Exactly one year ago, a group of young people gathered in St. George’s Square to protest Canada’s lack of climate action, and to demand better from all levels of government. Since then, holding a protest with hundreds of people has gotten more difficult, and so has the job of getting attention for climate changes issues. Activists are forced to be more creative than ever, and that’s why if you passed by City Hall at lunch hour on Friday you saw rows and rows of shoes.
“The shoes represent the people who would otherwise be standing here at a regular Fridays for Future march, and they also represent the climate refugees who have been displaced as well, so there are a lot of different meanings here,” said Kellie Elrick, a grade 12 student at John F. Ross who was one of the handful of students at City Hall organizing the protest.
“Shoe strikes” have become a popular new way for environmental activists to demand action on climate change while obeying public health measures to not gather in large crowds. Strikes were held in areas around Ontario back in September, including one in Kitchener-Waterloo, but Elrick and her fellow organizers wanted Guelph students to have their say.
“We wanted to hold the event before it got too cold, and this week has been pretty wintery,” she said. Elrick added that today was a P.D. Day for her and her fellow high school students, so unlike some past Fridays for Future protests, there was no skipping school necessary.
The shoes were gathered from donors across the city and dropped off at St. George’s Church downtown; more shoes were delivered in-person to the organizers as they were setting up at City Hall. By the end of the protest, there were 297 pairs of shoes arranged in front of the main doors to City Hall, and at the end of the day, they would all be rounded up and donated to HOPE House and Royal City Mission for re-use.
Elrick said that she was grateful for the community support, which also came from Fridays For Future Guelph, Youth Action on Climate Change, Extinction Rebellion, and eMERGE. Evan Ferrari, the executive director of eMERGE, was lending his support to the protest as many of the same groups are combining their efforts on a motion coming next month to city council.
“We’re bringing a motion for council to ask the Province for a phase out of natural gas fired electricity generation by 2030,” Ferrari said. “There are at least a dozen groups so far that are involved with what was originally a letter to council back in July, and we’ve been working our way through the system and getting all the technical pieces in place ever since.”
According to Ferrari, six other Ontario municipalities have submitted similar endorsements to the Government of Ontario, and it would not be the first time that Guelph city council has petitioned to change government policy on energy generation.
“Ultimately, the coal phase out only happened when more and more municipalities got on board and said, ‘We can’t do this anymore,’ and natural gas is the next piece,” Ferrari said. “This all came up because the Provincial government is looking at increasing the amount of gas they’re burning by 400 per cent. That would essentially negate all the benefits that we saw out of the coal fired phase out.”
Motions like this underline the urgency in not just experienced climate activists like Ferrari, but young people like Elrick and other Guelph school students who are getting active through the Community Environmental Leadership Program (CELP), the da Vinci Program. The pandemic has changed the way they organize, but it hasn’t changed their passion.
“A lot of protests do revolve around the energy that comes with people gathering in groups and standing for the same thing, which is really cool,” Elrick said. “I’ve sort of given up on trying to predict what will happen given the current circumstances, but we’ll definitely keep taking action in some way.”