Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Fighting for a just transition in the local political arena: Challenges and opportunities for reciprocal training between elected officials and residents

April 2024

Anne-Sophie Bendwell, Master’s student in didactics, UQAM


Although the urgent need for a green energy transition has been widely recognized, central governments are not doing enough to reduce the environmental footprint of economic activity (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021, 2022). Since the financial crisis of 2008, grassroots movements in France, Germany, and elsewhere have implemented a range of strategies for pressuring local and municipal governments to tackle social and environmental issues. Meanwhile, such efforts have inspired Quebec-based initiatives like Villeray en transition and the Réseau d’action municipale.

Political institutions at the local level offer some interesting advantages for pursuing the energy transition, including proximity between policy-makers and constituents, as well as recognized expertise in land-use planning, public transportation, and waste management.

This article explores the challenges and opportunities for local political action on energy, environmental, and social issues. Based on a belief that such action could be strengthened through co-learning experiences involving residents and local authorities, we set about assessing the training needs of the individuals concerned based on theories of epistemic and energy justice. This process was part of a larger participatory action research project initiated by the Formation collaborative pour la justice énergétique (FORJE).

A Conceptual Framework Based on Energy and Epistemic Justice

Local politics are shaped by various power dynamics. In particular, grassroots movements have to contend with powerful economic interests that control multiple sectors, benefit from the lax regulation of resource extraction, can access extensive financial resources to engage in sustained lobbying and public relations campaigns, etc. Fortunately, democratic forums like the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement allow environmental groups, Indigenous communities, and ordinary citizens to express their views on major energy projects. Such forums serve as a counterweight to corporate power.

However, they present other challenges in terms of representation, due to their lack of accessibility and openness to diverse forms of knowledge. When it comes to environmental matters, scientific knowledge and expert judgments are highly valued, whereas the knowledge of ordinary citizens tends to be dismissed as opinion. This limits opportunities to address the issue of energy justice.

And yet, energy justice considerations are essential for bringing an intersectional lens to bear on energy issues and for including the voices of marginalized populations in environmental decision-making. The notion highlights the importance of fostering a collective commitment to ensuring the participatory management of various economic sectors, while giving equal importance to social justice and environmental issues (Jenkins et al., 2018; McCauley et al., 2019; Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015).

For energy justice to take shape in the context of public consultations and grassroots movements, issues of epistemic justice, which have so far been largely ignored in theories of energy justice (Brière et al., 2022), need to be properly addressed. Epistemic justice refers to the “active recognition” of how different forms of knowledge can coexist and complement each other (Godrie et al., 2020; Piron et al., 2016; Visvanathan, 2009) in a variety of contexts, including public deliberation and training for environmental citizens. This way of thinking makes it possible to challenge the hegemony of technoscientific and academic discourses that stand in the way of dialogue (as understood by Souza Santos, 2011) between different ways of understanding the world rooted in the tangible experience of inhabiting specific environments and in the lived experience of oppression (whether based on social class, gender, “race,” ability, or sexual orientation).

Built around our conceptual framework for understanding energy justice (see Figure 1) (Brière et al., 2022), the FORJE project gives central importance to epistemic justice while challenging top-down approaches to decision-making on energy matters. Accordingly, the project was designed to foster opportunities for intersectoral and reciprocal training on energy justice while taking issues of epistemic justice into account.

Case, Methods, and Original Research Data

As part of the larger FORJE project (see Table 1), this study aimed to gain a better understanding of the different factors that can support reciprocal training on energy justice. We began by conducting a diagnostic survey using an electronic questionnaire. An initial analysis of the survey data identified four training priorities, including the need to support political engagement at the local level. Accordingly, we explored the potential for providing informal co-learning opportunities to community activists and other local stakeholders.

In an effort to define the strategies, objectives, and challenges associated with such training, we organized a focus group attended by two grassroots activists and four experts on environmental action at the municipal level. We also conducted an individual interview with another expert who was unable to attend the focus group.

We selected the following strategies for the purposes of analyzing the collected data:

    • Analytical questioning (Paillé & Muchielli, 2016) based on pre-established themes.
    • Joint analysis of the data with members of the FORJE steering committee.
    • Joint analysis of issues and potential solutions with the steering committee, supported by the academic literature.

