MONTREAL — A lot has been written about the three Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists who climbed the Jacques Cartier Bridge in October 2019. Their act of civil disobedience, intended to denounce government inaction on climate change, disrupted traffic on a Tuesday morning, frustrating many.
But Solène Tessier was inspired by what she saw that day, and it wasn’t long before she decided to take action, too.
“They arrested them — I was following everything, and I found it really fascinating. It really motivated me,” remembers the Montrealer, her eyes sparkling. “It touched me, because I realized that we, as citizens, can take action.”
“I was researching [Extinction Rebellion] all night, and the next morning. A friend and I went to their swarm in our pajamas. There were about 50 activists, but also about 50 journalists and 50 police officers. It was quite the event to start off with,” says Tessier, who is clearly still excited to recount this experience she lived through almost a year ago.
During a swarm — the name XR gave to the events it organized every week before the pandemic — activists stand in front of stopped vehicles at a red light, holding up signs and distributing leaflets to passers-by. The young woman loved her first experience, not least because she quickly found out that even an event as small as this could attract attention. “I got my picture taken and I made the papers,” she says proudly.
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After participating in various demonstrations and theatrical events, Tessier had no doubt she wanted to get involved in the movement. Since then, she has devoted much of her time to the cause — from 10 to 25 hours per week, depending on her schedule, and sometimes even as much as 35 hours per week. The activist also mentions that she doesn’t have an exact job title within the organization, since there’s no hierarchy within the movement.
Even the pandemic hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm. The young woman who took a year off after high school admits that after returning to Quebec in March after a humanitarian trip to Ghana, it took some time to fully comprehend the scale of the pandemic. Although the last few months have slowed activism on the ground, she’s overflowing with optimism, despite the magnitude of the global crisis.
“It made me think more than act,” Tessier explains. “We have the capacity to make an ecological shift, so let’s stop finding excuses not to do it. [The pandemic] has proven to us that the government is capable of making drastic changes, shutting down the economy, and backing down, so that’s really motivated me to keep fighting.”
In recent months, Tessier has joined demonstrations and mobilization events whenever it’s possible to maintain the sanitation guidelines. Among other things, she has participated in the “Wake Up Calice” initiative, as well as an ecological revival camp at the Place des Festivals, which kicked off in July. She has also taken part in the ongoing “Salis Pas Mon Cash” (Don’t Dirty My Cash) campaign against the Royal Bank of Canada.
As an activist, her involvement takes time and energy, but the community spirit she has discovered within the movement makes all the difference. “We’ve become a family — we’re all very close. Going to protests means finding a group of friends,” says Tessier. “It was the camaraderie of the green movement that interested me and kept me involved.”
And when the Montrealer does take part in a demonstration, she’s not known to
blend in with the crowd. “I’ve gotten a reputation for always ending up in the media or for using the microphone.” Tessier reminisces, all smiles, about how her presence at an event at the last Auto Show earned her an appearance on the Infoman TV series.
“After a protest, I feel like I’ve done something useful, that I’ve tried to do my small part in turning history toward environmentalism. I’m also proud because it’s really cool to know that you’re making an impact on people, either by recruiting them or by impacting the media.”
Even if it is unusual to invest so much time in activism at the age of 18, the young woman says that her friends weren’t too surprised by her level of involvement, as she was known for joining every available committee in high school.
“If I say ‘Oh no, I can’t go to the party, because I have a climate meeting,’ that’s still a little different from most young people my age,” says Tessier, who is also an ambassador for the programme Jeunes leaders pour l’environnement (Young Leaders for the Environment program). “But still, young people are pretty informed [about climate change], so it does get a reaction, but not a really big one.” What surprises people her age more is the fact that Tessier doesn’t have a cellphone, due the to pollution they cause. “I’d rather learn how to get by.”
A necessary sacrifice?
Young people are more than ready to mobilize for the environment, as we saw in the large-scale marches of September 27, 2019. But engaging in civil disobedience is another step altogether, one that few take. When she began to get more seriously involved with Extinction Rebellion, Tessier wondered if she was ready to defy the law, albeit in a nonviolent way, in the name of the cause.
We need to take more radical actionSolène Tessier
“I was underage, so I wasn’t encouraged to engage in civil disobedience actions with XR. I was thinking about a career in medicine, and a criminal record would have been a big hurdle,” she notes. But having taken a course in civil disobedience, and having “finally” turned 18, Tessier, now a student in environmental and global issues at Collège de Maisonneuve, feels ready to take things further.
“I realized that we’d reached that point. We had tried petitions and marches, but no one listened. On the other hand, I’ve seen how when we really disrupt things, people talk about it, and it draws attention to climate change,” she continues. She gives the recent example of some fellow activists who modified an advertising billboard by adding the message: “This will burn well.”
“We need to take more radical action. We need people who have the courage to do it, because otherwise, the message won’t get through,” says Tessier, who says she is ready to take on the potential consequences of civil disobedience, such as getting arrested.
Many environmental activists say they suffer from eco-anxiety, or fear of environmental disaster, which prompts them to get involved in the name of the cause. Tessier saw things a little differently. “I’m really lucky — I don’t experience eco-anxiety on a regular basis. What really motivates me to take action for the environment is that we have to do it. We’ve reached a stage where we’re up against a wall. If we do nothing, what future will there be for our children, for us?” she asks. Tessier plans to be involved in the cause for years to come.
“When I look to the future, I see myself still full of energy, with that little fire for activism forever burning.”
This story is a part of “Whose Street Is It?” an ongoing HuffPost Quebec series that gives voice to Quebecois activists and examines how far they are willing to go to create change.