In October 2016, along with 98 other young people, I was arrested on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada at a protest against a planned expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline that would triple its capacity. From coast to coast, youth across the nation had mobilized as part of the “Climate 101” protest, joining with classmates, friends, and allies in Canada’s capital city to demand Prime Minister Justin Trudeau disapprove a project starkly at odds with the Paris Agreement signed less than a year earlier. Together, we crossed police barricades to demonstrate that young people are willing to risk arrest when politicians consistently fail to represent our voices and protect the environment.
Five years ago, I never would have thought I’d be getting arrested protesting an industry that employs so many beloved members of my community. I grew up during the conservative administration of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a South Korean immigrant household in Treaty 6 unceded Indigenous territory in Edmonton, Alberta. Mere hours away were the infamous Canadian tar sands, the second biggest fossil fuel project in the world, which spans an area larger than England. The tar sands are the starting point for many pipelines that snake across North America, and employ many people in the province.
Nicknamed the “Texas of the North,” Alberta is home to a wealthy, conservative, oil-elite core that has engaged in dirty political tactics and forged close relationships with politicians to push a fossil fuel development agenda. Under the Harper government, existing environmental legislation was watered down, extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands skyrocketed, Canada officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, hundreds of government climate scientists were muzzled, and Indigenous rights around land and resources were trampled.
The recessions of 2008 and 2014 plunged oil prices down to below $20/barrel, resulting in more than 43,000 layoffs in Alberta. Only months after leaving home for university, I watched as the community I was raised in came face-to-face with the repercussions of job, food, and social insecurity. In the classroom, I was beginning to develop critical new perspectives on the massive wealth, power, and influence of Alberta’s Big Oil, and how it impacted my life. The more I learned, the more I began to question a commonly held belief, one I shared with many Albertans: that oil and gas jobs are well-paying, abundant, and secure. In fact, what we were witnessing seemed to prove the exact opposite — the fossil fuel industry was unstable, and its workers were shouldering the burden of this instability.
I began organizing with the Divest mta campaign at Mount Allison University — which is now my alma mater — to pressure administrators to divest the institution’s investments and endowment from the fossil fuel industry. I continue to work with the campaign today.
We are calling out the hypocrisy of post-secondary institutions’ willingness to teach climate science to a young generation while profiting off the environmental wreckage that the fossil fuel industry causes. At the crux of our campaign, we are challenging the social licenses of fossil fuel companies and their perceived right to operate, expand, and pollute our planet without limitation. The mainstream environmental movement emphasizes individual behavior as a tool to intervene in the climate crisis — refusing single-use plastics, for example, or buying organic produce. However, individual actions alone will not be enough to limit global temperature increases to 1.5-degrees, as the ipcc has said we must in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Instead, we need bold, collective action. And we need to shift the focus to the real culprit of the climate crisis: the fossil fuel industry.
Over the past year, I’ve been working with a team of organizers to shape a national climate convergence that empowers young people to come together, share their skills, and train in direct action, movement building, and inclusive organizing. As another election year approaches in Canada, youth — who comprise the largest voting demographic here — are hungry for change and willing to mobilize for climate justice. We are training the next generation of young leaders to organize for this change in response to the political cowardice of our institutions and politicians.
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