environment minister benoit charette gabriel nadeau-dubois protesters heckling climate march montreal quebec

Quebec climate inaction is far more dangerous than protesters heckling the environment minister

Violence is climate inaction. Young kids yelling at people in power who have failed to deliver on one of the biggest challenges our world currently faces isn’t even a lack of decorum. It’s literally democracy at work.

A week before Quebecers go to the polls, everyone is cranking up the partisan politics, looking for any opportunity to paint their adversary as unworthy of our vote. After Environment Minister Benoit Charette and his fellow party members were forced to leave last Friday’s climate march — they were being heckled and booed by some in the crowd — it was Quebec Solidaire’s turn to be attacked for their co-spokesperson’s lack of acceptable (according to some) indignation at the news. 

When Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was asked about the incident, he replied, “People have a right to attend a march but if they’ve been in power for the past four years and what they’ve done is primarily defend the ‘third link’ project, I think it’s normal that people worried about the future wouldn’t be too happy to see them there.”

CAQ partisans immediately pointed to Nadeau-Dubois’s non-reaction as “proof of QS’s ‘radicalism’” and “immaturity.” CAQ MNA Christopher Skeete referred to GND’s refusal to condemn the protesters’ actions as “shameful” and “a missed moment of leadership.”

Heckling isn’t violence

Climate change quebec top 3 issue canada
Quebec climate inaction is far more dangerous than protesters heckling the environment minister. Photo by Cindy Lopez

To be clear, no one is advocating for politicians to be yelled at or heckled so loudly that they feel they must leave a march. Racist, misogynistic, violent imagery (like the many posters suggesting Trudeau should be hanged during the COVID conspiracy days), or any threats of physical violence are deplorable and should unequivocally be condemned. Even Nadeau-Dubois made it clear in a subsequent tweet that all forms of intimidation and violence are unacceptable. But vocal protests and citizens’ expressions of discontent are also very much a part of the democratic process and a legitimate (albeit cacophonous) form of freedom of expression. 

To my knowledge, no one was threatened with violence, no one was physically hurt, and no one was ever in danger. They were merely heckled, called out for their inaction when it comes to the climate crisis, and told to leave the march. As a result, they left. Members of other parties present were also heckled but opted to stay. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also heckled when he attended the 2019 climate march with Greta Thunberg in attendance, but at the time he, too, opted to stay.

Who has the power to truly shut down free speech and dissent?

Bill 96 Quebecers
Simon Jolin-Barrette and François Legault

Partisan supporters painted the young protesters as radicals, unable to understand the “real world” and too extreme to listen to the moderate middle. Perhaps that does indeed apply to some of these protesters. But the truth is that most of those young teens and adults on the streets are the generations now dealing with eco-anxiety, a condition I still see some older folks ridicule as a non-existent ailment. These are the generations now debating whether to have children, wondering what their future will look like. These are the generations furious with the government’s inaction and its woefully inadequate sloth-like baby steps while a climate emergency is rushing up behind us with the force of a hurricane. 

CAQ supporters claimed heckling protesters violated the candidates’ freedom of speech, but it’s foolish to pretend that the people who form government and a bunch of environmental groups have equal power. Who’s really been shut down? The CAQ has repeatedly limited expressions of dissent on this important issue during their four years in office. When PQ MNA Sylvain Gaudreault attempted to create a cross-party caucus on the environment, the CAQ’s Simon Jolin-Barrette refused to allow it to even be debated at the National Assembly. Premier Legault categorically refused to take part in a leaders’ debate on the climate crisis. Those in power have access to tools to shut down dissent, which the powerless do not have. And the environmental groups who were protesting, and had no desire to allow CAQ candidates to use a climate march as a campaign photo op, know that. They chose to shut that down just like they’ve been shut down time and time again. I’m not advocating for it, but I can certainly understand it. 

A highly questionable environmental record

Rouyn-Noranda Fonderine Horne
Quebec climate inaction: Fonderie Horne, Rouyn-Noranda

The CAQ’s lack of a vision in tackling the climate crisis is far more worrisome to many Quebecers than a bunch of hecklers. The recent findings about mining giant Glencore and its Horne Smelter in Rouyn-Noranda and the suppression by the CAQ of the serious health problems linked to high levels of arsenic — increased risk of cancer and pulmonary disease — are alarming. The report’s findings and the attempt to downplay them indicate that the government may be more focused on protecting business interests than public health or the environment. 

Most importantly, Legault’s “third link” tunnel project that aims to connect Quebec City’s downtown sector with the nearby municipality of Lévis (projected to cost anywhere between $7- and $10-billion) has been decried by all environmental groups as completely unnecessary and with potential disastrous environmental consequences. Advocates say it would only increase urban sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions. Legault’s repeated refusal to make public any of the results of the studies have only added to the severe criticism. Non-partisan environmental organization Équiterre recently analyzed the tunnel project and concluded it does not pass the “climate test” calling it “incompatible with the imperatives of ecological transition” and giving it only a score of 24 out of 75. 

There is institutional violence that affects people in more profound ways than some kids rudely yelling at politicians, but it’s much easier to tone-police movements rather than addressing the structures put in place that do far more damage and are often far more effective in silencing dissent. If you can get people distracted and focusing on how something was said, instead of what was said and why, you can diminish its validity and importance. Those in positions of privilege shut down debates and concerns all the time. But I suppose, since they do it dressed in expensive suits at the National Assembly or business boardrooms, and heckling is usually reduced to a minimum, we don’t consider it as offensive, immature or classless. 

Climate inaction is real violence

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, 2012

I’m not quite sure what CAQ candidates expected when they decided to attend last Friday’s climate march, where the province’s most fervent environmental groups and citizens were gathering to make their demands and dismay heard. Most Quebecers aren’t satisfied with the CAQ’s record on the environment, but the young (18–34) demographic is most dissatisfied. Those most invested from that age group were at that march. Nadeau-Dubois simply confessing that he wasn’t surprised that CAQ members were heckled and forced to leave a climate march essentially protesting their own government’s inaction appeared to me to be less an endorsement of violence, and more an acknowledgment and recognition of citizen frustration. 

After all, it’s not that long ago that he, too, was in the streets during the Maple Spring student protests. Protests, by the way, where many students and journalists covering the news were kettled and brutally beaten by police officers. Some students suffered serious injuries, including one who was hit directly in the face with a tear gas canister and another who lost an eye after being struck with a rubber bullet. That’s real violence. 

Violence is climate inaction. Violence is downplaying reports that show a clear and direct link between a smelter’s arsenic emissions and people developing cancer. Young kids yelling at people in power who have failed to deliver on one of the biggest challenges our world currently faces isn’t violence or even a deterioration of our democracy or a lack of decorum. It’s literally democracy at work. It’s concerned citizens holding those in government accountable with the only power (other than voting) that they feel they sometimes have. 

The climate crisis is staring us in the face

Hurricane Fiona Quebec climate change crisis inaction
Quebec climate inaction: Hurricane Fiona

If anything, there was something almost tragicomic about politicians and partisans trying to politicize Nadeau-Dubois’s comments the same weekend Hurricane Fiona was raging in eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada, giving us a front-row seat to the devastating effects of climate change. 

While entire homes on Îles-de-la-Madeleine were floating away and while people were talking about weather conditions the likes they’ve never seen before, listening to politicians pretend they suffered some sort of unspeakable violence at the hands of unsatisfied young voters because they were heckled and told to go home is an interesting conversation to be having. Our collective house is on fire, and some are only waking up from their slumber just to yell at the kids to keep it down. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.