UofT350 Protest. Courtesy of Ben Donato-Woodger

Organizers with climate justice group UofT350 staged a demonstration at the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Awards ceremony to protest U of T’s lack of action on divestment from fossil fuels. The action took place on April 20 and followed U of T president Meric Gertler’s rejection of the recommendations of the advisory committee on fossil fuel divestment in late March.

The Cressy Awards recognize exceptional campus leadership, and the awards ceremony takes place in Convocation Hall.

According to Sydney Lang, fourth year student, organizer of UofT350, and Cressy Award recipient, staging the demonstration at the ceremony was a way to highlight the irony of leadership at U of T. “The President rejected fossil fuel divestment, yet claims to be a climate leader. We wanted to make it clear that U of T is most definitely not a leader in climate justice, nor have they ever been a leader in any important issue throughout history,” Lang said, referring to the length of time it took for the university to divest from South African apartheid.

“We found it ironic that such an institution would be then rewarding its students for their leadership, and we questioned what leadership even means within this facade of ‘social change’ and ‘innovation’ that U of T fosters,” Lang added.

Lang also cited personal reasons for engaging in the action. “I was embarrassed to be receiving a leadership award from a President who thinks that leadership is not taking a stand against injustice and an institution that profits from climate change and remains complicit in human rights and environmental violations through its corporate investments,” she said. “Complicity is most definitely not leadership and it is our responsibility as students to not remain complicit in the violent decisions of this institution.”

The protest involved two banner drops that read “divestment = leadership” and “REAL leaders don’t profit from climate change,” which occurred during Gertler’s speech and after all the recipients had claimed their rewards, respectively. Several award­winners participated in the protest by pinning ‘x’­shaped badges — the symbol of fossil fuel divestment — to their clothes.

Lang and two other students chose to wear shirts bearing pro­divestment slogans as they took to the stage to receive their awards. “The orange X that will be displayed in a significant amount of photos will leave a lasting and visible impression of student resistance and a constant reminder that students stood on the right side of history (like always), even when the President chose not to,” Lang said.

Lang said that the group thought about planning a more disruptive action, but decided against such an approach in order to respect the meaning of the awards to other students. She suggested that the peaceful course of action that UofT350 carried out was well-­received.

“We received a lot of positive feedback from award recipients, faculty, and administrators, after the ceremony (including a few Dean’s [sic] of colleges). I think that they appreciated the silent nature of the action,” Lang said.

Althea Blackburn­-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, said that members of UofT350 in attendance at the ceremony behaved respectfully and that their actions were kept within the university’s values of freedom of speech and expression.

Blackburn­-Evans confirmed that the university has not been in contact with UofT350 members since the event, and that the protest has not impacted the university’s relationship with them.

Lang noted that the organising methods of UofT350 are part of a larger strategy change within activism; similar divestment campaigns are occurring at other universities around the world, while, close to home, Black Lives Matter Toronto constructed a “tent city” at the Toronto Police Headquarters and organizers staged occupations of Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices.

“It’s a really exciting time ­ people are standing up and resisting and telling these corporations and colonial institutions that enough is enough, we won’t stand for this injustice anymore,” Lang said.

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