Journey to an Activist

Student Amasses Thousands for Largest Canadian Rally on Climate Change

Posted on behalf of Cheryl McNamara.

Gracen Rock Beach Gracen Johnson avoided the label ‘activist’ for most of her young life. Now, at 20, the University of Guelph student and self-described environmental advocate, finds herself at the helm of Canada’s largest citizens’ mobilization effort on climate change.

Embracing the word ‘activism’ has become an act of faith.

Her transition from local advocate to national campaigner was very quick. It happened while watching George Stroumboulopoulos interview David Suzuki on The Hour, a popular CBC talk show. Suzuki quoted a “former prime minister” who claimed that the only way to affect legislative action on climate change is to fill Parliament Hill with concerned citizens.

“As I watched David Suzuki recite that quote, the effect was immediate,” says Johnson, a native of London, Ontario. “I had been trying all my life to be a good steward of the earth. Yet, there he was, telling me exactly what I needed to do if I actually wanted change. I sort of sat stunned once the clip was over, imagining what I now must do.”

She made a public pledge to fill Parliament Hill on October 24th, the International Day of Climate Action, at the University of Guelph Environmental Symposium, and then, more significantly, while attending her first Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Alone and unsure of how to get the message out, Johnson found her voice when she stepped up to the microphone to announce her campaign.

“That was the bravest thing I have ever done,” she says. “I was frightened until the final words were spoken but over the course of those four days I just put on a smile and went out on my own and talked to people.”

Johnson was astounded to hear friends and strangers discussing the campaign soon after she made her announcement.

“A friend at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick informed us that her peers at a potluck were talking about October 24th before she had even mentioned it. Another time, I was standing in line to catch a bus home from the Hillside Festival in Guelph and I met a delightful couple who asked me, ‘Have you heard?’ I laughed and said, ‘Yeah!’ It’s times like those that remind me that this is something extraordinary,” she says.

Since then, Johnson has assembled a team of volunteers with the help of co-director Aiden Abram who joined the campaign in May. Collectively they named the campaign C-Day, Fill the Hill, created a website and secured partners the likes of Oxfam Canada, KyotoPlus, AVAAZ,, Greennexxus and CFS. Recently David Suzuki himself contacted Johnson to offer his support.

What started as an act of faith is now a full fledged citizen’s movement. Johnson is acutely mindful of this collective power and what’s at stake.

“Who are the only people that Parliament must respond to if they wish to keep their seats? We hold all the cards here and everything depends on us putting that pressure on. Children, polar bears, ski trips, safety; whatever you love, it’s on the line.”

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