In the following sections, we present the results of these research activities, with verbatim excerpts from the discussions and references to the literature review we carried out in parallel. We begin by discussing the challenges associated with municipal politics and the strategies currently being employed, before moving on to opportunities for reciprocal training.

Table 1: Description of the process followed by the FORJE project.

Source: Partial translation of a table included in Brière et al., 2022, p. 19.


Municipal Issues Surrounding Energy Justice

The contrasting realities faced by Quebec’s 1,131 municipalities raise a wide range of issues. Electoral processes can vary significantly depending on the size of the local population. Election by acclamation is often the norm in smaller municipalities, whereas major parties face off in the larger cities. The conditions under which elected officials exercise their power also vary depending on the size of a municipality. In smaller ones, mayor and councillor are part-time positions, which incumbents hold alongside their regular jobs. In larger municipalities, they are full-time positions, giving incumbents access to the full range of associated resources (Lefebvre et al., 2019).

These considerations highlight the importance of training. Given the wide range of powers exercised by municipalities (and regional county municipalities), we have noted that elected officials often lack expertise in relation to the local and regional issues they deal with. One research participant put it this way:

Based on my experience, I would say that in addition to having too many files to read, elected officials tend to make inconsistent decisions because they aren’t trained in decision-making. (Suzanne, environmental citizen)[1]

In the absence of legislation governing preparations for office, the responsibility for showing the ropes to elected officials often falls to civil servants. Such a situation can raise ethical issues regarding the political agendas of the civil servants concerned.

Beyond questions of expertise, the dynamics at play between elected officials and community members also raise issues. Consider Bill 122 (adopted in 2018), which was intended to recognize municipalities as local governments, and the reorganization of municipal governance structures undertaken in 2015. Based on our analysis, both of these measures appear to have removed opportunities for dialogue between elected officials and the community. While it had been hoped that Bill 122 would bring community members “closer to the decision-making process” (MAMH & INM, 2018), it failed to actually give citizens any additional power. They remained restricted to expressing themselves in the same public forums as before. And according to the findings of a study conducted prior to the legislation being implemented, “the model established in recent years for interactions between elected [municipal] officials and the [provincial] government claims to value consultation while rejecting the active exercise of citizenship often associated with public activism” (Richard et al., 2017, pp. 35–36). Accordingly, research participants noted how the situation limits opportunities for genuine community engagement.

Meanwhile, the Quebec legal framework and efforts to reorganize local governance have consistently encouraged the growth of resource extraction projects promoted by global players, in line with a neoliberal vision of development (Chiasson & Mévellec, 2019, p. 203; Fortin & Fournis, 2015).

The results of the FORJE project have also highlighted the prevalence of this economic development paradigm among elected officials. The latter continue to understand regional development in terms of large-scale projects led by outside companies, with little concern for how energy justice issues impact the local population. This makes it more difficult for citizens to propose new endogenous and participatory approaches to development based on diverse forms of knowledge (Sachs, 2007). For instance, a research participant explained how,

[…] when we bring up energy justice, bottom-up development, all that, those people don’t even know what we’re talking about. It’s so far removed from the paradigms they’re familiar with that many of them have a lot of difficulty understanding. (Jérôme, academic)

Community Engagement Strategies at the Municipal Level

Groups can use a variety of strategies to support political engagement at the local level. Some will seek to foster dialogue with elected officials on opportunities for changing regulations that fall under municipal jurisdiction. However, we found that just like elected officials, residents who seek to become politically engaged often lack the requisite knowledge. As one research participant noted:

We ourselves would need training to learn what powers municipalities have, so that when we talk to elected officials, when they tell us “Our hands are tied,” we can say: “But no, there’s this area where you’re free to act or this power you can use. (Suzanne, environmental citizen)

Co-instruction would be one approach that activist and other engaged citizens could consider for addressing these learning needs and supporting well-thought-out action. It would provide residents with a better understanding of local levers for change, including provisions of the Municipal Powers Act (2005) and special funding available for environmental initiatives. They could then use their newfound knowledge to establish working committees where they could discuss municipal environmental issues with elected officials.

