A motion to cancel classes on Sept. 27 for the upcoming Climate Strike was proposed at the McGill Senate’s latest meeting on Sept. 18. Though absent on the official meeting agenda, the motion was proposed by 10 senators the day before the meeting and induced a heated debate before its ultimate rejection.
Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier acknowledged the importance of addressing threats posed by climate change and praised students mobilizing to advocate for climate action. However, she believes that it is not up to the university to decide how, when, or where McGill students should take action.
“As a university, we commit to […] working toward our academic mission, and therefore we will have academic activities [….] so it is an extraordinary circumstance that would drive us to cancel those activities,” Fortier said.
However, Fortier recognised that some students worried about being punished academically for protesting on Friday.
“The Provost has asked all of the teaching staff to be accommodating of students who are wanting to participate in the Sept. 27 march,” Fortier said. “In particular, […] to [ensure] that they will not be negatively impacted by [missing] a test or an exam.”
Fortier proposed that each faculty make the appropriate arrangements to accommodate students wishing to participate in the march by rescheduling assessments on that day.
“I think we have confidence in the wisdom of our academic staff to make those decisions,” Fortier said.
Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President University Affairs Madeline Wilson argued that by dismissing the motion, McGill was falling behind some of its peers, seeing as Concordia University, the Université de Montréal, and Dawson College announced that they would be cancelling classes 11:45 am—4:00 pm in support of the march.
However, Dean of Students Christopher Buddle said that McGill was not obligated to follow the decisions of other institutions. Additionally, he said that the Senate meeting was not the right place to make the decision, and that cancelling classes defeats the purpose of a protest.
“Strikes by their very nature are rebellious, and we have to give up something for impact,” Buddle said. “It’s a rebellious act to walk out of class. […] Students walking out of class is central to the strike and […] to the global movement. Climate action is giving up something. Why isn’t this on a Saturday morning? It’s on a Friday when classes are supposed to be happening.”
Buddle shared his discontent with the widespread cancellation of classes to accommodate social justice movements, emphasizing that as nothing is relinquished in the act itself, the impact of protests are diluted.
Senator Derek Nystrom disagreed, arguing that the concept of sacrificing for protests is inexorably forced upon youth while the root of the problem began with the older generations.
“It is my generation who created the problem of climate change, and I think to [say to] young people [that] ‘this is all on you’ … well, it’s already all on [them],” Nystrom said. “They are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of what we have generated for them. We have to make a decision as an institution: Are we on the side of the people who are rebelling against this, or are we letting ourselves, with the institutions that are maintaining the status quo, [ask] young people to do the heavy lifting of rebellion?”
Senate ultimately dismissed the motion with support from a number of departments, including the Faculty of Dentistry, that did not wish to close their clinic when appointments had already been made.