Joining millions around the globe, U of T students protested at Queen’s Park on September 27 to demand action on the climate crisis. These protests marked the end of a week-long strike that started on September 20, spearheaded by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, to denounce inaction on the climate crisis by world leaders at this week’s United Nations Climate Action Summit.
At noon, protesters left Queen’s Park to march around downtown Toronto before ending up back at the legislature for closing remarks and a concert.
“This is powerful. This is historic. This is unprecedented,” said Allie Rougeot, organizer of the strike and head of Fridays for Future in Toronto, during her remarks in front of the sea of climate activists gathered outside the provincial legislature.
“When Fridays for Future started here in December 2018, there were 30 people where you’re standing here today. Look around you now. Look how many people showed up for climate justice.”
The protests were organized by a coalition of youth and climate advocates, including Fridays for Future Toronto, Climate Justice Toronto, ClimateFast, No One Is Illegal, Fight for $15 and Fairness, Migrant Rights Network, Toronto350, Rising Tides Toronto, Indigenous Climate Action, Greenpeace Canada, and Leap UofT.
Students march and speak out
As they slowly gathered on the steps of Sidney Smith Hall, students led a march across King’s College Circle to Queen’s Park holding signs that read “How dare you,” “I stand for what I stand on,” and “Leave class,” among others. While the U of T administration supported faculties and individuals where possible, and endorsed flexibility for students who striked, the university did not close despite calls from community leaders, students, and professors.
Third-year ecology and evolutionary biology student, Sophia Fan, is the University College Literary & Athletic Society (UCLit)’s sustainability commissioner and led around 100 students to the strike.
“I’m really glad that this is becoming huge and that our generation is finally stepping up and just saying no to our futures being taken away,” said Fan.
Rougeot contacted the UCLit at the beginning of the summer asking for its participation. Since then, Fan and her commission distributed promotional material for the event, held poster-making sessions, and discussed the demands of the strike and its implications for both U of T and the wider community.
“I love nature and I wish I was only here so that I could learn more about it… but the fact that I’m researching bees because they’re dying, I’m researching plants because they have to tolerate heatwaves breaks my heart,” said Fan.
Cricket Cheng, a fifth-year English and geography student, is an organizer with Climate Justice Toronto. Cheng and colleagues have been focused on “centering various intersectional struggles” for the climate strike.
“If you look at the demands, we’re fighting for Indigenous sovereignty, we’re fighting for justice for migrants and refugees, we’re fighting for universal public services,” Cheng said.
Cheng noted that “it was a bit of a struggle to persuade people who had been doing this for years, if not decades, in one very particular way to get them to reimagine what it means to be fighting for environmental justice and justice for all.”
Cheng pointed out the environmentalism movement’s history of censoring racial justice. Elaborating on the organizational process in this context Cheng said, “we were showing up as…young racialized people and that really shifted the course, both in terms of the messaging, the policies, and also who was in the room.”
Mia Sanders is a third-year student studying history and women and gender studies and also a part of Climate Justice Toronto. Sanders has been focused on “shaping the demands to reflect the connections between different liberation struggles.”
Initially, while the demands were being drafted, Sanders encountered pushback. “We got the critique that it was distracting from the real issue to talk about migrant justice,” said Sanders. However, they are proud that they were able to get the message out in the end.
Sanders admired the strike’s strong youth presence and has respect for Thunberg’s ability to mobilize the masses. However, Sanders said, “we can also look to young people like Autumn Peltier, who’s… [an] Indigenous water defender and… [has] wisdom in her intergenerational knowledge.”
As for next steps, “I’m going to be showing up more in solidarity with frontline communities,” said Sanders.
Both Sanders and Cheng will continue their fight for climate justice on October 13 at High Park, where the Indigenous Land Stewardship Collective is holding a protest.
“They’re fighting the contract that the… city has with Monsanto and the glyphosates that they’re spraying on traditional burial grounds,” explained Sanders.
Politicians weigh in on climate action
Current and former politicians joined the climate strike, including Dianne Saxe, the former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, who gave a speech at the pre-march rally. Saxe told The Varsity that she hopes “adults will be shaken out of their selfishness, greed, and apathy, that young people will vote and that they’ll make the climate crisis central to their vote” as a result of the climate strike. Saxe went on to describe carbon pricing as an important tool in combating the climate crisis and said that “anyone who’s against carbon pricing is stealing the future.”
Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Andrea Horwath and federal NDP candidate for University–Rosedale Jean-Baptiste Vajda both pointed to the NDP’s Green New Deal as an example of effective climate action.
The plan commits to cutting emissions at least 50 per cent by 2050 while creating new jobs, and also promises to be equitable and meet obligations surrounding reconciliation. As Horwath put it, “no community can be left behind, no workers can be left behind.”
Former Toronto mayor and North American Director of the climate action organization C40 Cities, David Miller, noted that in terms of effective climate action, “the plans are all there, it just requires a political decision to do it.”
Miller highlighted the benefits of updating building codes to achieve net zero carbon buildings, eliminating the use of coal-fired generation in Alberta and New Brunswick, and the power of divestment.
“I believe our public institutions, like our universities, need to be moral and ethical in their investments… the economic system matters and institutions like University of Toronto can very easily choose other investments,” said Miller, citing the campaign to divest from South Africa as action against apartheid as an example of effective divestment.
MPP for Spadina–Fort York, Chris Glover, offered guidance to those discouraged by politics and the lack of action on the climate crisis: “It takes a lot of persistence to make systemic change because the systems are ensconced and we need to change those systems… join groups, mobilize, it takes a community to fight.”
Ontario Green Party Leader, Mike Schreiner, was impressed by the strike’s turnout, but hopes that political action comes quickly: “We need to act now to make sure we have a livable planet for these young people,” said Schreiner.
With files from Kathryn Mannie.