Other groups prefer to challenge the power of the municipal establishment. For example, residents of Trois-Pistoles established the Assemblées citoyennes des Basques (ACDB) in 2018. It has provided a forum for direct democracy where citizens can have their say on local development. In this way, the ACDB has emerged as a veritable political counterweight to municipal authorities.

Another avenue available to those seeking to advance the environmental cause is running for office. In fact, the 2021 municipal elections in Quebec saw more than 80 environmentalists—including many young people and women—take seats on councils across the province. It will be important to follow the situation closely. Furthermore, training on local politics could help consolidate these gains.

More specifically, it could be useful to organize a series of workshops for analyzing the political landscape and for assessing the advantages and limitations of various strategies, with a view to identifying the most promising approaches and understanding how they complement one another.

Laying the Groundwork for a Co-Instructional Approach

Even in contexts where collaboration with elected officials is possible and conceivable, certain obstacles can still arise. For instance, focus group participants noted an aversion to confrontation among elected officials concerned with keeping discussions on track. This issue was attributed to two factors: a lack of confidence resulting from a lack of training, and the very strict protocols observed by municipal councils. One solution could be to support the creation of discussion forums outside of formal council meetings. The focus group suggested targeting such efforts at elected officials already preoccupied with the climate crisis, and above all at the most influential civil servants. Alliances of this nature have the potential not only to bring about change within individual municipalities, but also to create a broader ripple effect (Shearmur, 2019, pp. 104–106).

With regard to co-instruction—where everyone involved in a training process contributes to its design according to their mutual needs—the focus group reflected on the skills required by elected officials. Participants noted the importance of developing abilities in systemic analysis, in examining and clarifying ethical issues, and in interpersonal relations. Two of them commented on the importance of the latter category of skills for fostering dialogue:

Working on dialogue, as opposed to debate, that’s key. Working to alleviate the fears, the concerns of elected officials. (Jérôme, academic)

The main challenge is to create a dialogue for understanding the different worlds. (Anna, municipal civil servant)

Dialogic learning through structured conversations encourages those involved to decentre themselves, thereby allowing for a fuller grasp of different cognitive and moral framings, as well as divergent understandings (Cherqui & Bombenger, 2019). This process also facilitates transformative learning, allowing for issues to be presented in ways that are more inclusive, nuanced, reflective, and emotionally open to change (Mezirow, 2009, p. 22). By voluntarily participating in dialogue while considering their own positions in juxtaposition to those of others—what Arendt (1972) calls “representative thinking” (p. 307)—people can engage in genuine dialogue. And as one research participant pointed out, the experience fosters interest in mutual support.

Facilitating this kind of dialogue requires questioning the pedagogical choices that underpin a given training process and the resulting dynamics. Describing her own experience with training, a research participant made the following observation:

I use popular education a lot when I work with elected officials. We start from your reality, we try to understand it, and we move on from there. (Anna, municipal civil servant)

It therefore seems helpful to adopt training strategies that use the knowledge and experience of learners as their starting point, an approach recommended by other studies on training elected officials (Guertin, 2021).

Finally, two additional recommendations that came out of the focus group were to ensure training is rooted in concrete experiences related to local issues, and to prioritize small group sessions where elected representatives, residents, and other local stakeholder groups are represented on equal terms.


By analyzing the realities of municipal politics based on the experiences of those involved and the academic literature, we have been able to identify issues and possible levers for mobilizing local support in favour of energy justice. Given how a lack of knowledge among elected officials and other stakeholders is a key factor at play, we have also highlighted a number of points to consider when seeking to use co-instruction as a means of supporting change at the local level. For example, in keeping with our theoretical framework, the creation of a training dynamic focused on knowledge dialogue is vital to attaining epistemic justice.

We also see the importance of pursuing the collaborative analysis of opportunities for political action at the municipal level while adopting a decolonial approach that prompts a fundamental reassessment of our relationship with the land. The work of co-construction and co-training that lies ahead therefore has the potential to foster a transformational perspective on our relationship with the environment and on finding new ways of living together.

[1] Pseudonyms have been assigned to all research participants.

To cite this article

Bendwell, A.-S. (2024). Fighting for a just transition in the local political arena: Challenges and opportunities for reciprocal training between elected officials and residents. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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