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How Emily Carr Students Are Creating a Climate of Change

University is the only BC post-secondary school to cancel Friday classes, allowing students and staff to climate strike.

Dorothy Woodend 25 Sep 2019 |

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Little more than a year ago, Greta Thunberg began her school strike for the climate, sitting alone outside of the Swedish parliament in her little yellow raincoat.

She has since been joined by millions of people taking to the streets of London, New York and Paris to send a message about the future.

As climate school strikes continue to roll around the globe, it is Canada’s turn on Friday, Sept. 27. In Vancouver, the global climate strike march kicks off that day at 1 p.m. at city hall.

The Emily Carr University of Art + Design is cancelling classes to allow for students, faculty and staff to participate. It is the only university outside of Quebec to do so, according to Universities Canada.

Maddy Phillips, a fourth-year communication design student and the student representative of the Emily Carr Student Union, spoke to The Tyee about how plans for the strike came together and how this march is only one part of a larger movement.

In her final semester, Phillips has been involved in a number of different actions. Along with fellow students Kaylene Johnstone and Keely Bruce, she helped organize a campaign designed to bring attention to garbage and waste at the new campus.

“Hey You! Let’s Talk About Waste” featured an exhibition that addressed a broad range of environmental issues including over-consumption, material use and repurposing, as well as an audit of the garbage produced on campus over the course of a single day.

1200px version of Let's Talk about Waste exhibit
Waste collected during Emily Carr’s garbage audit, part of its “Hey You! Let’s Talk About Waste” exhibition. Photo by Matty Dillon.

She said that the idea was sparked with the move from the old school on Granville Island to the new location on Great Northern Way: “When we first moved into the new campus, there weren’t really proper recycling units, just big black bins. No one knew how to use them.”

Phillips said it was a big move, fast-paced and jumbled. “We’re still settling into the new campus,” she said. Additionally, the actual recycling receptacles were designed to favour aesthetics over function. “They’re really beautiful, but not really effective. What goes in each bin wasn’t always clear.”

Phillips sees the climate strike as a logical continuation of her engagement with the bigger issues of global warming and climate change. She worked closely with the administration and staff at Emily Carr, including the university’s new president Gillian Siddall, to make clear the stakes of the action. “It’s really important to us,” Phillips said.

Siddall’s message, posted on Emily Carr’s website, laid out the rationale behind the decision to cancel classes: “The climate crisis is a defining issue of our time. We know that many of you care deeply about this global priority and have taken action in your daily lives. Some of you have created work that engages with pressing environmental concerns or have produced research that tackles questions about the future of our planet.”

As Phillips said, Siddall has been deeply involved in student activities since beginning her tenure at Emily Carr, so the idea of cancelling classes didn’t come as a big surprise. The staff and faculty at the university have supported student-led actions.

“As part of the waste audit, I worked closely with the facilities staff at Emily Carr,” said Phillips. “They were pretty stoked, and generally really open to student ideas around not only issues of recycling, but also student and campus safety.”

Moving from the micro to the macro, from waste audits to global climate strikes, is part of Phillip’s commitment to finding ways of dealing with the most pressing issues on the ground in practical and meaningful ways. Whether that means contending with empty coffee cups or disrupting the business-as-usual model of work and school.

In terms of what will happen on the day of the strike, Phillips is hopeful about getting more people involved and aware. “The plan is to meet at 12:15 outside of the campus, then walk together to join the march.”

She wants to engage with other people who are interested in sustainability and is looking for other students to take up the banner at the university. “I’m in the last few classes of my final year at Emily Carr, so I need someone to take over.”

The Vancouver School Board announced that it will allow the district’s students to attend the protest on Friday, with VSB trustee Allan Wong issuing a statement earlier in the week: “Students are leading the way on calling for action to address climate change, which is something that must be supported by educators and the entire education system. I’m optimistic that this proposal will be supported by my fellow school board trustees.”

Other post-secondary institutions including the University of British Columbia are leaving the decision to cancel classes or allow students to miss classes to attend the march up to individual instructors and departments. This move has drawn some criticism.

When asked whether there is any plan to collaborate or work collectively with other universities for Friday’s march, Phillips said, “It would be great if there was, but there’s nothing formal.”

But even without official support, march organizers are emphasizing the need for everyone to attend, stating on their social media site: “On Sept. 27, we will stand together with people across the planet to demand climate justice. This global strike is not just for youth — this time, we need EVERYONE. We need you to put your normal life on hold and show up in the streets to demand dramatic and urgent action against the climate crisis. We will bring together citizens from Vancouver, the surrounding areas and the rest of B.C. to show our local and federal governments how much bolder we need them to be going forward. This action will build momentum to a federal election where we elect climate leaders.”

How does Phillips see things unfolding in the future? “I’m really interested to see who joins us on Friday. But going forward it would be great to actually sit down and talk about formal policies, more big changes. There are a lot of creative people at Emily Carr — artists, designers, thinkers — that can make things happen.”

As Thunberg stated in her incendiary speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, “A line has been drawn.”

Now it’s time to take to the streets.  [Tyee]

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