British Columbia

The Greta Factor: Why the Swedish teen draws massive crowds across Canada

She's not a typical teenage idol. But for young people around the world, the Swedish activist is a climate rock star, drawing thousands of supporters at every stop. 

16-year-old's ability to stay above the political fray cuts through the din, say experts and teens

Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg attends a rally in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

India Harris, aged 15, has just watched Greta Thunberg deliver a speech to a crowd of 10,000 people in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery on an uncharacteristically sunny, blustery October day.

"It's cool to see that someone our age might be doing something that we might not have the courage to do," she said, flanked by friends who attended the climate march with her.

Nine-year-old twins Charlotte and Oakley Johnson-Mason chose the same words to describe the 16-year-old: "really awesome."

Thunberg speaks calmly and directly, evoking science. She talks openly about living with Asperger's. Her social media posts are understated, but still reflective of a person raised with the Internet and who wields it with ease.

She's not a typical teenage idol. But for young people around the world, the Swedish activist is a climate rock star, drawing thousands at every stop. 

Thunberg drew a crowd of 10,000 in Vancouver, according to Vancouver Police. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Other celebrities — think Leonardo DiCaprio and Miley Cyrus— have used their celebrity clout to mobilize young people around environmental issues. 

But Thunberg's authenticity, and unwillingness to present herself as anything more than she is, is what has helped her resonate with young people and rise above the din, said Greg Garrard, a professor of environmental humanities at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus in Kelowna.

'Direct and uncompromising'

Other experts say Thunberg's timing galvanized Canadians in the middle of an election where the results played out along the faultlines of the climate change debate. But the teen also stayed above the political fray.

"Although she doesn't speak in a powerfully rhetorical way — the kind of thing that we expect to hear from politicians or celebrities — she's a lot like the kid in the Hans Christian Andersen story who points out that the emperor has no clothes," said Garrard.

"She's just so blunt and direct and uncompromising and that's just extremely powerful."

Many of Thunberg's supporters are too young to vote — but she drew 500,000 protestors at her mid-election campaign stop in Montreal last month. When pressed by reporters to comment on Canada's pipeline politics, Thunberg told policy makers to "listen to the best available science."

She didn't walk alongside Trudeau, who was also in the Montreal march, but met with him later, quietly.

Demonstrators gathered in in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, ahead of a march and speech by Greta Thunberg. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Because she is so steadfast in refusing to talk in political terms and to use political rhetoric, and she focuses so unerringly on the science and on the need to be responsive to the science, in some ways I think she's doing her utmost to avoid that polarization — doesn't mean that it works, but I do think that's what she's trying to do," said Garrard.

'The right person at the right time'

Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at UBC, said she believes Thunberg's emergence as world-renowned climate activist has to do with this moment in history.

"She's the right person at the right time, when the public at large and young people are ready. They're increasingly frightened, they're concerned, ready to march in the streets — and I think that's why the example set by Greta Thunberg has taken off," she said.

"They're learning about the science of climate change in school and they're wondering: 'Why aren't the adults doing anything?' She's a catalyst for a level of concern and fear that has been there, ready to burst out into the open."

Thousands of people listen to a group of activists who are suing the federal government over climate change at a climate strike rally in Vancouver on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Thunberg isn't everyone's cup of tea. Her rally in Edmonton was met with counter-protestors, and a mural of her defaced with the words "this is oil country." But Harrison said her presence also made it easier for climate activists in that province to speak more freely.

Garrard said "anyone who addresses climate change with the directness that Greta brings to it is going to become a lightning rod for those larger cultural and political differences."

Speaking to the nine-year-old Johnson-Mason twins, another young activist approaches, handing them two signs, pink hearts on a stick that were handed out to protestors.

"Do you guys want these? For next time," she asks — and the twins parents' very happily accept.

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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