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Cities, Climate and Inequalities

“Climate justice” in Quebec: Struggle, mobilization, and practice

March 2024

Hélène Madénian, post-doctoral fellow at Labo Équité Climat, (INRS), Sophie L. Van Neste, Professor in Urban Studies (INRS) and Director of the Canada Research Chair in Urban Climate Action, Zainab El Guerrab, coordinator of philanthropic funding and development (Trajectoire) and René Audet, Professor, Department of Strategy, Social and Environmental Responsibility (UQAM)


Over the last decade and a half, environmental politics have become more focused than ever on climate issues. Ordinary citizens have played an important role in this shift. In Quebec, young people and community organizations that work to support those most affected by climate change are among the groups that have mobilized around “climate justice.” But in Quebec as elsewhere, the exact meaning of this notion remains plural (Schlosberg & Collins, 2014). It points to connections between climate change, social justice, decolonization, systemic struggles, and impacted territories. The fight against fossil fuels in Quebec and elsewhere in North America had earlier served to expose power imbalances, alongside and sometimes in coalition with Indigenous movements. More recently, climate justice has emerged as a focus of local activism related to disparities in living conditions and health (Ranganathan & Bratman, 2021).

This article provides a partial history of the struggles that have helped redefine the environmental movement in Quebec over the last 15 years. We begin by looking back on the fight against fossil fuels, before exploring three subsequent turning points in the movement: the development of transition roadmaps and local experiments with implementing them, discussions on making “marginalized” groups central players in the climate movement, and a dispute regarding the future of an abandoned piece of land in Montreal.

State of the Academic Literature

The Emergence of the Notion of Climate Justice

Since 2009, a movement has taken shape around the issue of climate justice. At COP15 in Copenhagen, social campaigners and activists mobilized to challenge the various processes and policies that were contributing to the climate crisis (Chatterton et al., 2013). In addition to condemning a lack of action on climate change itself and emphasizing green growth solutions, they drew attention to the disparities at the heart of carbon production and its impacts worldwide (Chatterton et al., 2013), disparities rooted in colonialism and the power imbalance between the global North and the global South. Among other things, this emerging movement sought recognition of the disproportionate, historical, and ongoing responsibility of certain countries and populations for climate change, along with acknowledgement of the unfair burden they were placing on the rest of humanity. In short, those populations least responsible for the climate crisis were suffering the greatest impact, despite having fewer financial and political resources available for climate adaptation.

The climate justice movement has come to the defence of those frontline communities most affected by the impacts of climate change and resource extraction. It has done so by supporting their struggles, acknowledging their challenges, seeking compensation for their losses, and fighting to improve their current and future living conditions. Indeed, the movement has thrust the notion of frontline communities to the forefront of efforts to oppose the fossil fuel industry (Gobby et al., 2022). For instance, the notion has served as the basis for alliances between groups concerned by emerging vulnerabilities or the loss of a sense of security at home.

A World Where Many Worlds Fit

To the ears of many activists, the overarching climate justice narrative can sound oversimplified and too all-encompassing. It does not allow for a proper understanding of the legacies of oppression and issues specific to certain struggles. For example, treating climate change impacts as forces external to society can obscure the structural causes of climate injustice. Meanwhile, Escobar’s (2015) interpretation of the pluriverse— »a world where many worlds fit »—serves as an invitation to question whether the climate justice movement (and, more generally, efforts to achieve a social and environmental transition) can truly account for cultural diversity, the range of issues at play, various forms of attachment to the land, etc. In other words, can the movement hope to reconcile so many distinct visions of the present and the future?

Despite being interpreted in a range of ways, the notion of climate justice nevertheless highlights the need to address how climate change itself and its magnified impacts on certain populations have been generated in a context of profound inequality (Chatterton et al., 2013). Furthermore, climate justice refers to the power imbalances surrounding the development of climate change solutions, whether at a local or global scale (Henrique & Tschakert, 2021; Sultana, 2022). Accordingly, climate justice action and associated practices encompass both recognition of this structural inequality and efforts to dismantle it.

