Organizers prepare for a climate march in Edmonton on June 28, 2019.
HuffPost Canada
Organizers prepare for a climate march in Edmonton on June 28, 2019.
08/17/2019 09:18 EDT | Updated 08/19/2019 02:10 EDT

If Alberta Is The Front Line Of Climate Change, Young People Are In The Trenches

In the heart of oil and gas country, meet the young people behind a movement.

EDMONTON - Just after noon on a Friday in late June, a megaphone echoes across Edmonton’s Churchill Square. 

“Let’s move out!”

About 100 people start to move forward, hoisting signs and banners above their heads. 

Four teens walk with a black coffin on their shoulders, the words “OUR FUTURE” emblazoned on it in white paint. 

Escorted by police bicycles, they exit the downtown square and head to a rally on the legislature grounds. Some passersby on lunch breaks raise tentative fists in support, while others turn away awkwardly.

“You know your shoes are made of petroleum!” a construction worker shouts, prompting laughs from his colleagues.

“Love to live in society, yet still want to make it better,” 15-year-old Abram Ilcsion quips in return from the middle of the pack.

Ilcsion is one of the lead organizers of Edmonton Youth For Climate, a grassroots group that mobilizes young people in Alberta for climate-related causes. He helped put together this Student March For Climate, as well as one in May that drew over 700 supporters. 

In a few months, he’ll be working on a province-wide general strike on Sept. 20 to bring attention to climate change. He’ll also be entering the 11th grade. Having felt the impact of forest fire smoke his whole life, and inspired by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, Ilcsion has thrown himself into organizing. 

“If nothing is done to stop climate change, the future will be completely devoid of hope,” Ilcsion said. “We need to implore ourselves and others that we will fight. And we will make ourselves a future that we can be proud of.”

Melanie Woods
Edmonton Youth For Climate organizers Abram Ilscion and Olivier Adkin-Kaya, pictured before a march and rally on June 28. 

Fellow organizer Olivier Adkin-Kaya is marching too. The 18-year-old is starting undergraduate studies in engineering at the University of Alberta this fall, and is also suing the federal government. His argument, along with three other teenage plaintiffs: the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion violates their right to a safe and secure future.

“For the sake of giving the new and future generations the opportunity to experience a life that the older generations have had, [the Trans Mountain pipeline] must not be built,” Adkin-Kaya said. 

In the heartland of oil country, a young climate movement is blossoming. Groups of young people are coming together to fight a seemingly insurmountable beast — a province deeply dependent on an industry that’s a major contributor to climate change. 

Unlike established international organizations like Greenpeace, most of these groups didn’t exist two or three years ago. 

Don’t simply call them anti-pipeline activists, or carbon tax advocates. They say they’re pushing for a fair transition away from oil and gas, and to a Green New Deal, that aims to mitigate climate change through social and economic programs.They’re marching in the streets, but they’re also lobbying federal leaders like Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh to consider climate change as a pillar of their election platforms. 

While hundreds of other young people organize across Canada, Alberta is unique. It’s oil country, with newly elected Premier Jason Kenney ready to tear down any carbon tax that stands in his way. It’s obviously a David and Goliath battle, but the climate fight in Alberta is far from lonely. 

“[Governments] should really be looking at the youth movements and not the adult ones because I believe that they’re going to be the ones that will determine the future,” Ilcsion said. 

Melanie Woods
Student activists during a climate march in Edmonton on June 28, 2019.

The petro-state

In Alberta, it’s nearly impossible to have one’s vote count against oil. According to Statistics Canada, the mining and oil and gas industries accounted for nearly a third of Alberta’s GDP in 2016. 

Alberta is a petro-state, and a lot of people are proud of it. There are “I <3 Oil and Gas” billboards and bumper stickers at every turn. But entire regions like Slave Lake and Fort McMurray in northern Alberta have been crippled by wildfires and obscured by clouds of apocalyptic smoke in recent summers. 

“In Canada, we are seeing more area burned,” said University of Alberta professor Mike Flannigan, who studies the link between climate change and forest fires. “And the reason we’re seeing these increases is human-caused climate change, and this is because it’s getting warmer.”

If fighting the climate crisis means a transition away from oil and gas, whether through moving to renewable resources or cutting back emissions, Alberta will feel it economically. 

Pipe for the Trans Mountain pipeline is unloaded in Edson, Alta. on Tuesday June 18, 2019.

“Alberta is the emissions centre of the country in terms of the carbon intensive industry. So any national action, global action on climate change is going to impact Alberta,” said Shawn Marshall, a climatologist and geography professor at the University of Calgary.

Despite the potential economic impacts, it’s vital that Alberta find a way to transition away from oil gas sooner rather than later, he added.

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has 11 years to limit a potential climate catastrophe.

