A call and response is echoing through the throngs of people pressed together outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto. "What do we want?" an Indigenous activist on a megaphone shouts from the stage outside the Ontario legislature. "Climate justice!" the crowd responds. "When do we want it?" she calls out, to the standard protest reply: "Now!"
As the people roar, 19-year-old Riley Cotton starts to cry. "Our earth is dying," she says, clutching a sign that reads, "Protect Our Future Generation." Cotton can barely get through her next sentence, the tears are flowing freely down her cheeks now. "We forget that we live on this planet and we should protect it and not take it for granted."
Cotton is a nursing student at George Brown College. Like so many of the young people around her, she skipped class to attend the march, part of the Global Climate Strike, which kicked off on Sept. 20, to spur government action on climate change. Inspired by Swedish teen activist, Greta Thunberg, who founded the youth-led climate action group #FridaysforFuture, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly students, headed to the streets on Sept. 27. In Canada, there were more than 80 strikes, including ones in Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and Halifax.
Thunberg, who spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit earlier in the week, led the rally in Montreal alongside First Nations leaders. "Today we are millions striking and marching and we will keep doing it until they listen," she said to the estimated 300,000 protesters gathered. "It should not be up to us, but somebody needs to do it. This is an emergency and we will not be bystanders." The protests come the same week a report was released that say the world could be thawing at a rate faster than we had previously thought.
At the Queen’s Park protest, where about 15,000 people gathered, the vibe was a mix of hope and anger. The signs ranged from tongue-in-cheek jokes like, "Even the earth is hotter than my imaginary boyfriend," to succinct calls for action like, "Don’t be a fossil fool." As young people marched with cardboard posters over their heads, emotions were high. "[This strike] is going to make change because it’s a bunch of kids, but also elderly people and middle-aged people," Adomi Goodhall, 18, says. “Politicians are going to see that it’s not just one person who is angry, it’s everybody. We’re all upset."
Canada’s party leaders are starting to wake up to the call, with most leaders attending the marches. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Green Party leader Elizabeth May joined Thunberg in Montreal. Trudeau sat down for a meeting with Thunberg on the same day. Jagmeet Singh attended a climate march in Victoria after spending four days in British Columbia. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer continued his campaign in BC but did not attend a march.
Nana Yanful of the Black Legal Action Centre says she has one message for the party leaders: that young people and marginalized groups will be most affected by climate change. "We believe that environmental justice is deeply connected to racial justice. Who’s going to be the most impacted if the world blows up? Those who are already poor and vulnerable — racialized and Indigenous people in this province."
Adds Erin Isaac, 20: "Protest is truly the only way to get attention. These politicians aren’t going to pay attention unless we are literally in their faces, on the streets and all over the news making noise."