It’s late November 2019 and the pavements are buzzing in St Catherine Street, the busiest shopping area in Montreal, as retailers feverishly prepare for Black Friday – the international festival of material indulgence and opportunity for huge profits, which is just four days away.
Across the city other plans are also being made for the big day, but they do not involve shopping. Young climate activists are busily organizing protests and activities to draw shoppers’ attention to the climate impacts of overconsumption and fast fashion. With a 10-per-cent share of all carbon emissions, the fashion industry emits more than international flights and shipping combined. It’s also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.1
Youth climate activism is growing in Montreal as concerns grow at the mounting evidence of catastrophe in the wings and a lack of action in response. I caught up with five activists in Black Friday overdrive who talked about the highs and lows, their motivations and challenges.
With five days to go until the protest, 20-year-old university student Maddie Karcher takes a quick break from an activism workshop being held at Montreal’s Centre for Gender Advocacy. ‘Extinction Rebellion has streets and we have the university,’ she explains.
Karcher is organizing a university strike with Québec climate-activism network La Planète s’invite à l’Université (LPSU) – along with catching up on missed lessons and preparing for final exams next week. She says that educational institutions ‘are really scared of student climate strikes’. Earlier this month she and other LPSU activists held a strike at Concordia University that led to a pledge to withdraw $10.7-million worth of investments from fossil fuels by 2025.
I would much rather be studying than talking down security officers about why we are striking
Karcher has learnt lessons about how to organize from extended student protests dubbed the ‘Maple Spring’, which successfully defeated a 75-per-cent hike in tuition fees in 2012. Karcher believes that calling general assemblies, collectively deciding action, voting on it and organizing picket lines, is much more effective than individual walk-outs. ‘It forces classes to change, all academic activity for that day is cancelled,’ she explains. ‘No exams, no class, no assignments handed in.’
In her efforts to balance activism and her studies, Karcher says her ‘grades are definitely hurting’. She even turned down a paid internship to devote more time to LPSU. ‘It would look good on a resumé, but I just can’t leave climate activism,’ she says. Climate change to Karcher ‘feels like a dagger in my heart...’ she trails off. ‘I would much rather be studying than talking down security officers about why we are striking.’
François Léger Boyer
An experienced activist, Léger Boyer started out at Montreal’s Occupy and is now part of Extinction Rebellion Québec. Now in his thirties, he’s one of the most knowledgeable people on the scene, and is supporting multiple climate groups across the city.
Léger Boyer admires how younger activists are prepared to be more radical than their adult counterparts, something he puts down to them having ‘so much more to lose than adults in terms of climate change’. Having an arrest on your record can effect your ability to travel, work with vulnerable people, to study or practise law; it can even affect future child custody battles. ‘It takes time and energy to go through the legal stuff. And you never know how it will end,’ he says.
It is not just crying all the time, ‘oh no, the end of the world!’ We have fun with it
If a protester is arrested, Léger Boyer assures me, ‘they will feel we are backing them till the end. This is really important, as that is the world we want to exist in, one where we support each other.’ Adult supporters have crowdfunded money for legal fees.
A steady stream of events in Montreal helps to build this sense of a supportive community. There’s something for every day of the week – documentary screenings, climate science lectures and meetings about energy projects. ‘It is not just crying all the time, “oh no, the end of the world!”’ clarifies Léger Boyer. ‘We have fun with it.’
In Montreal’s Greenpeace office, a small group of LPSU activists sits around a communal table, typing on sticker-covered laptops surrounded by crisps and fizzy drinks. Ashley Torres is a 23-year-old Political Science student at Concordia
University who works long hours on climate activism, sometimes as much as 40 a week, including at weekends. She also has a part-time job.
Her commitment has led to some difficult conversations with her mother, who ‘doesn’t understand why I’m working so much for something I am not paid to do’ says Torres. They have also spoken about the potential repercussions of arrest. ‘My mother says, “you’re not white. You can’t get arrested. A criminal record will close doors for you.”’
My mother says, ‘you’re not white. You can’t get arrested. A criminal record will close doors for you’
Torres came to Canada from Colombia when she was seven years old. She’s also involved in anti-racist organizing, which she links to her environmental campaigning. ‘People need to understand how the horrible colonial treatment of indigenous people is linked to climate change,’ she says, and how, historically, indigenous people have been the ones to look after nature.
Yet it’s only children and young people who seem to understand the complex roots of climate change. ‘Adults clearly have the power and the ability to act on climate change. Placing the burden of hope onto young people is absurd. That’s not taking responsibility.’
She finds it difficult to be told ‘just focus on studying and get a job’ when she and many of her peers struggle to imagine a secure future because of climate change. ‘What is the point of university? What is the point when we will have crazy debt, and then not have a livable future?’
Working alongside Torres is Louis Couillard, a 22-year-old International Relations student at Montreal University. Like Karcher, he’s finding it tough to balance his studies with mobilizing, sometimes working 12-hour days. His test results have dropped since he became an activist and he is even wondering whether to continue with higher education.
If Couillard was not so concerned about climate change, he would ‘play hockey and just enjoy my youth!’ Feeling a sense of missing out, Couillard urges people to ‘look at your kid, look them in the eye, then you’ll realize just how much of a sacrifice they are making right now’.