Above all, climate justice struggles are being defined and redefined in cities and through local efforts to oppose the extractivist development model (Gobby et al., 2022; Ranganathan & Bratman, 2021). Meanwhile, municipalities have emerged as key actors in the fight against climate change. In addition to acting politically through their leaders, local governments can adopt a climate plan (a series of climate action measures and commitments) and introduce various initiatives. But they can also support different grassroots experiments with implementing a social and environmental transition roadmaps. At the same time, questions of equity tend to be largely overlooked in local experiments and climate plans. From all indications, finding climate solutions without creating news forms of inequality or exacerbating existing ones remains a difficult task (Armitage et al., 2023; Shi et al., 2020).  

Case, Methods, and Original Research Data

This article is based on multiple research projects and literature reviews undertaken by the four co-authors in recent years. On the subject of opposition to fossil fuels, we draw on data gathered in the course of 24 interviews conducted in 2015 and 2016 with activists and municipal stakeholders (planners, public safety and environmental experts, and elected officials); through the observation of hearings and protests (Van Neste, 2020); and as part of a literature review based on textual analysis of academic, government, and activist publications released between 2008 and 2018 (Audet, 2017). The work of the Research Chair in Ecological Transition at UQAM and the Canada Research Chair in Urban Climate Action has provided us with insight on transition roadmaps and grassroots experiments with implementing them. The observation of events, an additional literature review, and two discussion groups with activists involved in the fight over a vacant piece of land in Montreal (facilitated in 2021 and 2022 by Zaïnab El Guerrab) allow us to shed light on efforts to redefine climate justice and make “marginalized” groups central players in the climate justice movement. During the same period, 14 interviews were conducted with climate activist groups in Montreal (Madénian, 2023), providing information on how these groups understand the climate crisis and on their demands.


The Fight Against Fossil Fuels

In Quebec, the climate justice movement grew out of opposition to the fossil fuel industry. The first communities to mobilize were those adjacent to and therefore directly impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure, exploration, production, and transportation projects. For instance, plans for a gas-fired power plant in Beauharnois, shale gas exploration in the St. Lawrence Valley, oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Laurence and surrounding regions, and the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster all generated significant tension and debate at the local level. Opposition to projects promoted by the fossil fuel industry coalesced into a movement based on the resistance of those living in affected areas.

By the end of 2013, some 100 grassroots “vigilance committees” had been established (Dufour et al., 2015). They turned for help to environmental organizations and academic researchers, and sometimes formed alliances with First Nations groups (Audet et al., 2017). Concerned by a lack of information and consultation, they learned to “do politics on [their] own,” demanding that the industry and its impacts face the scrutiny of public hearings (Dufour et al., 2015, p. 127).

The movement also targeted pipeline projects backed by the federal government, including Energy East and Enbridge 9B. And in addition to defending quality of life and the local environment, activists sought to increase political engagement. In subsequent years, municipalities also adopted this dual approach of safeguarding the local environment (drinking water, woodlands, public safety) while encouraging residents to have their say on energy infrastructure. Connections were made with Indigenous communities strongly opposed to pipeline projects in different parts of Canada. This opposition was based on not only a commitment to fighting climate change, but also a desire to pursue land claims, protect local ecosystems essential for hunting and fishing, and foster a sense of security. Students who mobilized in 2012 against shale gas exploration and pipelines continued organizing strikes and other actions for the future, alongside demonstrations in opposition to the new Bay du Nord offshore oil development.

Social and Environmental Transition Roadmaps, and Local Experiments with Implementing Them

From its oppositional stance toward fossil fuel projects, the climate justice movement shifted to a proactive stance based on the potential for mobilizing a broad social coalition in support of transition pathways away from fossil fuels and toward a new vision of society.

