Benjamin Savard is the Vice-President of Sustainability and Equity from the Dawson Student Union (DSU).
On Friday, September 16th, over 500 students gathered at the third floor cafeteria for a general assembly. It was clear: students wanted to strike for climate justice the following Friday. The overwhelming attendance surpassed the minimum threshold of 300 students, and the motion passed within minutes.
During preparations for and following the climate strike, I’ve had several people come to ask me what the point of participating was. It’s a fair question. In the midst of large collective action, why is our individual participation necessary?
There’s a lot of ways to answer that question. Unsurprisingly, Dawson students going on strike the following Friday did not single handedly save the planet. It may even be worth asking if it made any difference at all. On October 3rd, the CAQ still managed to win 90 seats with an environmental plan full of contradictions. Were we better off just going to school as usual, and advocating for climate change in a different way?
On the other hand, strikes have historically been strong agents of change. Worker’s rights would never have come into existence without them. We often forget that tuition in Quebec would also be much higher than it is now: the 2012 student strikes still serve as a bitter warning to our legislators. Fundamentally, strikes are a powerful weapon that we’ve successfully wielded before.
So, what makes a movement succeed? What makes a movement stagnate?
Strikes and protests are advertised as catalysts of change, as some inherent power that forces the government to act. As if, in the minds of our leaders, there’s an off switch that can be triggered by surpassing a certain number of protesters whenever they decide to subsidize another pipeline . It doesn’t work that way; the current power structures are clear-cut. Within this structure, protests are heavily regulated, which diminishes the power of collective uprising. Fun fact – student strikes aren’t recognized as legitimate under Québec law, a roadblock we encountered when mobilizing in September.
Peaceful protests only have power because of the people behind them; they serve to unify us around a common goal in addition to sending a message. When participating in a student strike, we are telling the government that we want action and we’re going to fight to get it. After all, what better cause to fight for than our own future?
But for a strike to be an efficient pressure tactic, it needs to act as a threat. We may be off school for just one day right now, but fuck around and you’ll regret it. Unfortunately, François Legault is calling our bluff. There may have been 15,000 people in the streets of Montreal protesting his inaction, but again, he still holds and will continue to hold an overwhelming majority at the National Assembly. Why should he listen?
We need to keep pushing. We need to organize. A big march every year is great for spreading awareness, but it won’t solve the overarching problem of environmental degradation and systemic exploitation. Let’s follow it up with more direct action, targeting specific issues. The governments and corporations we’re fighting need to know exactly what we’re expecting from them.
Two years ago, the fossil fuel exploitation project called GNL Québec was canceled in response to strong activism that opposed it. One year ago, Université de Montréal agreed to remove all its investments in the fossil fuel industry after students went on strike and occupied one of the main buildings for five days.
The Royal Bank of Canada is the Canadian bank that invests the most money in oil. Shockingly, they also rank 5th in the world. There have been protests and actions organized specifically around RBC to push them to divest. They haven’t budged, but they’ve been spending more money on greenwashing initiatives in an attempt to save their image. This is a change that’s still happening; a movement that’s still hot. Let’s keep it up, because just marching through the streets of Montreal on the 23rd isn’t going to cut it.
To say that we can’t change the course of the following years is undeniably false. We can accomplish a just transition. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fair fight.
September 23rd was a magnificent step forward. It’s the first time in our history that Dawson students went on a climate strike.
I know some students still oppose it. I get that it was inconvenient, especially when the administration decided to put an extra day in the middle of the reading week. It’s not what we wanted. Personally, I’m not showing up to any of my classes on the 13th – strikes aren’t supposed to have catch-up days.
But did we do this because it was easy? While I get that some people just showed up for the pizza, I’d like to think that most of us voted to strike because we wanted to act, incite and provoke change.
Significant or not, almost five hundred students showed up to the third floor cafeteria and voted on the motion concerning the environment. That matters. It’s a win.
Let’s build on it.