Canada: Educators take action on climate change education through ACTES

published 26 January 2022 updated 28 February 2022

In the Canadian province of Quebec, teacher trade unionists are getting involved in the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec’s Movement for Collective Action on Environmental and Social Transitions (Mouvement ACTES-CSQ), which provides them with strong support for initiatives undertaken with their students on climate change education.

The Mouvement ACTES is considered by UNESCO to be the only model of its kind, as noted by Tommy Bureau, adviser at the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec (CSQ) in charge of the movement.

He adds that the aim of the movement is to support schools and educational institutions, from early childhood to university, in their activities based on four values: ecology, democracy, solidarity and pacifism. As such, one of its roles is to promote actions undertaken to fight climate change.

“The reason it is linked to the CSQ is that at the beginning of the 1990s, it was through union involvement that a lot of education personnel rallied together for the environment, democracy or even solidarity.”

A logical next step to the Brundtland Movement for Green Establishments

The CSQ decided to officially support them as from 1993 in a large network, the Brundtland Movement for Green Establishments (EVB), aimed at building a better world, acting locally, but also globally, to defend the rights of workers who were mobilising in the workplace.

Bureau emphasises that when it was created, the name Brundtland meant something to most people because the Brundtland report had been released a few years earlier and people were starting to talk about sustainable development.

For him, between 2018 and 2019, when the CSQ was starting to think about changing the name of the network, there were two problems:

  1. People no longer knew what “Brundtland” meant ; she is no longer a known figure in Quebec.
  2. The term Green Establishments was also problematic because ecology was only one of the four values defended by the movement; the CSQ was also doing a lot of work on solidarity, democracy and pacifism. So the term was no longer very representative.

There was also the fact that it was running out of steam. “The EVB network was losing momentum, we were losing members every year. Not because they were no longer interested in taking action but because there was a very considerable administrative burden to ensuring accountability, as well as annual fees that needed to be paid. We wanted to reinvent the movement, to make it more up-to-date and to make life easier for members that wanted to rejoin it, those that wanted to become active members.”

Bureau goes on to highlight that “the union side is very useful to us because we have a lot of organisations that want to go into schools to fight climate change, to raise awareness through activities, but they don’t always take an approach which ensures respect for workers.”

Teaching material was created at the beginning of the 90s. “We add to it every year, either to inspire those of our members that want to get involved and to give them the tools they need, or because they have had an idea for a topic they want to address, and we provide them with the teaching material for it.”

In keeping with the Teach for the Planet campaign

The Mouvement ACTES is very much in keeping with Education International's Teach for the Planet campaign.

Bureau explains that: “Moreover, we are not only mobilising to fight climate change. Climate change is one of the areas we work on. Rather than climate change, I think we should talk about an ecological crisis of which climate change is only one aspect. We are going to work on reducing waste, a subject that is very popular in our schools, zero waste cafeterias, composting… All these initiatives are, in my opinion, just as valid as those specifically linked to fighting climate change.”

Services linked to participating in the Mouvement ACTES

With the change in name came a number of new services that the CSQ now offers.

“We have online platforms that will allow us to broaden the services we can offer. At the same time, there is very strong continuity: we have the same four values, our members on the ground continue to mobilise like they always have. We continue to provide our members with almost all the services we offered up until now and we keep adding to them. So, it isn't a complete reinvention, it is still a movement that evolves. There is an environmental and social transition, which is important to note", says the head of the movement at CSQ.

Services offered to members include:

  • An online tool where they can upload the activities they have carried out in their place of work or educational projects, thus making them available to other institutions.
  • A certification platform where they can register to take action to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Meetings at national level where they can share projects with other institutions and where training is offered.

Why are you actively working in the ACTES Network?

“When I was in 4th year primary I was in a EVB school, where I learned about the EVB story through an educational discussion kit: Let's recycle our planet together. That was when I became aware of environmental issues, when I was a child.”

Bureau remembers that he then had the opportunity to work for CSQ with retirees on the environment, sustainable development and human health agenda. A colleague, Jean Robitaille, with whom he had worked from time to time, allowed him to better understand the EVB network that he already knew, having been to an EVB school.

“When a vacancy became available, I decided I wanted to rise to the challenge, particularly as the movement was being reinvented and I wanted to be part of this reinvention, of the excitement there was in the movement.”

The EVB Network has had up to 1500 institutions in it. “We would like to go further than that in the future. Our aim is for all schools in Quebec to join the Mouvement ACTES.”

