U of T solidarity group moves support for Wet’suwet’en online during COVID-19

OISE students, professors organize digital teach-ins, documentary screenings, sign-making

U of T solidarity group moves support for Wet’suwet’en online during COVID-19

Whether teach-ins, documentary screenings, or creating signs over Zoom, the Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en group is continuing to organize in support of the Unist’ot’en Camp during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, formed in February, is composed of graduate students and professors at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

Earlier this year, the group drafted an open letter in support of the Wet’suwet’en. The letter was supported by the Department of Social Justice Education and the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at OISE.

The Unist’ot’en Camp has been at the centre of national attention due to the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline, a 670 kilometre project in British Columbia that runs through unceded Wet’suwet’en land. There were widespread protests against the pipeline earlier this year in response to Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raids on Wet’suwet’en territory — though protests have been ongoing for a decade — since most of the hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline.

Challenges faced due to COVID-19

Katie Bannon, a Master’s of Education candidate in the Department of Social Justice Education, commented that because construction of the pipeline is considered an essential service by the government, allowing it to continue during this time thwarts the efforts of protesters.

“The government is taking advantage of required physical distancing in order for construction to continue, as there is limited capacity for land defenders to safely hold rallies or physical blockades,” wrote Bannon.

Due to increased focus on COVID-19, “the mainstream media for the most part is now ignoring coverage of what is happening up north,” added Vannina Sztainbok, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice Education at OISE and a member of the group, in an interview with The Varsity. She noted that, “CGL has benefitted from the lack of attention to the pipeline, which has allowed it to continue its plans with little attention from the majority of the country.”

Because of difficulty in mobilization due to COVID-19, the Wet’suwet’en land defenders have shifted their advocacy online.

Initiatives of Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en

The group has organized online teach-ins, documentary screenings, and sign-making sessions over Zoom. According to Sztainbok, the group’s main goals are “solidarity, amplifying, informing.” Furthermore, “since the group was formed to answer the Wet’suwet’en nation’s call for solidarity, we support the Wet’suwet’en’s objectives, which aim to stop construction of the CGL pipeline, and end the invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory by [the] CGL and the RCMP.”

The Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en group was also involved in a communications blockade, with the goal of “[flooding] the lines of KKR.” KKR & Co. Inc. is an investment firm that is looking into investing in the CGL pipeline. Along with a UK-based solidarity group, the protestors sent texts, phone calls, and tweets to the company.

“By buying the pipeline, KKR would be supporting a project that directly endangers the water, land, and Indigenous lives,” wrote Sztainbok. She expressed that in doing so, KKR might violate the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, to which it is a signatory. The sustainable development goals include clean water, life on land, and good health. “The pipeline threatens all of these,” she added. 

Recently, the Wet’suwet’en and provincial and federal officials held an online ceremony to affirm the Wet’suwet’en’s rights and title, though the agreement made no mention of the pipeline.

Op-ed: U of T, don’t leave us stranded

The university’s toxic investments warrant a just transition into fossil fuel divestment

Op-ed: U of T, don’t leave us stranded

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing widespread economic disruption, and the University of Toronto will not escape the budgetary impact. As such, we at Divestment and Beyond — a coalition of students, faculty, and staff working toward climate justice at U of T — believe the university would be much better off had U of T President Meric Gertler taken the advice of his own committee back in March 2016 and at least partially divested from fossil fuels. 

An Earth Day op-ed published in The Guardian noted how Harvard University’s current austerity is due in part to the estimated 700 million USD that the institution may have lost as a result of its fossil fuel investments. How much has U of T lost so far?

In the last few weeks, the University of Guelph and Oxford University have become the latest in a growing list of institutions to begin divesting from fossil fuel holdings. How far behind will U of T fall before it joins these universities and cuts its ties with this unsustainable and volatile industry? 

Proponents of fossil fuel divestment have long warned that these investments are destined to become extremely costly stranded assets. Who suffers most when the endowment and pension funds lose massive amounts of money as a result of these unethical investment decisions? If we are to continue making Harvard’s mistakes then the answer is: primarily staff and students.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff are being impacted by layoffs, hiring freezes, and depressed wages and benefits, while students could suffer from increased class sizes, increased tuition fees, and mounting debt, as they did in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

Instead of continuing to invest in fossil fuels — which has and will no doubt continue to bankrupt our futures and deepen climate change’s uneven impact on Indigenous peoples and racialized communities — we insist that the university invest in a sustainable future for its own faculty, staff, and students. The university and surrounding communities require a just transition away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable investment, with a higher prioritization of the well-being of its members. Sustainable efforts and personal well-being are inseparable, as one informs the other. 