The Front commun pour la transition énergétique was launched in 2015 by a coalition of 163 community groups, environmental NGOs, labour unions, and Indigenous groups. These stakeholdes cited their shared opposition to fossil fuel development and their desire to promote clean, local, and renewable energy sources that create jobs. In 2019, the Front commun released the Feuille de route pour la transition du Québec vers la carboneutralité, a roadmap to a carbon-neutral Quebec, based on the work of 190 members representing 85 different organizations.

The document opens with an acknowledgement that “we” are not all equal: “Even within Quebec and Canada, different social classes and different populations have distinct responsibilities and impacts” (2020, p. 12). Drawing inspiration from labour movement concepts like severance and unemployment benefits, the roadmap reflects a commitment to a just transition and social justice. Accordingly, it insists on providing compensation for the negative repercussions of a social, environmental, and energy transition, including impacts that exacerbate gender inequality or require changes to living environments. The roadmap calls for a series of government actions, such as “leadership support and support for the participation of marginalized groups in decision-making processes” (p. 31). Furthermore, it insists on the need for a just transition to be guided by respect for human rights, with specific reference to the impact of resource extraction projects, the rights of Indigenous peoples, and the right to a healthy environment.

Meanwhile, experimental initiatives began to emerge at the local level. They included projects inspired by the grassroots “transition town” movement in the UK, as well as groups sponsored by the Suzuki Foundation or the Mères au front movement, which was launched in response to the documentary Demain (2015). For its part, the Front commun’s Collectivités ZéN program aimed to implement those aspects of the roadmap related to mobility, agriculture, and biodiversity protection. Local initiatives have also produced new visions and narratives of social and environmental transition. Consider the example of Solon, a Monreal-based non-profit that works in partnership with the Research Chair in Ecological Transition. It put forward a narrative that emphasizes the need to acknowledge different forms of oppression and discrimination, to raise awareness in the public and among decision makers, and to foster social inclusion and connections within living environments (Butzbach & Audet, 2022). Other emerging grassroots experiments have sought to nurture spaces of collective autonomy and leverage local community structures in support of efforts to achieve social and environmental transition. For example, Bâtiment 7 in the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood has built community greenhouses, launched urban agriculture projects, opened a solidarity grocery store, and created a blue-green alley, all while striving to make these spaces more inclusive.

Out of the Shadows: Social Justice, Environmental Justice, and Decolonial Climate Justice in Pandemic-Era Montreal

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the emergence of several initiatives and organizations dedicated to exploring the relationship between social justice and climate justice.

Pas de justice climatique sans justice sociale (PJCSJS) is a case in point. The initiative’s Facebook page describes its members as “people from grassroots groups, with experience in the social justice movement, traditionally marginalized or excluded from the White-dominated ‘environmental’ movement.” In 2021, PJCSJS organized a number of online meetings to “bring together those on the margins of social and climate struggles.” The aim was to establish a dialogue between activists involved in various urban struggles (anti-racism, poverty, gentrification) and those who are rarely given a platform to speak on climate issues—especially members of racialized communities, who lack visibility within the environmental movement.

The Climate Justice Organizing Hub provides a second example. Established in 2020 by a group of young people involved in the fight against climate change, the organization sought to support fellow activists through the sharing of financial, organizational, and intellectual resources. In this case, the aim was to better equip other organizations fighting for environmental causes, bring social justice issues to the forefront of the environmental movement, and build connections between groups at the centre and those on the margins of the climate debate. Spaces, including virtual ones, were created to give disempowered groups a voice and to enhance the capacity, knowledge, and skills of environmental activists with respect to colonialism, Indigenous struggles, and marginalized perspectives. Some meetings addressed urban issues like demands for climate justice and defunding the police, the struggles of the global South, migratory justice, environmental racism, and housing inequality—all while linking them to climate action.

