On Sept. 27, Montreal will host one of the most significant climate activism events of the year. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist of notable internet fame, will be in Montreal to lead a march protesting governmental and institutional inaction on climate change. Since Thunberg is expected to lead the protest, Friday’s march may even be better attended than last year’s. In preparation, educational institutions such as Concordia University, Dawson University, Cégep du Vieux Montréal, and the Commission scolaire de Montréal, Montreal’s largest school board, have all cancelled classes to allow students to participate in the march. However, on Sept. 17, McGill students received an email from Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher P. Manfredi stating that McGill would not be cancelling classes on the 27th, but that he would be asking professors to be flexible about attendance to accommodate students who wish to attend.
Despite McGill’s ‘commitments’ to sustainability that Manfredi cites in his email, the McGill administration should reconsider their decision and cancel classes on the 27th. Manfredi is correct in implying that students could still feasibly attend the climate march without facing harsh academic consequences. Additionally, in a McGill senate meeting on Sept. 18, Dean of Students Christopher Buddle commented on the importance of the “rebellious” nature of strikes.
However, the significance of the statement made by the upcoming climate march will not derive from the ‘rebellious’ act of students skipping class to protest. The global climate strike should not focus on the aesthetics of a student walk-out: Instead, it should be centered around substantial institutional change in order to combat the most formidable global problem of this century.
Climate change is not a political issue. Instead, it is a humanitarian crisis that disproportionately impacts people of colour and developing areas, including Northern Canada: Climate change has had specifically devastating impacts on Indigenous communities, and the same can be said for other historically oppressed and disadvantaged groups on a global scale. Sustainability and global climate activism requires a more intersectional approach that continues to acknowledge that people of colour are often the most vulnerable to climate change’s consequences.
McGill has an ethical responsibility not only to facilitate student efforts to combat climate change, but to make its own attempts as well. McGill has taken strides toward achieving sustainability over the last decade. However, it would not be true to say that these actions are proportional to McGill’s $1.65 billion capacity. As of Fall 2019, even after two Board of Governors members resigned in protest, McGill has still refused to divest from fossil fuels. As a leading establishment, McGill influences federal and provincial politics, sets examples for other universities, and creates precedents of moral responsibility in the way that prioritizes its values. In their continued refusal to divest, as well as their decision to not cancel classes on Friday, the McGill administration is sending a clear message: They do not take climate change seriously enough.
While it would be uplifting to see McGill reverse its decision, it seems unlikely that they will do so. That being the case, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) is holding a general assembly on Sept. 25 at 6:00 p.m. in Leacock 132 that, if passed, would enact a student strike in protest of McGill’s decision to not cancel classes. The quorum requires 500 members to pass the motion, meaning that student members of AUS must attend in-person for the motion to succeed.
Finally, groups like Climate Justice Action McGill (C-JAM) and Divest McGill, with their weekly Friday protest in front of the James Administration building last semester, serve as the foundation for consistent climate activism on McGill campus. More students who are passionate about climate issues should consider joining or supporting these groups in order to reinvigorate regular activism on campus. While structural or institutional changes are absolutely vital to addressing climate change as a global problem, students shouldn’t neglect their individual contributions. Climate change is a challenge that requires a collective response.