Photo: Extinction Rebellion Nova Scotia
Photo: Extinction Rebellion Nova Scotia

“In my view, kids should be in class.”

Premier Stephen McNeil
March 2019

“Something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?”

Ballad of a Thin Man
Bob Dylan (1965)

One Friday. Two student protests. Two very different (immediate) results.

On Friday at noon — less than 24 hours after the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation announced it was cancelling high school rugby immediately in all provincial schools because of insurance costs and safety concerns — dozens of angry students showed up at a federation luncheon in Halifax, chanting, “Let us play!” And students at Glace Bay High demonstrated in their school’s hallways while more than 20,000 people signed an online petition demanding the federation reverse its decision.

By late Friday afternoon, Education Minister Zach Churchill had stepped in, unilaterally, ordering the athletics federation to reinstate rugby in the schools. Among other issues, Churchill argued the federation had made its decision without “appropriate consultation.” (This from a kettle-calling-the-pot-black government that recently surprised the world with its consultation-free presumed-consent legislation for organ donation, but I digress…)

So the students won. The games go on.

It was a very different matter for the 400 high school students who marched through downtown Halifax on Friday to raise awareness of climate change.

The march was part of a worldwide “Fridays for Future” movement that started two years ago when a 16-year-old Swedish student named Greta Thunberg — now Greta Thunberg, Nobel prize nominee — skipped class and camped alone outside the Swedish parliament with a sign that read: “School Strike for Climate.” Her personal protest sparked others across Europe and, eventually, around the world. In March, there were uncoordinated/coordinated student protests in cities as diverse as New Delhi, San Francisco, Pretoria, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, Washington and, yes, even in Halifax.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres — who declared in an opinion piece in The Guardian, “My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry” — has called a special summit for September to deal with the “climate emergency.” Thanks to the student protests.

The response from responsible officials here in Nova Scotia has been more, shall we say, muted.

Start with Premier Stephen McNeil’s wet-blanket argument that students should “be in class.” And?… And leave the important work to him and his healthcare-and-education-crisis deniers and climate-improvement-hopers.

We see how that’s working out. The world’s global temperature, in fact, is already on track to increase by four per cent by 2100, which is already double the hold-the-line-at-two-degree-increase world leaders had committed to as their century’s-end goal way back in 2015.

As one Halifax student protestor put it on a sign Friday: “You’ll” — meaning we’ll — “die of old age. I’ll die of climate change.”

Incredibly, attempting to organize Friday’s protest for a saner world ended up being hazardous to the academic future of the students involved.

According to a CBC report, Citadel High administrators told Ivan Andreou, the co-president of Citadel High’s student council, “he can’t be publicly affiliated with the protest or he’ll risk losing his role as co-president.” According to his mother, Andreou was instructed to “remove his image from any strike-related media,” including going back through several months of Instagram posts to delete those that might suggest he is concerned about climate change.

Willa Fisher, one of the organizers of the March, told the CBC school officials had been ripping down their posters promoting the march. “I was called to the office yesterday and was told that I can get a suspension if I put up any more posters.”

The school’s principal, Joe Morrison, denied he’d suggested the postering was a suspend-able offence, but said the students hadn’t followed school policy for putting up their posters. Would the school have said yes if they’d followed policy? “We can’t advertise something that promotes kids to not be in school because then it looks like we’re endorsing them to leave for the afternoon,” he told the CBC. OK.

Doug Hadley, the Halifax Regional Centre for Education’s chief spokesperson and student head-patter wrote in an email: “We applaud all students who are committed to making a difference, but we cannot support students leaving school unsupervised when classes are taking place and we have a responsibility for their well-being… There are many things students and teachers can do both within the curriculum and outside of class to raise awareness to this important issue without disrupting their learning.”

And so it went. And goes. And will go. Unless…

Unless students continue to do what they’ve been doing. Ignoring their betters and standing up for their views and their future. As one student protest sign put it succinctly Friday: “I may not be in school today, but I am learning the value of civil disobedience.”

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. What is Joe Morrison doing to deal with climate change? I applaud the students who took part in the protest. Why didn’t the school send some teachers with the students to ensure their safety, in case Zach Churchill took exception to the students’ actions.

    Citadel High seems far different from the high school I went to in grades 11 and 12 in Providence, Rhode Island. Each morning students would would rise in their classes and say the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I stood with them, but did not say the pledge of allegiance, because I was a Canadian citizen. No one ever said anything to me about this – no teacher or other student. Perhaps my action went unnoticed, but I would like to think that my teachers and fellow students knew there was a reason for it and respected my decision.

  2. The rugby thing is a fairly minor policy decision. Addressing climate change requires the end of first world lifestyles, a program to reduce the human population to a number that is sustainable without fossil fuels (500M – 1B) and to reduce the energy consumption of the surviving minority to a level typical of people who lived 300 years ago. Fig leaves like electric cars, burgers made from soy or windmills are not remotely sufficient.

  3. The position and the posture of the Premier and the school managers is standard. The most influential people in the life of students are peers and parents; by adolescence this is the precise order. Flashing back to 1968 and a high school experience at SHS (Stellarton High School). A student was sent home because his hair was considered to be too long. He was told to go home; get it cut so that it would not touch his collar. This student was a non-confrontational person, and well – liked by his peers. The school principal threatened to suspend him if he didn’t comply and to suspend any of us that sat in the hallway until the administration allowed “Nails” back in school – immediately.
    Then , as now, students stood for something rather than stand (put up with ) anything.

    FYI- that student with the too long hair became a professor!

    So, the student council co-president should not distress should that position be taken from him; that just may be the price that has to be paid to grab the larger opportunity- to make a principled stand in a civil way is laudatory! Even the school administrators realize this, but are unable to publicly express that thought- something called ‘insubordination’ might be the cudgel of choice
    .
    Credit to Zach Churchill for his intervention; he could have sat back and let the decision of the NSSAF stand. Let’s call that a protest of one; see, one can make a difference!