“There are things we can do: we can live differently, we can change this. It’s not too late,” Marshall said. He cited transitions to cleaner energy like wind or solar, as well as investment in building an industry around electric car batteries in Alberta as possible ways to transition the province. 

“And it’s a big change because it’s our energy and transportation systems — it’s a generational change.”

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
A flare stack lights the sky from the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton on December 28, 2018.

Flannigan told HuffPost Canada that while the causes of forest fires are complex, programs to reduce carbon emissions such as carbon taxes can have an impact. 

“From a climate change perspective, longer term, global action on reducing greenhouse gases can have changes on day-to-day weather,” Flannigan said. 

B.C. saw its carbon emissions fall after it implemented a provincial tax in 2008. But the Kenney-led United Conservative government in Alberta is particularly resistant.

“I would also say the carbon tax didn’t stop forest fires in British Columbia or in Alberta,” Kenney told reporters in May. “We’ve always had forest fires and we always will. It’s true that there’s dry conditions up north right now. There’s complex factors at work.”

In an ironic twist, Kenney had to cancel his announcement of repealing the carbon tax implemented by the previous NDP government — in order to be briefed on wildfires raging across northern Alberta. 

NurPhoto via Getty Images
An extraction pump for oil and gas on a field near the town of Sundre during smoky and hazy weather conditions that blanketed the province of Alberta in the summer of 2018, impacted by B.C. wildfire smoke.

The resistance

As Fort McMurray recovered from a devastating 2016 wildfire, sociology masters student Emma Jackson began her thesis research on the disaster’s impact on migrant caregivers in the northern city. 

Jackson interviewed the caregivers on park benches, in fast-food outlets, outside public swimming pools, and in the busy mall. She got to the heart of their stories, how their job conditions and treatment by employers changed as the prolonged evacuation ended and the oilsands-based local economy shifted.

The face-to-face work brought her into the intricacies of the lives at stake, which contrasted to her undergrad research on other women in Fort McMurray, conducted over the phone from New Brunswick where Jackson was attending Mount Allison University. 

“I realized I can’t keep talking about the oil and gas industry and how fucked up it is and our dependence on it without understanding that on the ground,” Jackson, 25, recalled. “I just felt very much like you can’t possibly describe or understand what it’s like to organize in Alberta until you do it.”

Melanie Woods
Members of Climate Justice Edmonton, Beaver Hills Warriors and Edmonton Youth For Climate march together on June 28. 

The Ottawa native’s cross-country journey included a key “transformative moment” in 2012. The Idle No More movement to protect Indigenous rights was starting, and the Elsipogtog First Nation — not far from the Mount Allison campus — began to mobilize against hydro fracking on their land. Jackson said it opened her eyes to the extent to which corporations are involved in land and climate.

“That was a big moment for me,” she said. “And then out of that, I started organizing around fossil fuel divestment because I was like ‘Wait a second, our fucking money is going to these corporations that are doing this in our own backyard?’” 

(Fossil fuel divestment is the movement away from investing political, economic and social resources in the fossil fuel industry. According to the Guardian, 1,000 institutions and over 58,000 individuals representing $8 trillion in assets worldwide had been divested from fossil fuels by the end of 2018. )

So Jackson now lives in Edmonton, where a wave of young organizers have moved explicitly to organize. The city is the last vestige of the provincial NDP stronghold borne from the 2015 provincial election when Rachel Notley and her party swept the province in a surprise orange wave. 

Jackson lives together with three other organizers with Climate Justice Edmonton (CJE), their grassroots non-profit group as well as two roommates not directly linked to the group. 

“It’s actually very needed to have people who are also living here who are always organizing in order to just escape sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes it gets to be too much work. We have like, absolutely no boundaries.”

Their neighbourhood of Old Strathcona remains as its own enclave of progressive politics. On the edge of the University of Alberta campus within walking distance of the provincial legislature, the area is full of students. 

It seems an appropriate headquarters to mobilize a ”war room to beat Kenney’s war room,” an online fundraiser that has raised nearly $20,000 since the April 16 election. Jackson said the money will allow them to secure a physical space by September, as they face the premier’s open hostility to groups like theirs.

Melanie Woods
The fridge of the so-called "Climate Justice House" in Edmonton, featuring a Christmas card from former NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton.

The war room(s)

Alberta’s oilsands have the third largest reserve of oil in the world, and according to the province, crude bitumen production totalled about 2.8 million barrels per day in 2017. Alberta’s carbon emissions have dramatically increased alongside the oil and gas industry since 2005. In 2017, the province accounted for 37 per cent of national carbon emissions, despite only making up 11 per cent of Canada’s population. 

The province has a deep dependence on oil, and a deep skepticism of groups that question that dependence. 

