On September 20, U of T students stood in solidarity with millions of protestors around the world in a historic Global Climate Strike to demonstrate against inaction surrounding the climate crisis. Inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the week-long strike kicked off on Friday in more than 150 countries where youth activists coordinated local events. Protestors gathered outside of Simcoe Hall to voice their anger and anxiety over the emergency, later moving to Hart House for a climate crisis teach-in.
Students speak out
“Which side are you on?” written in black paint, was stretched across a banner held by climate activists on the steps of Simcoe Hall, where students expressed their frustrations and anxieties about their future in the face of a climate crisis.
Students from Leap UofT led the rally. Their grievances were against the university’s involvement in the development of the Mauna Kea Thirty Meter Telescope, continued investment in the fossil fuel industry, and inaction over the mental health crisis on campus.
The last major environmental protest took place four years ago during a divestment campaign that led to the formation of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Divestment. The committee’s recommendations — including targeted divestment — were rejected by President Meric Gertler in 2016, who instead mandated a case-by-case approach to divesting from companies involved in the fossil fuel industry.
“An administration that does not know how to treat any land with care because of the same undergirding logics that lead it to treat people as fungible, as disposable, as less,” said vocal mental health advocate and U of T student Lucinda Qu, in a rebuke of the university’s policies on climate and mental health. Qu was among an array of speakers, including local climate activists and lawyers from Climate Justice Toronto.
New Democratic Party MP candidate for Spadina–Fort York Diana Yoon joined students in their protest. “I think that it’s important to amplify and support youth-led movements,” said Yoon in an interview with The Varsity.
“The role of a university should be to play a leadership role in showcasing what is possible,” said Yoon on what the university can do in fighting the climate crisis. “I think it’s a microcosm of a bigger picture, of a larger society… There’s so much potential to showcase what young people are demanding.”
Hart House teach-in
Outside of Hart House, Fridays for Future’s Toronto chapter organized facilitator-led group sessions to teach children about how to discuss the climate crisis. At the event, presenters sang songs and led cheers with a crowd of school-aged children, asking them to connect with the environment. “All the science has been there for years. We didn’t listen. The mass protests have been there. Why is the kids’ aspect working better than the rest? And how can we empower all the kids that are coming… to have meaningful conversations, especially right before a big election,” said Allie Rougeot, head of Fridays for Future in Toronto, in an interview with The Varsity.
Nadine, a second-year student at U of T, led a small group in a session on how to speak to politicians about the climate crisis: “I’m specifically trying to teach kids, trying to teach other students… how to effectively respond and speak with politicians, because they’re the ones who create the change.”
Gabriel Kerekes, another facilitator, led a session about talking to family members for around 30 elementary-aged students, and encouraged them to think about compassion and diversity.
“You don’t have to be angry at your parents if they don’t understand you right now, or even if they don’t understand you at all, because you’re part of something way, way, way bigger. This is your family too, and together we can all work together to influence one another,” explained Kerekes during his group session. He explained to The Varsity that communicating with family members is a stepping stone to communicating to anyone.
“Every single one of us is having an issue with communication,” said Kerekes. “We don’t know how to tell people in a way that they can get on board with the issues at hand for a variety of reasons.”
Katia Newton, 15, skipped school along with her friends to attend the teach-in. “If you’re not actually helping or doing things, even if it’s just showing up to a protest, then you can’t really say that you’re helping. But you can’t just complain and then not do anything. But it’s a big issue and it’s going to impact us, especially the younger generations — and we can’t even vote yet. But we can show up and we can do what we can,” Newton said.
Parker and Ziggy, both 15, had the same idea. “We can’t just sit idly by — this is our world. It’s being passed down to us. We’re not going to just let old people shit on our planet. It’s ours now,” said Parker.
U of T and climate
Steve Easterbrook, Director of U of T’s School of the Environment, also attended the rally, and said he was inspired by the student protests: “I support the youth that are getting out there on the streets… I work on climate change, climate modeling, and it’s the most hopeful sign I’ve seen in years.”
Easterbrook, wearing a sign that read “I’m a Scientist, Ask Me Anything,” said of climate science: “People don’t realize that once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, it basically stays there for thousands of years,” unlike many other air pollutants.
According to the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation’s 2018 Carbon Footprint Reports, the combined total carbon footprint of the university’s pension fund and endowment fund is over 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Esterbrook also said of U of T’s administration, “I would love to see a much stronger statement from the central administration supporting the students that want to get out and take action.”
Jessica Bell, MPP for University–Rosedale, attended the teach-in and hosted workshops teaching children how to talk to politicians about the climate crisis. Just a day before, Bell’s office released an online form collecting signatures for a letter calling on Gertler and the university to “support student, faculty and staff participation in the Global Climate Strike on Friday, September 27, 2019.”
In an email to faculty and students on September 22, Faculty of Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin requested that instructors provide flexibility for students who do not attend class on Friday, September 27 to join the Toronto climate strike.
Elizabeth Church, spokesperson for the university, held firm on the university’s commitments to the environment in an email to The Varsity: “[We] are committed to playing a leadership role in addressing climate change through our research, our teaching and by taking action to reduce the carbon footprint of our campuses.”
In a U of T News article, John Robinson — Gertler’s Presidential Advisor on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability — advised students to participate in events across the university.
“We encourage students to use the opportunity of the climate-related events going on at U of T and in the community to learn more about climate change and climate action.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Editor’s Note (September 25, 2:53pm): This article has been updated to correct a quote by Qu.