This is why Divestment and Beyond and over 1,100 supporters are calling on the university to commit to fossil fuel divestment — and more — while others have also called for U of T to keep staff whole by supporting them with pay continuity through this pandemic. You can find and sign both our climate petition and staff letter here

Since we, the students, faculty, and staff are the first to suffer the negative impacts of these detrimental holdings, we must lead the charge in demanding that U of T be held accountable for its ruinous investment decisions if we are indeed facing a budgetary crisis like Harvard.

The administration might not have been able to predict the pandemic, but those in charge of U of T’s investments were advised by the President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels that fossil fuel investments would lead to financial risk as well as social injury. 

Within our group are members of the initial advisory committee and those who advocated for change through Toronto350. Climate activists on campus alerted the university to the negative repercussions of investing in fossil fuels as early as 2014. We warned them. And we will continue to sound this alarm until we see meaningful action.

Signed,

Evelyn Austin, Kristy Bard, Carmen Bezner Kerr, Deborah Cowen, Matthew Hoffman, Justin Holloway, Kate Neville, Scott Prudham, Gavin Smith

Divestment and Beyond is a coalition of faculty, students, and staff that is dedicated to fossil fuel divestment and aims to achieve climate justice at the University of Toronto by encouraging U of T administration and working with the U of T community.

Editor’s Note (May 29, 2:51 pm): This article has been updated to include the authors’ commentary on the impact of climate change on Indigenous peoples and racialized communities. 

Op-ed: Celebrating Ramadan during a pandemic wasn’t any less holy — it was simply not the norm

Physical distancing, virtual connecting during the most sacred month of the year

Op-ed: Celebrating Ramadan during a pandemic wasn’t any less holy — it was simply not the norm

On April 23, my local mosque announced that Ramadan would begin the next day. For Muslims, Ramadan is the holiest month of the year. We primarily abstain from eating and drinking from dusk till dawn. It is a time when families, friends, and neighbours get together to break their fast and pray at home or in a local mosque. Just like every year, many Muslims and communities around the world look forward to observing Ramadan. 

On April 24 at 8:12 pm, the Islamic call to prayer called the Athan marked the end of the first day of Ramadan. The first day is always heartwarming and busy; it is celebrated with friends and family where the best dishes are prepared.

We were all excited, the only difference being that, this year, we could not be with our family and friends. This meant that we could not gather to pray, break our fast together, or exchange plans for the next month. It was the start of something unusual. This year, communal iftars and prayers had to be cancelled due to COVID-19, so we tried our best to make this Ramadan as normal as possible.

However, one thing that we could not control was our parents not being with us during these blessed times. This Ramadan was the first one that my siblings and I spent away from our parents and the rest of our family. Due to the ongoing travel restrictions, my parents had to stay in Syria. It was only my siblings and I sitting around the table enjoying the food. 

Baba was not around to make a joke just to hear our laughter; Mama was not there to make us smile and fill us with amazing food. It was an odd feeling. Although we are all safe and healthy, these times seem a lot harder because we are not together. 

This month is about more than just fasting. We usually get together with people who we don’t often see throughout the year. The weekly mosque visits and the interaction with the community is always a fun and memorable time. The small snacks that are there, the little kids, and most importantly, the sense of community and unity. It’s always such a wholesome time. 

I do not want to only focus on the negatives of this whole situation, because there are definitely some aspects to be happy about. With everything becoming virtual, you get the chance to chat with people across the world. For example, although we cannot fast with my parents, we always talk to them while we break our fast and while they prepare to start theirs. It’s not necessarily the same, but it is something that we are slowly growing to accept as the new norm.

I have been given the chance to appreciate every day. A huge part of this holy month is that we get closer to God, individually and as a community. Staying at home allowed me to build and strengthen my relationship with the Quran, the Muslim holy book. The daily bond that I was able to build with God during Ramadan has helped me identify and appreciate the positive outcomes of staying at home. 

Despite not being able to meet up with people, many online initiatives were introduced to replace key factors that usually make Ramadan special. The Muslim Chaplaincy and the Muslim Students Association at the University of Toronto hosted numerous classes throughout the month to keep everyone connected. Although it was not the same, it still provided an alternative way for the community to interact with each other, even if it was just virtually.  

Mayor John Tory’s announcement that all large events would be cancelled until June 30 struck hard. It meant that not only did we have to spend Ramadan alone, but our celebration that came afterward would also be cancelled. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan where families and friends get together to pray and celebrate with food and sweets. It is yet another gathering that allows you to connect with your community on a whole new level.

It’s not that this Ramadan was any less holy; it was simply not the norm. I miss seeing family and friends gathered over a large table of food waiting for the Athan. I miss going to pray with family and seeing friends there. It is something that I grew to love, and it’s hard to see it not happen. Still, if staying home means that people are safer, then I am more than willing to do it. It’s important that everyone tries to do the same. 

Basmah Ramadan is a third-year international relations, equity, and political science student at University College. She is a University College director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union and the vice-president social advancement for the Muslim Students’ Association.