In Canada, Extinction Rebellion is overshadowed by international critiques

On Oct. 11, protesters scaled the outside of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, hopping over the railing of the tower’s first level and unfurling a massive pink banner. On the ground, reporters, activists, and onlookers milled around, squinting up to see the protesters’ message.

Within seconds, a single word was on display from the tower. The banner read, “REBEL.”

This act of disruption is only the most recent of a long list of stunts from UK-based group Extinction Rebellion (XR), a climate activism organization that has inspired worldwide action.

XR is the brainchild of a small group of activists, academics and friends, including Roger Hallam, who was responsible for the 2017 Stop Killing Londoners campaign protesting air pollution, and environmentalist and activist Gail Bradbrook.

The group first formed as Rising Up—a network of activists committed to peaceful civil disobedience—but in April of 2018 the small-scale political campaign was transformed into a larger unified movement.

In 2017 Hallam told The Guardian that, “within a year or so [XR] will have thousands of people on the streets, blocking large parts of central London for days on end,” and that “hundreds will be arrested and the government will be forced to sit down and tell the truth about the climate emergency.”

This vision has largely become a reality, as XR has become one of the most infamous and disruptive climate activist organizations of the past several years.

On Oct. 31, 2018, Hallam and Bradbrook, along with almost 1000 other protestors, gathered in Parliament Square in London to announce a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK government for its failure to respond to the climate crisis effectively. In the next few weeks, more protestors joined the XR movement.

Then, 6,000 protesters blocked five major bridges across London’s River Thames on Nov. 17 that year. Nearly 100 of them were arrested.

Around the world, XR has spread to 72 countries, with more than a 1,000 chapters. Members have engaged in mass protest such as the global climate strikes that took place in March and September of last year. They’ve also staged what they call “die-ins”—demonstrations in which people drop to the floor in “a solemn act that symbolises the kind of future we face without government action on the climate crisis.”

More recently, XR activists in the UK delayed the distribution of national newspapers like the Times and the Daily Mail by blocking access to three printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch, the American media mogul who owns outlets like Fox News and The New York Post. They claimed that these newspapers failed to effectively report on the climate crisis.

These acts of protest are designed to encourage awareness about the global climate crisis and provoke government action.

First, it wants governments to tell the truth about the climate crisis and implement policies accordingly, while working alongside media to communicate the urgency for climate action.

It also wants governments around the world to reduce their country’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce the world’s use of natural resources by half each year.

Further, it demands that governments create a Citizen’s Assembly that will be responsible for deciding the measures that will meet these demands.

What started as a UK-based grassroots organization has quickly evolved into a global operation. Here in Canada, where local environmental activists have more concrete demands and less extreme methods, has Extinction Rebellion’s infamous reputation overshadowed its goals?

People stand on Ottawa’s Wellington Street holding posters. Photo by: Spencer Colby

By the end of 2018, XR chapters began opening across Canada. XR Canada officially launched in December that year, with branches in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and other cities across the country.

As of March 2019, XR Canada has more than 1,000 members and 51 groups across the country.

Kevin Guyan, an organizer and activist with XR Canada, first began arranging strikes in Guelph, Ont. in late 2018. He joined XR Canada because he was drawn to the idea that an international movement can have an impact on a national and local level.

He considers XR Canada a positive force, because the group is decentralized from the larger movement and has its own specific demands for the Canadian government.

“As long as your movement fits within the principles of Extinction Rebellion, then it embraces anyone’s movement. It embraces anyone’s passion,” Guyan said in an interview with The Pigeon.

“Extinction Rebellion may have a different message in every city around the world. So that means there’s animal rights activists that identify as XR activists, there’s climate activists that identify as XR activists, [and] there’s Indigenous activists that identify as XR activists.”

Canada is part of the Paris Climate Agreement, a global course of action to address climate change. Each country agreed to focus on reducing carbon emissions, with mandatory measures to ensure progress was being made. XR’s mandate is much demands more from governments than what the Paris agreement includes.

