Thousands of University of Toronto community members have petitioned the school administration to close down activities at all campuses this Friday to facilitate participation in a global climate protest.
About 2,500 people — the majority of them students, along with hundreds of faculty, staff, librarians and alumni — have signed a letter sent to university president Meric Gertler. The letter asks the administration to close activities on all three campuses from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the last day of what’s been dubbed the weeklong Global Climate Strike.
“This is a critical moment in the campaign to push for more immediate and meaningful action to fight dangerous climate change,” the petition reads in part.
“We wish to lend our voices and our active support to the general strike. We are committed to standing in solidarity with the young people who have helped to create this moment, and we are conscious of our responsibility to show them leadership in turn.”
Millions of people across the globe have been taking part in climate strikes on Fridays, a movement that was initially sparked by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg who skipped class and sat outside her country’s parliament to demand concrete action. Last Friday, as Thunberg addressed world leaders at the United Nations, more than 250,000 people were on the streets of New York supporting her cause.
This Friday, students across Canada will do their part, with more than 100 youth-led events taking place in different cities. Thunberg is expected to join those protests in Montreal.
Steve Easterbrook, signatory and professor in U of T’s department of computer science, said many faculty members have worked for years on research related to environment, climate, sustainability and social justice. There’s a strong sense of frustration that their expertise has been consistently ignored in the political arena, he said, noting the youth-led protests have sparked a new sense of urgency on the matter.
“The global strikes feel like a tipping point, where at last society is talking openly about the need for radical changes in response to climate change as an emergency,” said Easterbrook, who is also the director of U of T’s School of the Environment.
“The climate crisis gets to the very heart of the university’s mission. We’re tasked with the job of preparing our students for the future. But climate change threatens that future in a very real way. So if the university doesn’t tackle this head on, we’re not being honest about our core mission.”
Earlier this year, Easterbrook was one of several global scientists who penned a paper published in Science Magazine supporting the youth movement and showing the concerns of young people about climate change are real and supported by research.
Scott Prudham, a U of T professor in the department of geography and planning, said it will be a disappointment if the university administration does not cancel classes this Friday — something he said they do “at the drop of a hat” during winter blizzards.
“They will have failed to show leadership and they will have missed an opportunity to make a signature contribution in the fight against dangerous climate change,” he said, noting the people who signed the letter want to be out there in the protest supporting the youth.
“We can hardly absolve ourselves of responsibility by cheering on young activists while carrying on as usual.”
Earlier this week, MPP Jessica Bell (University-Rosedale) also sent a letter to U of T’s president, asking Gertler to follow the lead of many Quebec universities and cancel classes to allow students and faculty to participate in the climate strike.
On Wednesday afternoon, U of T’s administration told community members it encourages instructors to be flexible if their students want to be out on Friday for the strike.
“Since academic requirements differ across the university, students are being asked to consult their instructors for more information about their situation,” read a statement posted on the school’s website.
Other Toronto universities are also addressing the climate protest. On Monday, Ryerson University’s provost and vice-president, academic, Michael Benarroch issued a statement to the university community, expressing support for the climate protests and encouraging faculty to be flexible in accommodating student wishes.
“Students who wish to participate in Climate Day of Action activities are asked to speak with their instructors in advance about making alternative arrangements to receive course content, or to make up missed tests, exams, or class assignments,” the statement reads.
A similar message was posted on York University’s website, encouraging staff and faculty who wish to participate in the protest to make appropriate arrangements in advance.
“I will be bringing a motion to Senate at its meeting scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 26 to declare Sept. 27 a day of academic accommodation for which no student shall receive an academic penalty for not attending classes,” wrote York’s provost and vice-president, academic, Lisa Philipps.
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Sheila Colla, an assistant professor in environmental studies at York, said she’s going to the protest because she’s concerned about the future of her children and the next generations.
“I often talk to youth about these issues and have seen time and time again the anxiety they are facing with an uncertain future,” she said.
“We need to show them that we see them, that we hear them and that we will make our decisions accordingly. This is particularly important given the upcoming election and Canada’s abysmal track record on carbon emissions and extractive industry subsidy.”