Whose responsibility is climate action? Reflections from the Montreal march

On Friday 27 September, over 500,000 people took to the streets of Montreal to march for the climate. This was the biggest mobilization in the history of Quebec and a truly phenomenal thing to witness and take part in. 500,000 is 25% of the population of the island of Montreal, the city centre was closed down for the whole day and public transit made free.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was in attendance, as well as Justin Trudeau and other public figures such as David Suzuki. The march organizers invited young Indigenous peoples to lead the march. They carried a banner that read “Au front pour la Terre Mère – To the frontlines for Mother Earth”. Many people had poured a lot of creativity into the signs and banners they made and on the surface it felt like a historic moment of people rising up together in their care for the earth and future generations.

Image credit: Jessica Bolduc

And yet, there was an underlying sense that many people had come out from a sense of wanting to be seen there, or wanting to see their hero Greta, rather than from a meaningful personal commitment to doing what it takes to prevent catastrophic ecosystem collapse and achieve climate justice. While the climate movement gaining in popularity is certainly a significant sign, without this being backed by real action – from either governments or citizens – very little will change in the urgent timeframes we’re facing.

Conversations heard on the march were a lot about other people (or institutions) needing to change, and not much discussion about what we also need to go personally and as communities. In this way it was reflective of the common attitude of society that we pay taxes and elect officials which make it largely their responsibility to fix this problem, not ours.

It brings to mind Christopher Avery’s Responsibility Process which describes that when we are hit with a problem, almost all of us go through mindsets of denial, blame, justify, shame, and obligation before we are able to take Responsibility (defined as owning your ability and power to create, choose, and attract). Until recently the mainstream population and institutions have been in a state of denial, now we see mainstream blame and justification. For those opening their awareness more, they begin to experience shame as they recognise the impact that their daily choices are having on our ecosystems (and how inescapable that can be if you’re an urban westerner!). They might start to make sacrifices out of a sense of obligation. Without community support, we can’t get to that freedom of choice that comes with increasing our ability to respond (response-ability).

 

A particular place where we’ve lacked responsibility is in taking care of the intersection between the ecological crisis and reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples. While there was recognition of this by the march organizers in having Indigenous youth lead the march, unfortunately this wasn’t understood or respected by march attendees who were rapidly swarmed and broken apart by other activists eager to get close to Greta. Some people even said “It’s the peoples march, not the Indigenous peoples march” – as if Indigenous were not people also and important leaders in this movement.

Relating her experience of the Montreal march, 4RS Youth Movement’s Jessica Bolduc commented (see the full post here: it’s well worth the read!):

 

“Despite coming up on 5 years of the Truth and Reconciliation’s final report and Calls to Action, if feels as though there are still many privileged Canadians who believe that their needs, their bodies, deserve to come first. Climate change should be a conversation about colonialism, power, privilege, wealth distribution and capitalism, but instead it is flattened into a more digestible conversation about plastic straw bans and “green” campaigns. Not all people feel the impacts of climate change the same. If climate change impacts your convenience more than it impacts your safety, is the movement really about “the people” if you put your needs first?”

In the coming days, weeks and months, we’ll each need to work to understand how we can we see and recognize that this work will need to not just address institutional changes but our own personal changes as well. Being a more inclusive and unified movement will require that each of feels empowered to see the deep impacts of climate change across the country. This climate action and global call to action is a wake-up call for each of us to better understand the depth of these system challenges, and what we can each do to address them. 

So how can we, as Canada’s social innovation field, cultivate more response-ability in ourselves, our organizations and communities towards both the ecological crisis, the underlying attitudes and narratives that created it, and those most affected? This is a question we will be sitting with.

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