Right now, the Trudeau government’s response to the climate crisis involves reducing the country’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, increasing the amount of Canada’s land and oceans that are protected to 25 per cent by 2025, planting two billion trees over the next decade, and lowering energy bills and making homes more energy efficient.

The Canadian government hasn’t responded to XR’s demands so far.

Ann Cognito never thought she would become a climate activist.

In 2018, at age 50, Cognito returned to Canada after several of years living in Jamaica. Back home in Calgary, Alta., she came across an Oct. 2018 report by the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change about the devastating impact that a 1.5° C increase in temperature would have on the environment—which scientists predict is on the horizon.

Cognito knew she wasn’t the only one reading the report, and that she wasn’t the only one who wanted to do something about climate change. When she started looking for local climate action groups, she came across the Canadian chapter of XR.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Cognito said it was the organization’s list of demands to the government and industries that urged her to join XR.

“I think getting more focused on an institutional level of change is absolutely crucial because a lot of [change] is almost impossible to make for your average person,” she said.  

“Our whole way of living has been structured in a way that supports this ongoing destruction of the planet. It’s those structures that need to change.”

Last summer, Cognito walked from Calgary to Ottawa, Ont.—a distance of over 3,000km—to demand more climate action from the government. She began her journey in April last year and arrived in Ottawa on Oct. 15 to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

With the help of XR, she set up a Climate Emergency Camp near Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 5, the first day of the new Liberal government.

Cognito said she wouldn’t leave until the demands in her petition were met.

While the camp closed in late March and Cognito moved in with friends due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she continues to remain an active part of XR. As the movement nears its second anniversary, she says XR is proof that effective change is built from the ground up.

While XR has been in Canada since late 2018, some local chapters have struggled because of pushback from their community and lockdowns caused by COVID-19. XR Calgary is one of these chapters.

Sarah Ruth Flynn joined XR Calgary in 2018. She had always been an environmentally-conscious person, but when she saw the Declaration of Rebellion by XR in the UK, it occurred to her that government action might first require public disruption.

According to Flynn, creating public disruption and encouraging climate activism in Calgary hasn’t been easy, due to the province’s role as the hub of Canada’s oil and gas sector. XR Calgary has had limited growth, and a tough time recruiting new members.

“People here are very hesitant to make a stand or say anything that’s going to be unpopular or shocking,” Flynn said.

In addition to the city’s general reluctance towards climate action and activist groups, the loss of jobs and social distancing measures due to the pandemic have prevented members from organizing together.

“It’s been really tough,” Flynn said. “People are hurting financially [and] emotionally. We’ve lost a lot of our cohesion and momentum.”

Flynn helped organize the Planet is on Fire—and So Are We! protest at the Calgary City Hall on Sept. 25 as part of the global climate action week, but even then, she says it’s hard to get people to focus on the climate crisis when their attention is on the virus.

“We’re watching the pandemic, the infection rates for COVID-19 climb, and it’s just been devastating. And especially because as all that is happening, we are also watching all these headlines about how the climate crisis has not slowed down, only activism has,” she said.

Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, XR members continue to come together and raise awareness about Canadian issues they feel need urgent attention, including the Defund Warplanes campaign, which launched over the summer.

The campaign is demanding the Trudeau government put the $19 billion it is currently investing into replacing the country’s fighter jets to better use.

In July 2019, the Canadian government formally asked four companies to submit bids to supply a new fleet of state-of-the-art fighter jets to upgrade its air force. The 88 jets—part of a procurement package worth about $19 billion—will be replacing the country’s aging CF-18s, which have been in service for over 35 years.

Brent Patterson works with Peace Brigades International (PBI) and is one of the organizers of the Defund Warplanes campaign with support from XR. He said the Trudeau government should instead use the $19 billion to pursue a Green New Deal or similar initiatives.

“If you just think about what $19 billion could do in terms of addressing climate change, or in terms of income support or healthcare, in terms of access to postsecondary education—there’s just so many ways that money could be spent better,” he said.

