Quebec City: Pressure building on climate and tar sands

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On Saturday April 11, 25,000 people took to the streets in Quebec City for a legal protest, the Act on Climate March.

A number of conferences were held over the weekend, put on by student associations, unions and environmental NGOs.

On April 13 and 14, Canada's Premiers will be meeting in Quebec City to discuss their approaches to climate change moving forward.

According to media reports, Ontario will announce a cap-and-trade approach to limiting carbon emissions, partnering with Quebec and California.

The Premiers are expected to work on policies that will at the same time address climate change and allow expansion of the tar sands, including increased rail traffic and pipeline construction. Many this weekend called out the contradictions of such an approach, with one core message of the march being "no" to expanding the tar sands and pipelines.

At the March

Approximately 25,000 walked three km through Quebec City. People carried banners and works of art and chanted simple slogans as well as sang full-length songs. Police, present in large numbers during ongoing anti-austerity protests in Quebec, were noticeably absent from this family friendly demonstration.

"We've been hurting mother earth, so we're here to defend her," said Donna Lariviere, an Algonquin woman living in Quebec City walking in Saturday's protest with friends and their children. Asked about how big the multi-faceted mobilization to address climate will get, Lariviere noted, "it depends of the will of the people."

Leanne Sutton came from Red Head New Brunswick, where the entirety of the Energy East pipeline will be unloaded. "It's more than a pipeline for us. It's the super-tankers, tank farms (oil holding tanks), the deep-water port, plus the unburied pipeline."

Mike Hudema, Climate and Energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, was focusing on the upstream source while walking near the front of the crowd, saying, "Climate action needs to begin with addressing the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country: the tar sands."

Speeches given after the March featuring eNGO and union leaders included strong indictments against the tar sands, the Canadian petro-state, and the politics of austerity and neoliberalism.

Convergence of approaches

The rhetoric of more grassroots and radical groups has often been at odds with that of big eNGOs and unions, but the differences were at times hard to spot this weekend.

Nearly all groups present in Quebec City were presenting themselves as being steadfastly against expansion of the tar sands, instead calling for society-wide mobilization to transition to a low-carbon society, with many pointing to how solutions are currently forming. Many groups also called attention to the economic models of neoliberalism and capitalism as root causes of many of the problems we see.

"There aren't the contradictions there were in 2012," said Jean Leger, a community organizer in Mirabel, Quebec, in reference to the massive Earth Day walk in Montreal that year. He noted, after the Act on Climate March and the student conference just after it, a fundamental shift since 2012, with many groups, now including students, unions, and big eNGOs -- long ignoring tar sands extraction -- that day taking hard stands against it.

At the student conference on Saturday as at the union and eNGO forum on Sunday, there was much talk of people not needing to wait for policy in order to make solutions happen. From the Lubicon Lake Cree financing their own solar projects to blocking pipeline projects in Quebec and British Columbia to home energy efficiency improvements being made in New Brunswick, people are in agreement that there is no need to wait to take action.

Quebec context

There was much discussion of a need to cooperate and for organizations to work together in the climate movement. Absent, however, from the discourse at the big eNGO and union level was an explicit connection with the Printemps 2015 movement in Quebec, against austerity and the petro-economy.

The movement, which has been a long time building, has included many non-violent direct actions, such as a wall of women (Mur des Femmes) blocking entrance to the Suncor refinery in Montreal East, occupations of offices and buildings, and night demonstrations in the streets. Many of these actions have been met with heavy police presence, often using weapons and detaining people.

The more grassroots groups present in Quebec City on the weekend have been mobilizing along with the students, community organizations, and local union groups for Printemps 2015. Bruno Massé, Coordinator of the RQGE, a network of Quebec environmental groups, speaking at the student-organized forum, made an appeal "to make alliances, to get the environmental movement out there, to get involved in Printemps 2015, like the Mur des Femmes has."

Saturday night, 250 km southwest in Montreal, as with many nights in Montreal, police came down hard and fast on protesters in the streets.

There is a large mobilization forming for May 1 and beyond throughout Quebec in opposition to the austerity agenda of the current government and the continuing adherence to a petro-economy. 

In the face of this, Quebec Premiere Philippe Couillard recently compared his resolve to that of former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, infamous for using massive police force to put down union protests through violence.

Whether the public sector-unions in Quebec, representing 550,000 employees, get behind the Printemps 2015 movement, which they have supported with words but not yet with significant action, remains to be seen. 


David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects and doing corporate social responsibility consulting. He is trying to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and educate himself on how to be a responsible white guy. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

Photos: David Gray-Donald

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