Kenney has launched targeted campaigns against environmental groups, most recently a $2.5-million inquiry into their foreign funding that he claims are purposefully slowing Alberta’s oil economy. 

He also set up a $30-million “energy war room” to counter what he calls lies spread by opponents of oil and gas development. By the end of the summer, Kenney said the war room will have a permanent office and full-time staff in Calgary to investigate environmental groups against oil and gas. Former National Post columnist Claudia Cattaneo has already been hired to join “the fight against lies and myths being spread about Alberta’s energy industry,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage told reporters last month

Kenney’s office didn’t respond to HuffPost’s repeated requests for comment. 

Amber Bracken/CP
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Minister of Energy Sonya Savage respond to the federal approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Edmonton on June 18, 2019.

Jackson and others started Climate Justice Edmonton because they wanted to engage in grassroots organizing around climate justice in Alberta that didn’t come with the international baggage of Greenpeace or the U.K.-based climate group Extinction Rebellion

The group has focused on high-profile actions. They dropped a 17-metre-wide banner from Edmonton’s High Level Bridge that said “No Kinder Morgan.” They staged a sit-in at the Calgary offices of Kinder Morgan, the company behind the Trans Mountain pipeline. The group live-streamed the protest for several hours on Facebook, while they zip-tied their arms to the office doors and chanted protest songs through megaphones. Eventually, the five protesters, including Jackson, were taken into custody and issued trespass notices. 

Jackson was also one of a dozen protesters who dangled from Vancouver’s Ironworkers Memorial Bridge last summer to block a tanker carrying crude oil from the Trans Mountain pipeline. 

As we talk, she gives me a tour of the house, a familiar co-living situation for millennials in urban centres. A well-lit living room full of plants. A pile of shoes at the front door. A megaphone atop a cabinet. Then there’s kitchen table where, according to Jackson, “most of the action happens.”

In the dining room, there’s a button-making station flanked by a “Water is Life” sign. Jackson’s cat, Jack — who also came with her from the East Coast — wanders beside us. As we pass the upstairs bathroom, I notice a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In is perched on the back of the toilet

“I hope people who visit us realize that’s ironic,” Jackson says with a laugh. 

Sandberg’s brand of progress has been critiqued for putting capitalism before feminism. In the book, she argues women need to “lean in” to existing structures in order to make progress in business, something directly at odds with how Jackson, Climate Justice Edmonton and other organizers in the province say they operate.

“For me, the climate justice piece is recognizing that there’s so much to be gained here by taking on corporate power,” Jackson says. ”And in a really tangible way.”

People On The Path is one of the group’s more recent initiatives — a collaborative art project meant to visualize the impact of pipelines on Albertans of varying ages, backgrounds, and experiences. Each piece is a larger-than-life portrait — ranging from Indigenous elders to farmers to students — and includes a quote on how each views the climate crisis.

Melanie Woods
Emma Jackson, pictured in her backyard with two pieces from People On The Path. 

Jackson explains the art project is a way of diversifying the group’s work. Climate justice action doesn’t have to always involve zip-tying your arm to an oil executive’s office until it turns blue. 

“If you are in any way, like working towards building that future, you are doing climate justice work,” Jackson says.

The Beaver Hills Warriors

While CJE is trying to move the needle through political initiatives, Beaver Hills Warriors leans toward direct “militant” action. The group is named for the Beaver Hills region just east of Edmonton, also known as Amiskwaciy in Cree. They regularly organize marches and blockades, as well as workshops and collaborations with other climate action groups in the city.

“I support that in terms of like a diversity of tactics. But we really need to talk about the extreme nature of climate change,” said Nigel Robinson, who goes by Nazzu Nigel. “Because capitalist colonial system has a really huge part to play in climate change.”

The members met as while rallying to support the Unist’ot’en, which tried to block pipeline construction in the northern B.C. community. 

WATCH: ‘A sad day’: Protest held over RCMP arrests at B.C. blockade. Story continues below. 

“I think we went out for bubble tea that afternoon and slowly it fizzled into a thing,” said Veronica Fuentes, another organizer with the Warriors. “It takes the stars to align to run into five young people who all approach it to the same militant degree.”

She uses the term “militant” because they believe the severity of the climate and land crisis in Alberta requires such action. 

“We have a lot of people here in Alberta who are uselessly centrist,” Fuentes said. With family from the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan and a recent trip to El Salvador where she has relatives, she said she has opened up to a greater understanding of the global impacts of climate change.

Nigel is Dene and originally from the Cold Lake First Nation in northern Alberta. Growing up, he witnessed division within his community around the province’s reliance on oil and gas.

