On the lawn of the B.C. legislature in Victoria on Wednesday, hundreds of students and teachers took advantage of a Pro-D Day to talk climate change.
The event served as a preview for Friday’s Global Climate Strike, which will see students walk out of classrooms to demand government action on tackling rising global temperatures and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It was also another reminder that when it comes to addressing climate change, the youth are taking the lead.
“You’ve have to have your head in the stand not to see what’s going on,” said Tara Ehrcke, co-chair of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association’s (GVTA) climate action committee.
While Canadians rank climate change as their third top priority in this federal election campaign, most of those who are walking out of class Friday aren’t old enough to cast a ballot.
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It’s why they appreciate the encouragement they’ve heard from school districts and teachers’ unions like the GVTA and BC Teachers’ Association, who are not only urging students to take part in the strike, but also their parents and teachers.
“It’s very exciting they’re doing that, and it’s important students know that and come out and take part,” student organizer Emma-Jean Burian said.
Jamie Lawson, associate professor of political science at University of Victoria, said the movement could help sweep those adults toward the polls — many of whom either haven’t voted before, or have lost faith in the political system.
“This kind of mobilization … can also be the kind of movement that leads people who haven’t been involved to think about doing other things they haven’t done before, including voting or voting for a different party than they have in the past,” he said.
Potential Green power grab
B.C. has been one of the focal points of the federal climate change debate for decades, and remains home to hot-button issues like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the dwindling southern resident killer whale population.
The province is also the power base for the Green Party, whose leader Elizabeth May broke into Parliament by winning the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding in 2011.
The party’s seat count doubled earlier this year, when Paul Manly won the federal byelection in Nanaimo-Ladysmith.
Lawson said October’s election could end up being a litmus test for the Greens, who have the potential to double their seat count once again by gaining more seats in B.C.
“Here in Victoria, maybe also in Vancouver, the intense feelings about the Trans Mountain pipeline extension are going to be a very important factor in some people’s minds, and they were already strong here in the south island,” he said. “You might expect this to be an area where they could bump the needle.”
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Lawson said the Liberals’ attempts to balance environmental concerns with pro-pipeline politics is “a real vulnerability” for the party to work on — and which the Greens could exploit.
He also foresees roadblocks with the NDP — who have to appease a blue-collar base that may not be in tune with the party’s ecological constituents — and the Conservatives, who have many supporters unwilling to address the issue at all.
All four of those major parties have released forms of climate action plans, and Lawson said it will be up to voters to determine which one is achievable.
“People really do have a decision in this election, and they have a decision both about where they stand on this issue and what they’re going to do about it,” he said.
Students, teachers find common ground
At the legislature, Grade 8 student organizer Rebecca Wolf Gage said she was happy to see adults rallying behind their children’s concerns, believing it could help sway government policy.
“The government is more likely to listen to more than one group of people than just the youth,” she said. “We want more people out here to show everyone that this is a critical issue and we need to act.”
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Ehrcke said teachers have heard almost immediately after the movement began to percolate last summer that adults also have a role to play in supporting students and making their voices heard too.
“As teachers, we’re really close to the youth movement that has sprung up over the last year,” she said. “I think a lot of us have taken that to heart and said, ‘Yeah, this is our responsibility too.'”
For school districts, they recognize this isn’t an issue they want to stand in the way of. While no school districts in B.C. are shutting down schools entirely, they’re urging parents to give their children permission to skip class for the day, adding they won’t be penalized.
“This is not going to be our generation that resolves the climate crisis,” Surrey School District superintendent Jordan Tinney said. “It’s going to be the students, the kids who are in school now, and their children. So it’s time for them to be aware, to exercise their voice, and to take action.”
As students, teachers and parents plan to take to the streets once again Friday, Lawson said candidates across the country will be wise to pay attention to their concerns and commit themselves to taking the climate crisis seriously if they’re elected in October.
“To what extent can adults take back the initiative and demonstrate to the coming generation that they are capable of looking beyond the limits of their own lives and into the future for those kids who are demonstrating?” he asked.
—With files from Kylie Stanton and Amanda Connolly