The third and final example involves opposition to the industrial redevelopment of a vacant piece of land in the Montreal borough of Mercier—Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. This was a case of an urban space being reappropriated in response to environmental injustice and urban disparities. The story goes back to the turn of the 21st century, when the Canadian Steel Foundry was demolished and neighbourhood residents decided to take back ownership of the abandoned lot. For instance, they organized various recreational activities on the site. Later, Ray-Mont Logistics announced plans to build a transshipment platform with the capacity to handle 10,000 shipping containers, a hundred trains, and a thousand trucks. In response, two existing organizations—Mobilisation 6600 and Terrain vague—joined forces under the name Résister et fleurir with the hope of seeing the land transformed into a nature park. Members of the group occupied the site, engaged in art activism, organized meetings and workshops, set up blockades, and planted trees (among other activities). On the one hand, they sought to expose the health impacts of industrial pollution in the area as an example of environmental injustice. On the other hand, they condemned the potential loss of a large green space that provided an important source of cooling in an area rife with heat islands.

Given how their initiatives have been tightly woven into the urban fabric, PJCSJS, Climate Justice Organizing Hub, and Résister et fleurir are all well positioned to further address issues of climate justice through engagement with government, especially municipal officials in Montreal. However, the interviews with representatives of 14 Montreal-based climate activist groups revealed that those who viewed the climate crisis through the lens of social justice (in other words, those who saw marginalized populations as the primary victims of the climate crisis) were critical of the city’s climate plan. And because they saw the challenges ahead as largely structural in nature, these individuals believed that their concerns could be better addressed at the provincial, federal, and international levels, as opposed to the municipal one. That said, the PJCSJS manifesto addresses both urban and provincial authorities, drawing their attention to issues affecting racialized communities. Likewise, Résister et fleurir has made appeals to the Mercier—Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough council, the City of Montreal, various provincial agencies and public sector stakeholders.


In recent years, Quebec has seen a number of major efforts to mobilize public support for climate solutions and a just transition. Initially, the focus was on opposing fossil fuel extraction and transportation projects, as well as on defending local democracy and quality of life. Later, climate roadmaps, manifestos, and local experiments provided opportunities to propose and demonstrate alternative models of a just transition. Then, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of those who continued to find themselves excluded from the debate began reconsidering the conditions for climate justice from an anti-racist perspective and with the aim of bringing marginalized viewpoints out of the shadows. Issues of climate justice have also been raised in the context of efforts to create a nature park out of a vacant piece of land that residents had reappropriated in an already highly polluted area of Montreal.

In several of these instances, the activists involved did not explicitly describe their mobilization efforts in terms of the fight against climate change or even climate justice. The reasons for this were varied and changed over time. Initially, climate issues were seen as something dealt with by experts at a global scale, whereas the initiatives discussed in this article were focused on local matters. Later, climate vocabulary seemed too restrictive for articulating a broader perspective on social transformation. Consider what Léa Ilardo[1] wrote in an open letter following a demonstration led by young people in September 2021: It was not a ‘climate march’ insofar as it highlighted the need to look beyond biophysical processes and address questions of social norms and morality. This reflects how urban movements are often ahead of public authorities when it comes to seeing how different issues are related. For such movements, « climate justice is not about climate » (Ranganathan and Bratman, 2021).

Instead, the movements in question focus on condemning a capitalist system based on resource extraction that threatens the sustainability of life on Earth while creating insecurity and exacerbating inequality.



[1] An environmental activist who served on the organizing committee for the September 2021 Climate March. Her opinion piece was published in Le Devoir on September 29, 2021. https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/idees/636354/idees-ce-n-etait-pas-une-marche-pour-le-climat

To cite this article

Madénian, H., Van Neste, S. L., El Guerrab, Z. and Audet, R. (2024). “Climate justice” in Quebec: Struggle, mobilization, and practice. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde. https://www.vrm.ca/climate-justice-in-quebec-struggle-mobilization-and-practice/

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