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Canada’s New Climate Abolitionists

Youth and the Emergence of a New Movement


In the lead-up to and during the 2009 Copenhagen climate change talks, climate groups still relied on appeals to reason to sway the government, perhaps hoping for a quick shift back to the greener pastures of a few years prior. Young people organized call-in days, flash mobs, and for the most part politely petitioned members of parliament. Little of it worked, and for many young climate organizers the failure of Copenhagen and the subsequent dismantling of Canada’s climate regime were crushing. The youth climate movement saw a mass exodus, and in the years since has struggled to find direction. Recently, as the world has seen youth taking the lead in social movements from the Arab Spring to the Québec student strike, Occupy and Idle No more, a new youth climate movement has started to emerge, and it’s not asking politely anymore.

Last fall, spark hit tinder and the Fossil Free divestment movement exploded in the United States. A campaign for which youth and student climate and environmental groups had been laying the groundwork since 2010, when Swathmore College saw the first divestment campaign pop up, transformed into a North America-wide movement seemingly overnight.

To date, nearly 20 campuses in Canada have taken up the call and are working to divest their campus endowments from the fossil fuel industry. Divestment is no small task in a country with a government betting the farm on unconventional, dirty Tar Sands oil, but for student organizers it’s a way of taking on the root causes of climate change that makes sense, in spite of the odds.

“We’ve got to do something about climate change, but so far, most of the people with money and political power have done little except delay and pass the blame around,” says Curtis Murphy, an organizer with Divest McGill. “Right now this is our best chance to make a concrete impact and help shift our society away from reckless fossil fuel consumption.” No schools in Canada have divested yet. McGill University informed students that climate change did not meet their definition of social injury, rejecting divestment in part because “whether you like it or not, Canada is a resource-based country; that’s a fact. It’s not going to change anytime soon.” But that’s not discouraging students.

“They rejected our petition … seemingly ignoring the scientific fact that burning all the fossil fuels owned by those companies will send the world into complete climate chaos,” Murphy explained. “We are going to make sure that they cannot comfortably ignore that information.”

For many involved in the divestment movement, its appeal is also that it has impacts that reverberate beyond the confines of the campus. Last February, at a gathering at Swathmore College, student divestment organizers stated that “divestment is a tactic, justice is the goal.” The statement was an expression of solidarity with communities being directly impacted by climate change and the fossil fuel projects driving it.

Crystal Lameman, a young mother from Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6 territory, located in northern Alberta, spoke at that gathering and has worked with divestment organizers to connect the fight on campuses against fossil fuel corporations to the impacts these companies are having in communities like hers.

“As the living beings on this, what we call our one true Mother, we are facing extractive industries that will stop at nothing,” Lameman said. In her mind, divestment campaigns have the ability to offer strong solidarity by targeting the corporations trying to develop in her traditional territories.

“Through litigations such as the Beaver Lake Cree Nation case and through the convergence of young people saying ‘No more!’ we will bring about change,” Lameman explained. “There is no value that can be placed on life and through divestment we are recognizing the teaching that life is our most precious gift. The divestment movement will prove to be an action that will produce change because without investment there is no industry, thus no extraction; therefore the protection of our one true Mother and all who reside there.”

It’s not only on college campuses where this new energy is taking off. Across Canada, high school students are starting to organize their peers to take action on an issue that may very well define their adult lives.

“I think it’s really important for youth to be involved in this movement. It’s our future we’re talking about,” said Sam Harrison, a high school student from Vancouver, BC, involved with Kids for Climate Action. “We are the ones who are going to have to deal with the consequences of current decisions.” Harrison recently spoke to a crowd of high school students from across southern Ontario at an event called Wake Up Canada. He spoke along with David Suzuki and Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a young Cree woman from Northern Alberta fighting Tar Sands expansion, but it was Sam’s call to action that seemed to catch the interest and energy of the 8,000-strong crowd in the Windsor arena.

“I think, especially with regards to the environmental movement, we need to become more political. As great as community gardens and compost programs in schools are, the time has come to change our laws, not just our light bulbs.” It’s in that spirit that Kids for Climate Action have decided to take on King Coal, opposing a plan to build new coal ports just outside of Vancouver. “There are multiple proposals to expand coal shipments out of Vancouver. If they’re all approved, this would make Vancouver the largest exporter of coal in all of North America, hardly compatible with being the greenest city in the world,” Harrison explained by email while preparing to challenge the projects at the Port Metro Vancouver’s Annual General Meeting.

Howard Zinn once described the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as the “shock troops” of the civil rights movement. These young organizers took some of the greatest risks, organized some the boldest campaigns in the civil rights movement. Zinn called SNCC the “new abolitionists” and lauded them as the most important factor in driving the civil rights movement forward.

It was not simply their youthful energy that earned them their reputation, but the tenacity and tendency to ignore the limits of political feasibility. Today, as we face down the reality of a warming and destabilized climate, the environmental movement is in need of new energy. This new surge of energy and organizing on campuses, in high schools, in communities and on the frontline of destruction is inspiring, and a sign that the youth climate movement may finally be ready to take on the task at hand.


PowerShift BC is coming to Victoria, unceeded Coast Salish Territories, Oct 4–7th.

PowerShift BC is a gathering organized by youth for youth that focuses on climate justice. We will bring together 1000 youth from diverse backgrounds to learn, develop their skills and build the movement for climate, environmental and social justice.

The Movement

From mass mobilizations throughout North Africa and the Middle East, to Occupy Wall Street, the Quebec Student movement and Idle No More, ordinary people have emerged and set the stage for much needed changes to today’s economic, social and political landscape. Their movements have re-kindled a fire, an appetite for greater justice, and a desire for a more equal and collaborative society.

In this pivotal time, we have also seen a resurgence of the climate justice movement. We’ve felt the emergence and growth of resistance to the tar sands and pipelines, lead by First Nations in Alberta and BC; we’ve watched the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States, and a global movement taking on fracking. Unions and workers are demanding green jobs and frontline communities are mobilizing against projects that threaten the land and water that effect their daily realities. There is a growing movement standing up against the fossil fuel industry and demanding a safe and just climate future. The solutions that we know are possible. We’re ready for change, and together we can make it happen.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (Sports: Views from Left Field).


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