One of the ways the Network can see if a school is still active in the movement is by checking if, in a given year, it has been active on at least one of the platforms or participated in one of the activities on offer, says Bureau.

“If an institution takes part in our activities, we consider it active and there is no need to fill in any forms. If an institution stops participating, then we get in touch and ask: can we tailor our services to suit you, do you still want to be a member?”

Protecting and taking into account the rights of workers in education

At CSQ our job is really to support staff, he concludes.

“We are always in touch with teachers, professsional staff and education support staff. What is striking is that they have an excessive workload, making it increasingly difficult to work on the causes they hold dear. As a labour union, we are preparing a project for next year through which we will fund some members to be granted leave for union activities. This will allow them to complete projects in their hours of work.”

As for Doreen Perreault, spiritual care and community involvement counsellor at the school services Centre of the capital, she recognises the important contribution the union's ACTES Network has made across Quebec province. “We are in the field, more specifically, we are in the schools carrying out the activities and we can work with them to have access to a network, to other schools across the province with the same vision as us. In my school, I am the person who mobilises the students and in practice I work on projects with them. But I can count on them to scale up these activities so they go beyond where I work.”

Why is it important to act on climate change when everyone is focusing on Covid-19? For Doreen, the issue is very important, particularly now and “it must be considered from a health point of view, because for me, in the long-term , we cannot think of health without thinking of the environment, it is the foundation of it.We need to change how we see human beings so they are not considered as being outside of nature. If we want to protect people's health in the long-term, looking at this comprehensively and collectively, it is vital that we talk about protecting the environment, about climate change.”

Increasing eco-anxiety

She also explains that this year she has seen an increase in eco-anxiety amongst the students.

“We know the pandemic as a whole has caused anxiety, mental health problems and now, added to that, there is eco-anxiety. From a climate point of view, the solutions proposed make the situation worse and environmental protection has been worsening. We find ourselves with students who are increasingly anxious. Right now, we are also supporting young people to respond to this.”

“When students went back to being in the classroom, they knew they had to wear two disposable masks a day. We have written newspaper articles or letters to the minister because they were extremely concerned about this”, she adds.

We have been raising particular awareness about environmental issues for years, about climate change, and then all of a sudden, they are being asked to pollute more, she bemoans. For these students, this was totally nonsensical.

Taking nature into account and protecting it in the long-term

“For me, it is vital to develop this new idea of human beings and health, where we are part of nature and not an outside entity. It isn’t possible to solve a short-term health problem without taking nature into account and protecting it in the long-term.”

Even though students learn about the impact of climate change – it is compulsory, it is part of the curriculum approved by the provincial education minister-, Perreault stresses that it is necessary to act, that projects need to be proposed, either directly by a school, or by students supported by a school. However, she notes that this kind of action is done on a completely voluntary basis and doesn't necessarily play out in the classroom.

“If a teacher wants to create a project, they can. For me, as a spiritual care and community involvement counsellor, this varies from one school to the next. The projects I am involved with vary but often it is this same issue that comes back ; it is a problem that is important to the students. Then I develop projects with them where they are involved, whether it be gardening, creating collective spaces, sustainable mobility, different things such as these. It really is voluntary, done at the discretion of the staff available and with very few resources allocated to it.”

However, even if it is only optional to do this, these initiatives are vital because according to Perreault, “simply saying that there is a problem feeds their anxieties, we might even end up with students having a completely pessimistic outlook for the future. So it is very important to also propose that we take action, where they can learn what the solutions are, they can try them out, they can try things to really develop their agency, so they can be optimistic and once again be in charge of their futures.”

What motivated you to do this work in schools? “I did a master's in social work where I worked specifically on the theoretical foundations for developing agency with young people. At that point, I added the components for implementation and teaching how to identify a problem, take action to solve it and also find resources in nature. So, it is not only a matter of taking action where nature is seen as an object, but rather taking into consideration that we are part of it, so that we look after it for ourselves as a resource and so that we are in touch with it. In the end, that is why I do this work: to continue going through this with the students and to further develop it.”

After her studies, she joined the Mouvement ACTES “because with my experience and wanting to do this kind of project with students, the movement was a resource that was offered to all schools in Quebec province. You can join it to be put in touch with others, to be supported and have access to tools and projects they might put forward themselves. So, joining made sense.”

