tradition of holding large protests on the 22 of each month (read more about the March and May demos), organizers planned simultaneous demonstrations Friday afternoon in both Quebec City and Montreal. The protest ended around 5:30 p.m. with one arrest made by the Montreal Police. In compliance with Bill 78, an itinerary was provided beforehand.

Protesters gathered at Place du Canada in the blistering heat before marching west on René-Lévesque around 2 p.m. Student leaders stood on top of a trailer, rallying support against the planned tuition increase, the controversial Bill 78, and encouraging those gathered to mobilize against the provincial government by campaigning.

The demonstration was largely festive and peaceful as it moved through the streets of the downtown core despite the message of social discontent. Concordia University student Gabrielle Turcotte told The Concordian that she attended the protest in hopes of inspiring change for the future.

“I would like to see a government that understands that protesters care about others and the future of the province more than themselves,” explained Turcotte.

Turcotte added that although she’s disappointed to see the protests becoming smaller, one could argue it’s out of frustration and exhaustion as the Quebec student movement is hitting the fifth month mark.

The number of people participating in nightly demonstrations has dwindled noticeably following violent clashes between protesters and the Montreal police during the Formula One Grand Prix weekend.

“There has been far too much self-serving in politics, in journalism, in promotion, and in people’s attitudes in our lives,” Turcotte said. “It needs to change.”

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