Members of XR Canada have shown support for the Defund Warplanes campaign, sharing the information across their social media and participating in the rallies, but Patterson says more mobilization is needed.

While over 20 rallies demanding the defunding of warplanes were held across the country on Oct. 2, Patterson says the pandemic is a crucial time to raise awareness, because many Canadians don’t realize issues like these can significantly impact their lives.

“When people may be losing their jobs, or feeling all the more economically precarious, or when people are being evicted from their homes, there really is an increased need for income supports,” Patterson said.

“To spend $19 billion on these warplanes is a profound waste of money. Is a fighter jet going to bomb a virus? Are we going to bomb the pandemic away somehow?”

A man with a small Extinction Rebellion flag pinned on his back. Photo by: Spencer Colby

While XR continues to mobilize the public and demand urgent climate action, the movement has faced criticism both abroad and in Canada.

Critics of XR around the world say the group isn’t doing enough to involve people of colour in their activism, or to address the links between climate crisis and inequality.

XR’s campaign strategy involves having as many activists arrested as possible, which has been criticized for ignoring intersections of police brutality and race.

Wretched of The Earth, a grassroots collective for Indigenous, Black, Brown and diaspora groups demanding climate justice, challenged XR to rethink its goals and strategies by taking into consideration “an ongoing analysis of privilege, as well as the reality of police and state violence” in an open letter published in May last year.

In Canada, similar comments have been made about national chapters’ actions.

According to another Guardian article from March this year, members of the Sc’ianew First Nation on Vancouver Island in B.C. demanded climate activists from XR apologize for entering Indigenous territory to protest at B.C. Premier John Horgan’s house. XR members stood in the premier’s driveway in support of the Wet’suwet’en nation’s fight again the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

While XR’s Vancouver Island chapter responded by requesting a meeting with the First Nation’s leadership to discuss the incident, they issued no apology.

Former members like Meghana Rajanahally have also come forward alleging experiences of racism and sexism within their chapters. In an interview with The Pigeon, Rajanahally said she experienced discrimination during her time as a member of XR Toronto.

A marine biologist and woman of colour, Rajanahally left academia around six years ago when she felt her research wasn’t as effective in addressing the climate crisis as community organising. She joined XR’s Toronto chapter in July of last year.

At XR Toronto, Rajanahally was working to bring a culture of decolonization and solidarity to the climate movement. She worked on the media team and as an organizer, and in these spaces, tried to ensure the language used on social media and in conversations was mindful of racism. She also helped build the organization’s first decolonial solidarity working group.

Rajanahally said she didn’t agree with the way the group addressed racism, or in some cases, chose not to. She recalls one instance when members suggested remediation for a racist member who Rajanahally believed should’ve been asked to leave.

Later, after other members allegedly mishandled a complaint from Rajanahally against a member who she said sexually harassed her, she started to question whether she was in a safe space.  

“These are some of the things that I had to deal with, including a man who sexually harassed me,” Rajanahally said. “[Other members] had a chat with him, but no one ever asked him to leave, even if I was not okay with it.”

Since leaving XR toronto, Rajanahally has continued to work as a social justice activist, playing a role in Toronto protest group Decolonize Davenport and supporting advocacy groups like Fridays for Future, Rising Tide, and No one is Illegal—organizations she believes are more effective in pursuing social justice and climate action than XR.

She said her experience working with XR Toronto left her doubting the organization’s commitment to equity.

“This [group] pretends to be interested in decolonization and it pretends to be not racist and it pretends to care about women. But it actually [doesn’t],” she added.

Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University of Buffalo in New York, also believes that activist groups like Fridays for Future are more effective than XR, but for different reasons.

Spearheaded by Swedish student and climate activist Greta Thunberg, Fridays for Future is a movement where students refuse to attend school in order to get the adults in their lives to address the climate crisis.  

According to Rome, Fridays for Future has been effective because it is based on a coherent idea. When students regularly refuse to go to school because adults cannot ensure their future, a clear message is heard.  

