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For seven silent minutes, the bodies of school children were slumped on the crowded steps of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
It was as if pollution had left their young lungs without clean air to breathe.
That was the scene as 250 climate activists of all ages staged a die-in on Friday, soon after a strong morning thunderstorm that threatened to continue. Teenagers, teachers and adult allies participated in the protest, which took place as similar scenes played out around the world — all in protest of government and business inaction on climate change.
An organizer with Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, Lena Andres sobbed in between sentences as she led a chant, "1.5 C to stay alive!" over and over before the teenagers fell to the ground in unison. Climate scientists have sounded alarms that if the earth's temperature rises 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, the planet risks catastrophic change.
"I was so upset. I couldn't stop crying and now I just feel a sense of relief that people are hearing us and our messages aren't being ignored," Andres said after the rally ended Friday afternoon. "The youth are rising up and we're impossible to ignore so I feel a lot of comfort in that, having this massive family of people who are willing to walk out of school for this."
Andres, 17, recently signed the No Future Pledge, along with about 200 other young Canadians who are pledging to not have children because of the precarious future of the planet due to climate change.
On Friday, there was only one student left standing among the fallen participants, all dressed in raincoats and green felt patches symbolic of Earth and soldarity with the Winnipeg-based youth environmentalist group. Victoria Redsun, 20, said she refused to die because her Indigenous ancestors fought to survive.
"We're going to stay here and fight for our lives, no matter what it takes," said Redsun, an activist with Strawberry Heart Protectors. "For the seven generations, I'm standing here for seven minutes." Redsun added the students stood for the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls who can no longer take part in the fight for the climate. Her reference to seven generations referred to an Indigenous philosophy that promotes living in consideration of how today's decisions could affect the future seven generations on the planet.
The Winnipeg rally marked the beginning of an international week of student climate action inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg has become the face of the youth climate change movement after the 2018 launch of Fridays for Future, a weekly school strike in protest of politicians' inaction on the climate file.
More recently, Thunberg called for international mobilization before the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23. Leaders across the globe are expected to attend the event in New York next week to discuss realistic plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade to achieve "net zero" emissions by 2050.
Global emissions are reaching record levels and according to the UN, the last four years have been the hottest on record. Meanwhile, Arctic temperatures have risen 3 C since 1990.
The local Winnipeg week of action will end next Friday with a protest outside the Manitoba Legislature. The event on Sept. 27 will be part of what is expected to become the largest mobilization of protesters in human history.
On a recent Monday evening, just over a dozen ambitious activists (aged between 12 and 25) gathered around a table covered in colourful reusable water bottles at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg. It was one of what had become a weekly routine since early June, in preparation for the week of action.
Participants including 16-year-old Jamie Xie went over their seven demands.
Among their calls to Canadian politicians are bolder emissions reductions, committing to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in full and halting the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion.
"We are practically dead at this point if we don’t make a difference," said Xie, a Grant Park High School student.
He said organizers have come up with concrete ideas for change that bring the overwhelming thought of climate change "back down to earth." They will communicate those messages with protests, community discussions and creative videos throughout the week.
Sunny Enkin Lewis, a 17-year-old with Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, said youth activists have produced a film of a fake wedding that depicts oil companies marrying the Canadian government and young attendees objecting to it.
She said planning the week has been a challenge since the youth have little experience with mobilizing large-scale protests and getting media attention, but they have learned to do so working in a horizontal fashion. Each member voted on demands with a thumbs up, or if they had concerns, tilted their thumb sideways so they could explain their contradictions.
"As youth, we’re not often given a voice at the decision-making table so we want to make sure it’s not the oldest person in the room or the loudest person in the room who's making those decisions," said Enkin Lewis.
"We’ve sat in a position of apathy around climate change for decades and the children, our children, are showing us that that’s no longer acceptable," said Ian Mauro, director of the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg.
Thunberg has rallied the troops and hopefully, Mauro said, youth action will alert the world to take note of the 1.5 C increase before it leads to destruction.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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