“A lot of people have invested in this idea that oil will save us so greatly that there’s plenty of folks who have become climate deniers and will repeat the same rhetoric,” he said. “But there’s a younger generation that is coming out that is starting to really think critically about the province and the provincial propaganda that is created to make us believe that oil is our saviour.”

Facebook/Beaver Hills Warriors
Members of Edmonton Youth For Climate, Beaver Hills Warriors and Climate Justice Edmonton gather for a sign-making meet-up in spring 2019. 

Nigel is carrying on a family legacy in some ways. His uncle, Brian Grandbois, in particular inspired him to get involved in climate activism. 

“He traveled all across North America as a part of the American Indian movement, doing this work on different pipelines for the past 40 years,” Nigel said. “And he had a tremendous impact on me. And we talked a lot about these different issues, and the importance of keeping up this fight and fight towards sustainability.”

Nigel says that bringing groups like Beaver Hills Warriors, CJE and Edmonton Youth For Climate together creates a “powerful” community around climate organizing in the city.

The groups collaborated on the Student March For Climate and regularly host banner-making meet-ups. In August, they hosted a casual barbecue mixer in an Edmonton park to bring their volunteers together in a more fun setting. 

Fuentes called Jackson and the other Climate Justice Edmonton organizers “incredible allies” in the way they hold other people and groups accountable.

“There are people in the city who know how to have a relationship with us and Emma’s definitely one of them,” Fuentes said. “I think it takes certain loss of egos and humbleness to allow space for your own growth.”

Facebook/Beaver Hills Warriors
Nigel and Emma at a sign-making event this past spring. 

The fight

The Student March For Climate finishes its snaking route through downtown Edmonton and emerges onto the green grass of the legislature grounds.

Nigel is there, chanting into the megaphone.

Jackson walks with a star-shaped sign that reads “Jobs, Justice, Climate.”

Ilscion and Adkin-Kaya start to coordinate with other members of Edmonton Youth For Climate on the order of speakers.

But the climate march isn’t the only youth group on the grounds that day. Memorial Composite High School is marking their graduation, and students and their families are gathered around taking photos. A group of mostly male graduates notices the march and starts to shout.

“Pipelines!” one yells, taking a drag from a cigar.

“Woo, pipelines!” another joins in.

About 15 minutes later, as the climate march reaches the steps of the legislature and begin their planned speeches. The graduating teens converge as well. As 17-year-old Alyssa Tonnes steps up to give a land acknowledgement, tensions flare and a scuffle breaks out.

WATCH: Protester, grad scuffle at Edmonton student climate march. Story continues below. 

“It’s not a surprise. We witness it every day,” Jackson said of the incident later.

While she suspects the teens’ opposition is linked to having parents who work in the oil and gas industry, it saddens her that they don’t see the climate threat the way she does.

“Every single one of those kids has witnessed the past three summers, where they have spent, day after day under these really bleak orange skies, where they can’t even see the sun above their heads,” she said. “And it just shocks me that that they would experience that and not see the absolutely dire need for what [the students] are calling for.”

Despite continued opposition, their groups have to keep pressing forward and fighting to be heard, Jackson said.

Melanie Woods
Students and allies march in Edmonton on June 28, 2019. 

One of Climate Justice Edmonton other founders Paige Gorsak, ran for the federal NDP nomination in Edmonton-Strathcona in 2018, on an explicitly socialist platform. After raising over $5,000 and rallying more than 100 volunteers, Gorsak lost the nomination by 19 votes.

Jackson thinks the campaign was still worthwhile as a way to get people talking about climate justice issues.

“It was never about the NDP, and it was never about actually holding that seat in office,” she said. “It was about the opportunity to dramatically shift the window of what people even deemed to be politically possible in this province.”

Alongside — where Jackson works as an organizer for her day job — CJE is organizing around the October federal election to enforce the climate crisis as a key campaign issue. The groups led demonstrations across the country on July 17 to demand the CBC host a federal leaders’ debate on climate. Jackson says that without a commitment from the CBC yet, they plan to mobilize in Ottawa during the English language debate and host watch parties all across the country. 

WATCH: Grim outlook for Canada in latest climate change report. Story continues below. 

Beyond the federal campaign, Jackson says the group is working on the provincial and local levels. She says that when legislature returns to sit in the fall, they will “ramp up” resistance to Kenney. They are also considering running a slate of progressive candidates similar to Gorsak in the next Edmonton municipal election. 

Towards the end of our conversation at the Climate Justice House, I asked Jackson if she actually thought they would win.

“That bigger vision, I don’t think will happen overall within my lifetime,” she admitted after a pause. “But that doesn’t mean that I won’t see pieces of it and I won’t see steps towards that, and I think that in itself is fulfilling.”

Other organizers agree.

“We have to do this now,” Nigel said. “And if we don’t do it, we’re going to be clinging on to something that’s dying for a very long time.”