Indigenous voices raised at Edmonton climate strike

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Climate strike activists in Edmonton. Image: Paula E. Kirman

Edmonton's climate strike on Friday, October 18, was the largest protest in the city in recent history. According to organizers, over 10,000 people took to the streets, marching through downtown demanding action on climate change. 

The day started with a march. March organizers asked Indigenous community members to lead the march to acknowledge the work they have done to advocate for air, land and water, and for their rights to take back their stolen land for decades. People of colour were also called to the front of the march -- in fact, anyone who wasn't Indigenous or a person of colour was asked to move to the back. Even Greta Thunberg herself was not front and centre. The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist was almost inconspicuous as she marched near the back of the line along with other young participants. 

Just a few weeks before, on September 27, approximately 4,000 people took part in a climate strike which was also an incredible number of people for a protest in Edmonton. Thunberg's presence drew many more people out, but climate action is proving to be a subject that is mobilizing young people en masse. 

Those with disabilities often get left behind in large marches which often move too fast. Therefore organizers asked them to come to the front as the marchers moved slowly through the blocks leading to the Alberta legislature. The sheer number of people created some logistical issues, like the park where the march began getting very full, very fast. 

After moving for about a block, the pro-oil counter-protesters showed up to try to steal the attention. There were a few at the park, as well as a Rebel Media truck circling the area, which elicited some jeers but was otherwise ignored. The counter-protesters were part of far-right, fascist movements such as the Yellow Vests and Proud Boys. While the police circled on bicycles, the marshals at the front of the march joined hands to form a human buffer. 

Also attempting to disrupt was a convoy of a dozen trucks that drove up from Red Deer for the occasion. Police diverted them to other streets blocks away, and while their horns could be heard from a distance, eventually they were drowned out by the growing chants of the crowd.

So many people have felt threatened by Thunberg has had to say, that we had expected more opposition. 

Several thousand more people were waiting at the legislature for the march to arrive. The speakers were all young people and were mostly Indigenous and people of colour who spoke of the current climate crisis being the results of colonialism and unfettered capitalism. The talks centred on the resulting crisis for Indigenous people who are struggling for access to clean drinking water and disease-free food. There were several land acknowledgements, prayers, and songs, particularly from Chubby Cree, a local drumming group that performs at many social justice events.

Conspicuously, there were no political speakers and no one from the United Conservative Party (UCP) government attended. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney chose not to meet with Thunberg.

At the rally, Thunberg spoke last. She did not point her finger at any industry or political party. She did not even mention Alberta specifically, except to amplify the words of the Indigenous people who had already spoken. Thunberg emphasized that as a young person her future is at stake, action needs to be taken quickly, and pointed to the science that backs her statements. She also explained the need for such mass mobilizations. 

"If you think we should be in school instead, then we suggest you take our place in the streets," she said. "Or better yet, join us so we can speed up the process." The crowd hung on her every word. 

Yes, there were still counter-protesters, but they were vastly outnumbered and their booing and other attempts to disrupt were ignored. What cannot be ignored is the growing number of young people who are concerned and passionate about their future. What is encouraging is that they are working to build alliances with other climate activists rather than usurp their work.

Their pleas appear to be going unheard by Alberta's current government. The activists, however, are building strong coalitions and they will make a change. Many of those in attendance on October 18 who are too young to vote, will vote when the next provincial election comes around and organizing like this will bring people out to the polls. 

Paula E. Kirman is a journalist, filmmaker, musician and community organizer in Edmonton.

Image: Paula E. Kirman

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