“It’s school kids saying, ‘What do we need education for if there’s not going to be a world that we will recognise in 20 years or 50 years?’” Rome says.

Rome says the movement is effective because the strikes occur every week.

“If you only do it once, the parent probably is going to shrug it off. But if you keep doing it, the parent might say, ‘Oh, well, this isn’t just a fad, this isn’t just something that he or she is going to grow out of. I better take this seriously,’” he says.

Even then, Rome says it’s not effective to get everyone to do the same thing, like striking.

He says he didn’t know much about XR till last November when he purchased a copy of “This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook.”

Published in June 2019, the handbook is a collection of essays authored by scientists, psychologists, artists, and activists. Their essays address the urgency of the climate crisis and the ways in which we must respond to it.

While reading the book, Rome says he didn’t see “a clear sense of a strategy” from the group.

“Who’s the target of the rebellion? Who are you rebelling against?” Rome said in an interview with The Pigeon. “Our whole world is based on fossil fuels […] how do you rebel against our whole society?”

“Their goals seem to be to bring society to a halt, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. Even if it did happen, it’s not clear to me that that would be good, that that would actually lead to the result they hope it would lead to,” he adds.

“To me, [XR is] just people wanting to express, in particularly vivid ways, that they’re horrified by what’s happening [to our climate].”

As a historian, Rome said he was reminded of the anti-war protests that took place in the United States during the Vietnam war. He explained historians today continue to remain divided about the effectiveness of the movement.

“In the simple sense, it didn’t work. The protests got bigger and more violent. And the war kept getting bigger and more violent,” he says. “Some people say the protests hastened the end of the war, while others say it just made the people that were already supporting it more adamant about not giving into violent protest.”

Reflecting on the success of US senator Gaylord Nelson’s creation of Earth Day, which first sparked conversations in 1970, Rome says to better respond to the climate crisis, people need to come together to engage in conversation.

Earth Day’s mission has been to diversify, educate, and activate the environmental movement worldwide. Growing out of the first national Earth Day held across the United States on Apr. 22, 1970, the Earth Day Network is the world’s largest recruiter to the environmental movement.

The organization has worked with more than 75,000 partners in over 190 countries to drive positive action through programs such as The Canopy Project, which empowered people to conserve and plant trees in 32 countries, and Green Ribbon Schools, the first US federal program that recognizes schools for environmental action.

Earth Day succeeds by bringing people with different talents, passions, and skills together to address a common problem, according to Rome.

“We’re going to need millions of people making their own decision about how best to make a difference. And for some people, that’ll be something that we all think of as activism. And for other people, it won’t. But it’ll still be serious.”

Protestors hold a banner on Ottawa’s Laurier Bridge during an Extinction Rebellion protest in 2019. Photo by: Spencer Colby

XR will celebrate its second anniversary on Oct. 31, 2020. While people remain divided about its purpose and effectiveness, most agree climate action is important, and that there’s no right way to be a climate activist.

In a new study by the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) and Abacus Data, 91 per cent of Canadians cited climate change as a serious issue, 88 per cent reported climate change has impacted them, and 85 per cent said the government should invest in clean technology.

A 2019 climate emergency poll also found that 42 per cent of Canadians believe climate change is currently a national emergency, or will become one soon.

This makes climate change the second largest issue facing Canadians—only one per cent behind the rising cost of living.

Cognito says Canadians are realizing that the climate emergency poses a real risk.

“It really has gotten to the point where we have everything to lose.”

However, with the climate emergency becoming more apparent to Canadians, will extreme action from groups like XR encourage or alienate them?

Rajanahally says sometimes being a climate activist means working alone. Leaving XR hasn’t deterred her from her commitment to saving the planet—in fact, it’s motivated her.

“Stay loyal to your values. Sometimes that means you might be working alone for a long time. Sometimes it means you’re doing grassroots organizing. But the meaningfulness of that is just so much greater,” she said.

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