'The youth are back,' climate activists warn as they stage first Toronto protest since pandemic hit

Around two hundred people staged a sit-in Friday in downtown Toronto to mark the return of global climate protests that had been derailed by the novel coronavirus. 

Downtown sit-in marks 1 year since thousands gathered at Queen's Park

Demonstrators gathered in downtown Toronto in tandem with other environment activists across the world despite the pandemic. (Angelina King)

Around two hundred people staged a sit-in on Friday in downtown Toronto to mark the return of global climate protests that had been derailed by the novel coronavirus. 

Activists gathered at the intersection of Bay Street and Wellesley Street West near Queen's Park with banners, megaphones — and plenty of hand sanitizer — to demand immediate action on climate change and call for a "just recovery" from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"The message of today is that the youth are back," said Cooper Price, an organizer and activist with the Fridays for Future project.

"We're back in the streets; we're back with our message."

The Fridays for Future movement, inspired by environmental activist Greta Thunberg, now 17, has been unable to hold its protests, which that had garnered considerable traction but were derailed when the pandemic hit. 

In September 2019, thousands of people descended on Queen's Park to demand change. But due to COVID-19, this year is different.

Everyone present wore masks, a microphone was disinfected between speakers, hand sanitizer was available, and safety reminders were abundant. 

The demonstrators sat on "Xs" that had been drawn on the roadway with white chalk so that people could physically distance. 

Cooper Price, an organizer with the Fridays for Future project, says politicians joined climate protesters last year when it was 'popular,' but let everyone down by not showing up in 2020. (Angelina King)

Police closed Bay Street in both directions from College to Bloor Street West, but traffic has since resumed. 

Toronto joined other Canadian cities, such as Halifax and Vancouver, as well as cities around the world in the movement's return.

Youths spoke about their desire for accountability from politicians, clean water, and their drive for change.

"We want to remind our leaders that we've not forgotten the promises that they've made and that we're here to help hold them accountable," said Avery Thorne, who came from Guelph to join the sit-in.

"I think our generation really understands the emergency that we're in."

The need for a "just recovery" and transition out of the pandemic was also top of mind. 

A just recovery, said organizer Iakoiehwahtha Patton, is "for all people across Canada," meaning the inclusion of Indigenous, marginalized, racialized and Black communities. 

"It means taking the approach ...of actual tangible reconciliation," she said.  

Iakoiehwahtha Patton, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, Que., said the government needs to have an intersectional approach to pandemic recovery. (Angelina King)

While the numbers are smaller compared to last year's turnout, participants say the protest is still powerful because of its timing. 

It comes two days after the Liberal government's throne speech. By committing to net zero emissions by 2050 instead of 2030, Price said, the federal government missed the mark. 

"By 2050, I'm going to be an adult. I don't know what kind of world I'm going to be living in. I don't know what kind of future I'm going to have. So we need that action now," he said. 

He added that the group would like Premier Doug Ford to repeal Schedule 6 of Bill 197, which deals with environmental assessments, as well as implement the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous people. 

Ann Pennington says while she's inspired by youth protesters, global change shouldn't be on their shoulders alone. (Angelina King)

Price also pointed out that political leaders like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who marched in Montreal last year, were absent from this protest when they were perhaps "needed most."

Other protesters echoed his sentiment, adding that they felt betrayed by political decisions, such as pipeline expansions.

"I'm actually pretty disappointed," said Thorne, adding political leaders who showed up to protests and "acted like they really cared" last year have shown everyone "their real priorities" by skipping this year's demonstrations.  

In Stockholm, Thunberg and other demonstrators protested in front of the Swedish parliament. 

It's now been over two years since Thunberg started her solo protests, which inspired students and young people around the world to follow suit and stage their own. 

Older adults also came out to the Toronto protest. Ann Pennington said she wanted to support her niece, who helped organize the sit-in, and raise her voice for her newborn grandson.

"It's not fair that it's on their shoulders, they're just kids," she said.

"It's the last 30, 50 years that we should've been doing things differently. And we weren't."  

The youth activists say they aren't going anywhere.

"We're afraid and we're angry, and this combined is leading to us taking the streets," said Alienor Rougeot, coordinator of Fridays for Future Toronto.

"We would really, really like the rest of Canada, the rest of the other generations, to join us in this fight and realize we can't do this alone." 

With files from Angelina King


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