Quebec demonstrations call for action on climate change

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People march in Montreal on November 10, 2018. Photo: Yvon Monette/Facebook

On Saturday, November 10, over 50,000 people braved cold and snow to walk the streets of Montreal in support of "taking the planet to parliament." Important demonstrations were also held in Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières, Rimouski, Cacouna and Ottawa. 

The new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government of Premier François Legault played down environmental issues during the October election campaign. It is open to exploration permits for fracked gas and offshore oil, and thinks a new bridge to bring cars over the St. Lawrence River, between Lévis and Quebec City, is a fine transport policy.

The response on November 7 from some 500 Quebec artists, scientists, academics, Indigenous leaders and activists was to issue a "Pact for Ecological Transition," an explosive statement urging immediate action by civil society over the next two years to convince governments to act on climate change.

Within 48 hours, more than 125,000 people had signed a petition of support.

Based on evidence from leading scientific authorities, the pact also underlines the urgings by the United Nations' Secretary-General for the mass citizen engagement needed now to save the planet from self-destruction.

The pact calls on individuals to limit their reliance on fossil fuels, reduce their use of plastic and eschew eating meat.

Citizens are asked to use public transit, avoid airplane travel, buy and consume local, disinvest from oil and gas stocks, and engage friends and neighbours on the subject of what can be done to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The pact lays out specific targets for all levels of government: first, to come up with a plan by 2020 to reach the Paris climate change targets for GHG emissions; second, for governments to reduce their own emissions by 50 per cent before 2030; and third, to have a positive report for the 2020 world climate summit.

Theatre director and author Dominic Champagne, who initiated the call for action, has held a first meeting with Legault. Champagne told Le Devoir that the idea is to open a dialogue with the premier and his cabinet. The "Planet Goes to Parliament" march is not meant to create immediate opposition to the Legault government; rather, it aims to open a dialogue that will lead to action on climate change from citizens and from their parliament, not just words between them.

What the pact has working in its favour is a tradition of national solidarity that has animated many social movements since the postwar Quiet Revolution. The strength of Quebec media and its ability to communicate with the population allows for wide discussion of public issues at all levels of society.

Marches, like petitions and manifestos, help build a climate of opinion for government action, and serve as a warning to the government of Quebec: the CAQ needs to be responsive to what electors think, if it wants to hold on to power.

For Champagne, the Trudeau government seems so committed to expanding fossil fuel production, that it will be a more difficult test.    

The initial signatories of the pact include at least 100 names of people immediately recognizable to citizens of Quebec, beginning with 83-year-old stand-up comedian Yvon Deschamps, who headlined the November 7 press conference, declaring he was "dreaming of a white Christmas for a green Quebec."

Another signatory, comic Louis Morissette, told La Presse that he, like those the pact was designed to influence, had a long way to go to reduce his carbon footprint.

Signatories to the pact include the very wealthy Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, who in 2009 took a $35-million, 12-day trip into space.

The pact declares that it wants the ecological transition to the next economy to be a just transition for workers directly and indirectly affected by the adoption of energy policies. It remains short on measures to help those without the means to move to electric cars or refit their dwellings or change their lifestyles.

In short, the idea of an ecological transition does not address specific anti-capitalist policies necessary to protect the Earth from the disastrous consequences of climate change outlined by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in October.

The need to address the looming environmental disaster has been held below the surface in official political circles in Canada. The anglophone media is more likely to reproduce the American Republican take on the environment than it is to reflect scientific research or progressive political culture.

Replicating Quebec's actions would be helpful in the rest of Canada. Provinces like Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have governments that are hostile to anything that would interfere with resource promotion.

Historically, Quebec has led much social change in Canada. It may just have done so again.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Yvon Monette/Facebook

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