Protest urges GNWT declare climate emergency

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A month after Yellowknife City Council scuttled calls to declare a climate emergency, youth climate organizers have shifted their sights to the Legislative Assembly. 

Sir John Franklin Grade 12 student Ella Koklej organized the event, where a few dozen protesters gathered in front of the assembly building on Friday afternoon to pressure the new government before it sits in December. 

Ella Kokelj, Grade 12 student at Sir John Franklin High School, organized a climate strike event outside the NWT legislative assembly Nov. 29.
Nick Pearce/ NNSL photo

“We want there to be a climate emergency but we don’t just want it to be an empty statement,” she said. “We want there to be action behind it.”

Noelinne Villebrun, chair of Ecology North’s board of directors, speaks to the crowd on Friday.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

She said values of climate resilience, adaptation and innovation should inform that action, setting ambitious goals to reduce Northwest Territories’ emissions. Ideally, that would mean reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, and going net zero by 2050. 

“I understand we want change, but not doing anything to get that change will obviously not bring it,” Vivianne Pauze, a Grade 12 student from St. Patrick High School who plans to pursue post-secondary studies in earth sciences after graduation, said. “That’s why I’m here today: to show that I really care for this. I care for our planet. I want to change how we act.”

Her classmate and one of the event’s organizers, Adithi Balaji, emphasized that youth are trying to keep momentum in the wake of other recent climate strikes. She pointed to the effects of growing permafrost melt, and the increasing intensity and prevalence of wildfire as direct climate impacts on Northerners. 

“We don’t think they’re doing enough right now,” she said. “We don’t think the GNWT is doing enough. We want them to declare a climate emergency. We think it’s a state of crisis, right? And it’s not being addressed as such.”

Vivianne Pauze and Adithi Balaji, grade 12 students at St. Patrick’s High School, attend the lunchtime protest.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Balaji referenced a 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that advised drastic action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C by 2030 to avoid the significant risks of droughts, floods and increased heat.

“We’re not even close to meeting that right now,” she said. 

Thomas Gagnon-van Leeuwen, an Our Time organizer, was collecting signatures to push MP Michael Mclead to support a Green New Deal in Northwest Territories.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Thomas Gagnon-van Leeuwen, one of the founders of the Yellowknife chapter of Our Time, was collecting signatures to push NWT MP Michael McLeod to embrace a Green New Deal, which he described as a plan “to listen to the climate science.”

“Michael McLeod as our representative for the north, I think has a responsibility to promote this bold plan for climate justice in parliament, representing the North, which as we know is on the front lines of the climate crisis,” Gagnon-van Leeuwen said.

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said he would “absolutely” support a climate emergency declaration in Assembly.

He said when youth organizers put the same question to Yellowknife city councillors, they were hesitant to declare an emergency. He said they didn’t acknowledge the significance of climate change. 

“There’s kind of a disconnect there,” he said. “We have a group of youth who are anxious about their future and the future of their planet. We have nothing but benefit, if they’re making an ask of us to empower them.”

Johnson said it is the role of MLAs to pair action with the declaration.

Tara Ehrlich and Kira Young, grade 8 students at William MacDonald Middle School, hoist some signs at the protest.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

On that front, he said the assembly should consider its priorities for 2050. Meanwhile, he called to work with the federal government to meet NWT’s energy and environmental goals. 

Johnson said some pilot projects could potentially make some NWT communities carbon neutral by 2030, which could potentially include district heating, and transitioning off oil. 

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly also said he was interested in working with like-minded MLAs to bring something forward on that front.

He said he pushed to include climate-based items in the 19th Legislative Assembly’s mandate, and now he aims to work with cabinet to ensure they’re implemented meaningfully.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. 

 

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