GUELPH — Hundreds of high school students rallied in front of City Hall on Friday afternoon after walking out of their classrooms to call on council to declare a climate emergency and have the actions to back it up, giving emotional speeches and chanting pro-environment cheers.
“The reason we’re here is we want Guelph to do more as a city and we want them to declare a climate state of emergency,” organizer Saffron Binder told this publication, and another organizer, Kyra Kestral, said “I’m scared”, adding that “the city isn’t doing enough”.
High schoolers and a few in elementary school held homemade signs that read warnings about the future of the planet with hundreds listening intently to the speakers that came forward. A majority of those taking to the microphone were their own peers.
Richard Cameron, in Grade 8 at Waverley Drive Public School, said that “even a person who can move a mountain a millimetre is still changing the face of the world”, and that metaphor was why he and his friends rallied to make even a small change to climate policy.
Councillors have been debating for weeks on whether to declare a climate emergency for Guelph amidst other municipalities across the province making their own declarations. Mayor Cam Guthrie has made clear he is against this move but there is no public plans yet for a formal council motion.
The mayor and council have supported various climate policy initiatives in the past, including passing a motion to have a completely electric-based fleet for city-owned vehicles and put specific regulations around parkland distribution.
Over 200 students packed into Market Square from high schools and elementary schools to sign a petition that declared that there is a “climate crisis” backed by scientific evidence and that city leadership is essential to tackle the “urgent changes” to limit environmental catastrophe.
The organizers behind the walkout are made up of some of the same leaders who have organized two previous rallies at 1 Carden St. for other issues recently, including Sequoia Kim, Katie Nixon and 10 others. Among them was former city council candidate Jax Thornton.
Recently confirmed federal Green Party candidate Steve Dyck received a warm reception from students that cheered on his call for “real action on climate change right away” from multiple levels of government, saying that “we’ve seen adults behaving like schoolyard bullies”.
“This needs to change and you are part of the change,” Dyck told the crowd, saying that, though many of the students are not yet voting age, their votes are “as powerful as a voice”, encouraging them to talk to their parents and say “we need to act with urgency.”
Earlier in the rally, organizers noted the work of James Gordon and Leanne Piper to bring about policy around the environment and green energy, and Dyck made a point to thank the council as a whole already working towards climate action and “listen to each other”. He also noted his candidacy.
Grade 11 student Dylan Meszaros, holding a sign that read “if you were smarter, we’d still be in school”, said that he went to the rally “because this is a serious issue and if we don’t change the future generations of humanity is gone which is not something I want to happen.”
‘Mixed messages’ from Guthrie
John F. Ross High School student Sarah Bennett, one of the organizers of the City Hall sit-in, was one of the many students who criticized the mayor for saying during a town hall with high schoolers last week that declaring a climate emergency was “politics and optics”.
To hundreds of cheers, Bennett said that if declaring an emergency was “politics and optics”, what is the difference between that and the emergency task force on poverty that the mayor started earlier this year which she said took Guthrie two years to declare.
“He doesn’t really have an idea of what we’re looking for,” Bennet told this publication in an interview at the rally, explaining that the declaration these high school students seek go beyond optics and is a small, meaningful step “we need to take towards a global impact.”
The Grade 12 student went into detail on the group’s struggle to connect with the mayor. She described the April 25 town hall as “not good” as he “overreacted” and “got very defensive” on the topic of climate change and the city’s strategy to tackle it.
“Even if the [declaration] is all ‘optics and politics’, it’s still is climate awareness and that still is going to influence [change],” Bennett added.
To those councillors that may be against declaring a climate emergency for the city, Bennett said “their clear on where they stand”, saying that the mayor appears to send “mixed messages” and that “he’s not giving us a lot of clarity”.
“Anytime he’s been confronted, he’s always said ‘well, Guelph is doing this and this and this’, but that’s not what this is about, at all,” the high school student explained.
“I think he just needs to listen more. Listen to what the public is asking for.”
It is not entirely clear how many councillors would be against a climate emergency declaration at council and the mayor only has one vote of our thirteen that could determine the fate of a declaration. So far, there has not been any formal motion put forward calling for one.
Mayor Cam Guthrie was not in attendance. He said earlier this week that his schedule was full and would not be able to attend. The Guelph Post has reached out for comment and any reply will be added to this report.
It was not only in Guelph where students were protesting for action on climate change as the Fridays for Future movement continues in cities across Canada in Edmonton, Halifax and more.
Images by Eli Ridder. Reporting by Eli Ridder.