Activist group rebrands, but its hard push for a national wildfire agency remains

By Matteo Cimellaro
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Canada's National Observer

Pink paint splashed over artist Tom Thomson’s iconic Northern River.

A topless protester interrupts the Juno Awards with environmental messages of “land back” and “save the Greenbelt” across her torso.

A shutdown of key bridges and intersections throughout Ottawa.

These are some of the protest actions by Last Generation Canada, an environmental activist group formerly known as On2Ottawa. Now, the group is rebranding to align with an international climate movement network called A22, as it prepares for a new wave of direct action and demands in the nation’s capital.

The new name is an amendment of Last Generation’s counterpart in Germany, which maintains this is the last generation to stop climate collapse, while also being the first to effect change in society.

A Last Generation Canada (formerly On2Ottawa) activist splashes paint over the frame of Tom Thomson’s Northern River.

However, the group is also multigenerational, with activists stretching from university age to retirement. One member was arrested at age 87 during one of the protests last year.

Supporter Gillian Graham, 23, told Canada’s National Observer that many of the activists in the group are fed up with climate marches, climate strikes, calls to government and petitions. Direct actions that disrupt daily life and force the hand of governments became one of the only courses of action, they believe. 

“Even I’m fed up. Even I realized that the government is not listening to us and is not trying to change,” she said, pointing to Canada’s rising emissions at a time when the world continues to warm to dangerous levels.

The group’s keystone demand is the creation of a national firefighting agency, a move that is echoed by the federal NDP and Green Party. The group is also demanding citizen assemblies — a group of people selected to make policy decisions and help solve climate issues.

The demand centres on the creation of a federal agency of 50,000 firefighters who can be deployed to support provincial wildland firefighting agencies.

Currently, provinces are responsible for wildland firefighting, while the federal government can deploy the military if support is needed. Depleted or stretched provincial wildfire forces are supplemented by other provinces or countries.

Last year’s wildfire season was one of the worst in the country’s history. Emissions from Canadian wildfires amounted to over two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, greater than the total emissions of 100 countries.

There was also a severe human cost to the season, marked by catastrophic wildfires hot enough to burn through several cities. Last year alone, huge swaths of Enterprise in the Northwest Territories, Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw in British Columbia, and East Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta, among others, burned in megafires.

Last year, Canada’s National Observer investigated the human cost of inaction on wildfires, with Indigenous nations facing a disproportionate impact. Over 95 First Nations were evacuated last year alone, nearly double the number of communities evacuated in the previous worst wildfire season.

Graham also points to the eight firefighters who died in the line of duty last year as another reason why Ottawa needs to do more to ensure provincial wildland firefighters are supported by a strong federal agency.

However, the group’s new wave of protests is not well-received by authorities, Graham noted. For example, Laura Sullivan, a Last Generation Canada spokesperson, who previously spoke to Canada’s National Observer, is no longer allowed to speak to media, post on social media for the group or give public talks, Graham said. Sullivan has now been released of that condition, Graham added.

Other activists have been banned from Ontario, the downtown core of Ottawa, and from communicating with other group members.

“The police repression was so bad,” Graham said about Last Generation Canada’s last wave of actions. In contrast, Graham points to conversations with activists from Last Generation Austria, who say they receive slaps on the wrist from their country’s criminal system, allowing them to continue to hit the streets.

Meanwhile, police in Canada have been criticized by some observers for their aggressive tactics, particularly toward environmental and Indigenous activists in B.C., she noted. Some are concerned, for example, about the RCMP unit called the Community-Industry Response Group, which was involved with environmental and Indigenous activists at Fairy Creek logging protests and in Wet’suwet’en territory.

Graham also recognizes the group’s actions can be unpopular with the broader public, who might resent traffic blockages or disapprove of splashed paint on famous paintings. 

But Graham and Last Generation Canada believe change requires only 3.5 per cent of the population engaged in sustained civil resistance to produce a 55 per cent likelihood of positive change, citing the work of Harvard political scientist and professor Erica Chenoweth.

“It’s not necessarily about getting the public on our side,” she said. “That’s not really what our aim is… Our aim is to actually get things done.

“We also don’t want to be doing this. It’s not something that people do to have fun, right? It’s something that we’re trying to do to survive,” she added.

— With files from John Woodside