The first time Albert Lalonde rallied students at his high school to skip class, he was forced to sit through two hours of detention.
Since the winter of 2019, students in Quebec have been demanding the provincial government set greenhouse gas emission reductions in line with targets recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With no sign of a response, much less action, the 16-year-old student at Montreal’s Joseph Francois Perrault High School decided to follow in the footsteps of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who, last fall, called on students around the world to start striking each Friday to protest world leaders’ inaction on climate change.
After more than 200 students took part in the first walkout last February, Lalonde started organizing general assemblies at his high school with a new goal: to shut the school down.
And on March 15 and May 17, they succeeded, with more than 700 students taking part in both strike votes. By May 17, high school students in Montreal had walked out of class for 14 consecutive Fridays.
“The only way to force the school to shut down is to make sure it’s impossible for it to run,” said Lalonde, now a 17-year-old student at Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, a pre-university college. “You’ve got to block the doors so the school will declare the school is closed.”
On the morning of March 15, hundreds of students showed up at 6 am to form a line around his high school. Students at five other high schools in the city also prevented classes from running, joining 110,000 university students who also voted to strike. In total, 150,000 people flooded the streets of Montreal as part of the international day of protest happening in 125 countries, the highest turnout that day worldwide.
But while that protest came in response to an international call, its runaway success reflects Quebec students’ long history of striking.
Unlike their American counterparts, Quebec students have maintained a practice of striking that has proved successful in leveraging their demands of the provincial government. Since the first student strike back in 1959, their use has led to the opening of more affordable universities between 1969 and 1970 and a tuition freeze in 2012.
The highest escalation comes with the call of a “general unlimited strike,” when a large portion of the student body strikes at the same time and agrees to continue indefinitely until the government meets their demands. During strikes students don’t only walk out of class to protest. They also prevent classes from running by blocking classroom doors and boycotting all assignments and exams. The ideas is that the prospect of delayed graduations can help force universities and the government to negotiate.
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“Most activists on all the different campuses are having the thought that eventually we need to go towards [a general strike], unless Quebec starts shifting completely its policies,” said Louis Couillard, a Université de Montréal student involved with La planète s’invite à l’Université, a coalition of university students involved in climate strike organizing.
Ten general unlimited strikes have been called in Quebec since 1968, the most recent protested unpaid internships this winter bringing together 35,000 strikers. By comparison, at its peak, about 400,000 students went on strike in 2012—the largest student strike in Quebec history.
High school students have generally stayed out of strikes, as their campuses have no student unions, making it difficult to organize strike votes. Lalonde says he thinks the urgency of the climate crisis is helping to shift that. “More and more young people are becoming desperate, a lot of them really want to go towards civil disobedience and really take means that are more radical,” he said. “They feel that’s the only right thing to do because of how grave the crisis is.”
“A lot of us suffer a lot, I think that we have suffered in silence,” he added. “But this movement, and this opportunity to get together and do everything we can has helped a lot of people in dealing with their anxiety, and feeling like they’re not alone anymore.”
Sara Montpetit, who organized two strike votes in her senior year at Robert-Gravel high school, says general assemblies were held in at least three high schools in the city leading up to the March 15 strike. At her school, weekly strikes led to over 150 students being sent to detention.
“People don’t understand that there’s a direct link between climate justice and social justice,” she said. “Once people understand that they’ll understand that their job is in danger, that their home is in danger, that everything is.”
Soon after the March climate strike, high school students joined with university students to demand a meeting with Quebec’s premier and their education and environmental minister outside a party convention on May 25. They wanted to see targets set for greenhouse gas emissions: a 50 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030; a 50 percent reduction of methane emissions by 2050; and a carbon neutral province by the same year.
“But, really our demands go farther,” Montpetit said. “We want degrowth, a world without plastic, without cars. The whole system needs to be called into question. And the time to call it into question is now, because soon it’ll be too late.”
Activists succeeded in sitting with Premier Francois Legault and Environmental Minster Benoit Charette the same weekend. That night Legault announced his intention to see oil consumption reduced by 40 percent by 2030 with a move towards electric energy. He also promised a massive investment in electric public transportation.
“I want to be perfectly clear—we got the message from our youth,” Legault said in his closing speech to the congress. “We are going to do more. The skeptics will be proven wrong.”
But without any targets set for greenhouse gas emissions, students were disappointed.
“Honestly I think they were just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. They put out an announcement about what they plan to do, even though concrete changes have yet to be made, so they could reassure people. Now people are telling us, ‘Why are you still protesting? The government gave you their response, your job is done now,’ but it’s not at all,” said Maïa Spiek, another participant in the Friday climate strikes at Robert-Gravel high school when she was a senior.
“It’s not even not being satisfied, I’d say we we’re pretty angry,” Couillard said “There’s no sentiment of urgency.”
Students have also been demanding changes to the curriculum to include courses about the environment and climate crisis. Perhaps in an attempt to relate to students, the provincial government had recently included a question in mandatory end-of-year exams asking grade 11 students for proposals about how we can best “adapt” to the problems climate change will create. But the move only enraged activists.
“We will have to adapt ourselves to climate change, but we won’t be able to adapt if we don’t take the necessary action to limit climate change in itself right now,” Lalonde said.
Students met with education minister Jean Francois Laberge soon after. Spiek and others presented him with a rewritten version of their year-end exam; this time, telling the ministers that they were the ones assigned to take the test. Students allotted ministers three hours and 15 minutes to write a 500-word text about how they plan to cap temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“We spoke with him, but nothing seemed to come of it,” Spiek said. “He laughed at us outright, [telling us] that we were developing our debating skills and that was good for our education.”
On September 27, they joined strikers across all continents in a global campaign sparked by Thunberg’s call to action.
Montreal saw the highest turn out that day, with half a million people flooding the streets. At least 147 student associations representing just over 200,200 Quebec students were represented alongside seven teachers’ unions and 400 community groups. They all signed on to a shared demand: that the Quebec government reduce emissions in line with recommendations from the IPPC. Thunberg herself led the march alongside student activists with the Quebec and Labrador Assembly of First Nations.
Couillard said LPSU will be making calls for more general strikes in the following months. Montpetit said high school students are still in the process of determining whether they want to continue striking each Friday or if they want to focus on less frequent walkouts instead, with the hope that more people might turn out if academic ramifications are less of a concern.
One environmental group, ENvironnement JEUnesse (ENJEU) has launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of all Quebecers under 35, arguing that the refusal to adequately deal with climate change amounts to gross negligence, as young people are being denied the right to live in a safe environment. Though it was shut down in July by the Quebec Supreme Court, the group remains optimistic as they head into the appeal process.
“It’s the first time we see a decision recognizing that there is a climate crisis and it affects our human rights,” said Catherine Gauthier, the director of ENJEU and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. She hopes a combination of cases centering around human rights violations and mass mobilization will apply enough pressure to ensure that all levels of government in Canada act urgently. “When we can see that we are thousands of people walking, striking on Fridays for example, it also shows that there is a strong movement,” she said. “This is the new norm.”
“More and more people are criticizing us by saying we’re alarmists and that we’re announcing the apocalypse. I’m really starting to get fed up of it,” Monpetit said, “because we’re using direct action to fight for our future, and we have the courage to go out into the streets, not like older people who just complain about it.”