And being a member of the CSQ “is necessary because the union offers the Mouvement ACTES as a resource to CSQ members” .

CSQ/Mouvement ACTES counsellor: a “ tool" for students

As a counsellor, she describes her mandate as “providing support to students aged 12 to 16, on the issues that drive them. I am simply there to listen to students, I am a tool for the students who come and see me. I channel their energy, help them to get organised and put them in touch with each other so they can carry out their projects. ”

She then gives an example of an activity she was able to support. A student came to speak to her having been inspired by the Fridays For Future concept – an international movement of young people who leave school, usually on Fridays or sometimes Thursdays, to take part in protests to take action against climate change-, he was going once a week to stand in front of the Provincial Parliament at the end of the school day with his banner, by himself, to remind leaders that they needed ensure coherence between what they said and what they did at a very local level, such as provincial level.

“So then the student came to see me and said “Miss, I would like other students, other people to come and protest with me”. I wanted to help organise this as quickly as possible but clearly working locally and in a small school, I didn’t have a very broad network. I then got in touch with the Mouvement ACTES that could call on other partners. In the end, when we arrived at the parliament with the students, there were already a lot of people waiting for us, people who were already there to protest.”

For the student at that moment this was so meaningful, she remembers. “I helped him have clout but then the Mouvement ACTES helped us even more to find a voice, to join other people. When you feel a strength in numbers, this is what will help students, this is what will encourage them to say: yes, let us do this kind of project. Yes, your demands are legitimate, let’s keep going!”

Access to funding via the Mouvement ACTES

Perreault also reminds us that the Mouvement ACTES is linked to the Monique-Fitz-Back Foundation that funds initiatives in schools.

“In order to have the right to funding from the Moniqu Fitz-Back Foundation, one usually needs to be a member of the Mouvement ACTES. It is therefore in our interest to keep them informed, to make yourself known so you too can have access to their funding. It is definitely an issue because to really be able to do things, one needs money. If I want to install a bicycle rack or window boxes, they need to be paid for. So being a member of the Mouvement ACTES gives us access to the foundation’s funding. The foundation itself then gives us the means to make our ambitions come true.”

Sewing the seeds of future leaders

She also says that carrying out activities focused on the conservation of the Earth and climate change helps us to grow the seeds of future leaders.

Although she admits that the activities carried out with the students “might not make drastic changes to the direction of policy”, she explains that “it gives the students legitimacy , it gives them strength. And if they are strong now, if they are currently involved in this conversation, then later on, as citizens, their power will continue to grow”.

She concludes by saying “I want to see these young people being the leaders of the future. So I am happy to help them grow now before they blossom more later on.”

What advice do these two activists from Quebec have for the Climate Network created by Education International in 2021?

Include climate change education in the Quebec curriculum

Tommy Bureau thinks that his members should have the time, in their working hours, to receive training so that they can integrate these activities into the curriculum decided on by the public authorities.

“This is one of our main challenges because often, teachers have a schedule, they have just enough hours to get through the curriculum and climate change education is, unfortunately, not currently a major feature in the Quebec curriculum.”

Therefore, in order to better train educators, we need two things:

  1. They should have time freed up for this purpose.
  2. They should understand how this will allow them to teach the curriculum, because that is what they are being paid for.

The way to do this is to examine the Quebec school curriculum and to find examples of activities that are part of the curriculum but which are linked to climate change or the ecological crisis. And it is possible to do this: we can talk about climate change in maths, we can talk about it in French, we can talk about it in geography, we can talk about it in history.”

He stresses that “it is a good challenge because we have noticed in the last few decades that the people who took part in our activities and implemented them were the most motivated; they were the ones who often put in a lot of time outside their “normal” working hours. Whereas the rest of the staff had trouble intergrating these issues because they hadn’t been properly included in the Quebec school curriculum.”

Be bold

Doreen Perreault’s main message is “be bold. I think now is the right time to be bold enough to take measures, to dare to take concrete steps and join forces with others. We shouldn’t be afraid of causing disruption because I think we have a consensus on the what the issue is, on what the problem is.”

Despite acknowledging that climate change activities are difficult to implement because they often require stepping out of your comfort zone, changing your habits of a lifetime, Perreault emphasises that “every time we carry out an initative, people encourage us to such an extent that I say to myself: clearly I am not the only one who feels like this now. This is the right time, this is when people need leadership, when they need leaders to take concrete steps. Right now we need to be bold and be confident.