A couple 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 initiate the actions to back it up.
The afternoon included emotional speeches and the chanting of pro-environment cheers.
“The reason were 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 Guelph Politico. Another organizer, Kyra Kestral said “I’m scared,” and added that “the city isn’t doing enough.”
City councillors have been debating online and in the op-ed pages for weeks as to whether to declare a climate emergency, and follow other Ontario municipalities like Kingston, London, and Ottawa, who have made declarations in the last several weeks. Mayor Cam Guthrie has made clear he is against this move and others have made clear their opinion whether they are for or against it.
The mayor and council have supported various climate policy initiatives in the past, including a motion last year to support a city-wide transition to Net Zero, and a 100 per cent renewable electrical feed by 2050. The motion was passed unanimously.
Still, on Friday 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, that it’s backed by scientific evidence, and that City leadership is essential to tackle the “urgent changes” to limit catastrophe.
The organizers behind the walkout are made up of some of the same leaders who have organized two previous rallies at 1 Carden Street for other issues recently including Sequoia Kim and Katie Nixon. Former city council candidate Jax Thornton was also among the organizers
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. He added that, “we’ve seen adults behaving like schoolyard bullies” on the issue.
“This needs to change and you are part of the change,” Dyck said to the crown. He told the students that even though many of them are not yet voting age, their voices are “as powerful as any voice,” and he encouraged them to talk to their parents adding, “we need to act with urgency.”
The rally organizers did take of the work of Ward 2 Councillor James Gordon and Ward 5 Councillor 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 “listening to each other.”
Grade 11 student Dylan Meszaros, holding a sign that read “If you were smarter, we’d still be in school” (pictured above), said that he went to the rally “because this is a serious issue, and if we don’t change, then 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, another 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 school students 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,” then what is the difference between that and the emergency task force on poverty that Guthrie held earlier this year?
“He doesn’t really have an idea of what we’re looking for,” Bennett told Guelph Politico in an interview at the rally. She explained that the declaration these high school students seek goes beyond optics and is a small, meaningful step that “We need to take towards a global impact.”
Bennett, who’s in Grade 12, went into detail on the group’s struggle to connect with the Mayor Guthrie. She described the April 25 town hall as “not good” and said the mayor “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 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 that “They’re clear on where they stand,” and added that the mayor appears to be sending “mixed messages” and “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,” Bennett 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.
On top of that, there’s been no formal motion to declare a climate emergency. At Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Gordon will table a motion to reconsider last year’s vote on Net Zero and 100 per renewables, and move the deadline for the conversion from 2050 to 2035 in a new motion.