There were 150,000 in Montreal, 20,000 in Berlin, 10,000 in Lausanne, and 500 in Edmonton. A total of 1.4 million youth across 123 countries absent from the classroom. As a general rule of thumb, many parents do not condone truancy. Skipping school only hurts a student’s future. But what if the student believes that the only way to save their future is to sabotage their present?
On Friday, March 15, a larger number of desks than usual sat empty; a significantly larger amount, as students from across the world took to the streets as part of the global #FridaysforFuture movement, started by 16-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg. In an inspiring display of the youth taking the future into their hands, the world took notice (if only for moment), an incredible feat in the time of hyper news cycles.
Despite all the fervour, excitement, and empowerment many other youths across the world seemed to feel as they took the future into their own hand, Edmonton did not feel the global repercussions. We live in a city with a population of about 900,000. According to the 2016 City Census, 82,000 people are ages 15-24, the target demographic for these compendious demonstrations. The turnout in the legislature? A decidedly pale 500 when compared with the rest of the world. Was it mere apathy and differing beliefs that kept students from attending, or was an external factor what caused the event’s local anonymity?
Where were the MacEwan #FridaysforFuture protests? The issue may not lie with the student themselves, but rather their cultural environments and the school’s policies, said AJ Trussler, a MacEwan student who attended the protest. When initially hearing about the movement, AJ said they had assumed- because of Edmonton’s and Alberta’s culture around oil- that there would not even be an offshoot of the protest happening here. “I think that one of the major factors that kept our protest from achieving wider success was simply the fact that we live in a city where many young people probably share their parents’ conservative views,” said Trussler. Trussler’s pronounced opinion on Alberta’s hegemony may ring true for many students attending the oft-liberal MacEwan. “We know the kind of people and corporations that we are living under, and we know our neighbours.”
The spare coverage at MacEwan may also have also left a gap in awareness in the student body. “None. I didn’t see anything at all actually,” said Trussler, who discussed attendance policies and heavy workloads as potential major barriers for MacEwan students getting out of the classroom: “students are afraid to skip, because they don’t want to fail just because they were already sick twice this semester.” The Office of Sustainability at MacEwan may seem like the perfect avenue for which protests like this can be supported, but Kerstyn Lane, Engagement and Outreach Advisor for the Office of Sustainability, says that the Office is put into a sensitive position by being part of a publicly funded institution.
Being an environmental office of a liberal public institution in an oil-heavy province can lead to being squeezed politically and financially, said Lane. Students like Trussler seeing absolutely no coverage at MacEwan was deliberate and had several reasons behind it. “As a nonpartisan unit, part of a post-secondary institution, we have zero role to play in organizing protests against government, businesses, or other organizations,” said Lane. “Oil production is diametrically opposed to climate action, and with public climate institutions, we rely on funding from major donors, and those donors may or may not have investments in oil.” There is a clear conflict of values and finances occurring at the Office. And, according to Lane, the protest wasn’t a total failure. “The turnout for that strike is probably 25 times the size of what they used to be. When I looked at the Instagram stories and posts, all I could think was ‘look how many people are there.’”
To a student who helped organize it, the protest was a total success. Caylie Ganam, a Victoria School student, helped organize the protest with Student Strike YEG. “Every single person there was so passionate about being there, and they all cared so much.” What was the difference between MacEwan students and Victoria High School students? Support. “They made it understood that although they could not publicly endorse it, that no one was going to be in trouble. They gave us the freedom to support something that we believed in.”
Change happens from within, but this change may not be something Alberta is ready for yet. As long as institutions within Alberta are funded by oil money, the protests will always be a partisan issue. To Ganam, there is only so long that Alberta can ignore the momentum of a global change, even if it may seem small now. “We are making our mark, no matter how small, and that is what I think is important.”