Look your kid in the eyes, then you’ll realize just how much of a sacrifice they are making
He does feel hopeful though that climate consciousness has risen in Quebec following flooding in April and May 2019. ‘People woke up,’ he says. ‘A state of emergency was declared, and people were forced to evacuate their homes.’ He found relief during the disaster when he saw strangers pulling together. ‘The future is uncertain, but for change to happen, people have to get involved – they just haven’t all realized that yet,’ he says.
Couillard goes to ‘eco-grief’ and ‘eco-anxiety’ events offered by the campaigns community in Montreal. ‘In the bubble of activism, there are highs and lows. Being pro-active and organizing strikes for this Black Friday helps alleviate eco-anxiety,’ he says. But there are still bad days. One day before a climate march, Couillard worked hard to get students along to a general assembly to vote on formal strike action. ‘We needed 300 votes. We got 285, so it didn’t happen,’ he recalls. ‘It’s a small detail... but I burst into tears on the metro going home.’
In the corridors of McGill University, 18-year-old Emma Lim is in the midst of final exam preparation while organizing various actions for Black Friday. Although weary, with sleep-deprivation circles around her eyes, she is razor sharp when it comes to defining what drives her: ‘People will be harmed by our greed, by unlimited growth on a limited planet – we value some people more than others.’
Lim has organized climate strikes every Friday for a year now. ‘I missed a lot of school. My teachers were mad. But it’s not that we don’t want to go. We’re tired and sad – people are dying.’ She remembers a chemistry teacher asking her, ‘What is more important? This strike, or your future?’ Lim replied: ‘Don’t you get it? They are the same thing.’
The adults aren’t going to protect you
Like her peers, Lim’s hectic activism schedule affects her academic performance. Her daily routine starts at 7.00am, when she usually skips breakfast, so she can take calls in the morning. ‘Then I go to class, I have meetings at lunch time or conference calls. I often don’t eat lunch. Then after class, I study until 1.00am, and take more calls.’
Her parents have even suggested that she drop out of university altogether. ‘All my life I just wanted to be a doctor, to study science. To have to give up my future is very frustrating,’ she says, adding that she’d prefer to spend her time on ‘science research and more sleep’.
The example set by others keeps her spirits up though, particularly the courageous actions of indigenous people: ‘They have no protection from the police. They will go to jail and face violence. And still, people fight!’
Her advice to other young people is ‘to join groups and start striking – the adults aren’t going to protect you’.
Etienne Dyer, Coralie Potvin, Oussama Kiadali
Black Friday in Montreal dawns way below freezing. Across the city, picket lines block the entrance to lectures at the Universities of Concordia, Montreal and McGill and secondary-school students walk out of class as LPSU and Climate Strike Canada put their plans into action.
Despite the intense -4C° cold, St Catherine Street is defiantly alive with placards, chants and protesters. Activists call to shoppers ‘take it! It’s free!’, pushing racks of free, second-hand clothes along the road. Among them is Etienne Dyer, a 19-year-old student who is skipping classes from Saint Laurent College. He was arrested at the 27 September global climate strike in 2019 with 40 others, many of whom were his friends from college. And he’s prepared to be arrested again.
‘This is my future,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want to sit this out.’ Alongside Dyer is Coralie Potvin, a 20-year-old Cinema student at the University of Montreal whose hair is dyed half yellow, half pink. When it comes to climate protesting, Potvin says her parents ‘don’t get it. My dad says silly things like: “we are not dead yet, calm down”.’
She is protesting today to ‘stop the excess. I hope people understand that if you need to buy something, buy it, but if not, then don’t. I hope people learn about it and think about it. We should be done with capitalism.’
The number of protesters grows to about 400 by the afternoon, including 12 teenagers aged between 13 and 17 from XR Youth, who glue their palms to the shop windows of American Eagle Outfitters and H&M. They have signs around their necks saying, ‘ne pas tirer, je suis collé’ (don’t shoot, I am glued). A line of police forms a blockade of the store fronts while May Chiu, a mother of one of the protesters, watches on anxiously. ‘What these kids are expressing is a real cry for help, and it is time for adults to listen,’ she says.
Teenagers sit in the road. They jump, dance, chant and sing themselves hoarse in support of their glued peers. Sometime after 6.00pm the local fire brigade proceeds to unstick the super-glued activists, who are being rallied with speeches by François Léger Boyer and others.
‘People consume and they think it is OK, but it is causing a climate crisis,’ says Oussama Kiadali, 17, a high-school student and spokesperson for XR Youth who protests every Friday. He wants companies and governments ‘to tell the truth about what they emit’. He goes on: ‘we want [our own] kids, we want normal things, but people are dying now, today, because of Canadian industry.’
By 6.45pm, lipstick-drawn hearts and supportive messages next to super-glued handprints are the only evidence remaining of the protest. Twelve teenagers succeeded in closing two high-street stores for a few hours on one of the busiest shopping
days of the year. On Saturday, local news showed a few seconds of the protest in reports about the best deals and how much money the billion-dollar companies made in profit from this year’s Black Friday sales.
Meanwhile the young campaigners are already focusing on their next targets. Karcher is fighting to seal the divestment win at her university while Torres, Lim and Léger Boyer are all working on events with indigenous communities in the more remote parts of Quebec.
- ‘The fashion industry emits more carbon…’ Business Insider, 21 October 2019. nin.tl/FashionPollutes