Scholar Strike Canada: A cause for hope and a missed opportunity

Incrementalism and advancing the dialogue through digital teach-ins

Jennifer Kasiama’s words from “Emergence from Emergency,” a series of poetic installations in Toronto, curated by OCAD U’s Creative Writing Chair Catherine Black and instructor Ian Keteku, with student-artists: Jennifer Kasiama, Leaf Watson, Meighan Morson, Ehiko Odeh, Chris Markland.

By Harvin Bhathal, Features Editor

“Education isn’t about teaching students how to make the trains run on time.” said Min Sook Lee, Associate Professor at Ontario College of Art and Design University, during the first scheduled digital teach-in, Abolition or death: Confronting police forces in Canada. ”It’s about working with students to engage in the issues of our times.”

On September 9 and 10, 2020, academics across Canada participated in the inaugural Scholar Strike. The idea of the Scholar Strike originated in the United States, inspired by WNBA and NBA players striking following the criminal negligence of the Kenosha PD in shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back. A tweet from Dr. Anthea Butler on August 26, 2020 set the wheels in motion for an organized labour action/teach-in/social justice advocacy.

The Canadian Scholar Strike was primarily organized by Lee and Beverly Bain, Professor of Women and Genders Studies at the University of Toronto.

According to the Simon Fraser University Faculty Association (SFUSA), “On September 2, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) circulated a memo via email,” regarding the Scholar Strike. 

“I was glad to see a Canadian Scholar Strike being organized, and the teach-ins that came together over such a word window of time were incredibly powerful[,]” said Magie Ramirez, SFU Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography.

Over 2,000 scholars across Canada participated in the Scholar Strike, 34 of which are academics from SFU.

The aim of this Scholar Strike is summarized through a list of actions and commitments outlined on

  • “We must support the demands for defunding the police and redistributing those resources to Black, Indigenous, racialized, queer and trans communities for the creation of sustainable and healthy communities.  
  • We must support demands to remove campus police.  All agreements between policing institutions and universities must be rescinded. 
  • We must address the historic and current underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous faculty (full and part-time) in all Canadian institutions and press University Administrations to prioritize the urgency of these faculty hires. 
  • We commit to supporting meaningful efforts to recruit, admit, retain and mentor Black, Indigenous and racialized undergraduate and graduate students. 
  • We must support the campaign by CUPE 3261 to stop the University of Toronto from contracting out caretaking services thereby relinquishing its responsibility to safeguard secure and suitable paying jobs and health and safety of workers.
  • We must advocate for the creation, expansion, and maintenance of mental health and health care resources for students at our universities. 
  • We must support the demand for affordable education, sustainable jobs and housing for students and cultural professionals across all the universities.”  

A Missed Opportunity

“I would have liked to have seen more participation from faculty at SFU,” said Magie Ramirez, Assistant Professor at SFU. 

From over a couple thousand faculty members at SFU, only 34 participated in the Scholar Strike. In an interview with The Peak, the SFUSA went on record to state that no SFU faculty received any backlash for their participation. With full support from SFU President Joy Johnson in the form of a recent statement, it brings to question why more faculty chose not to participate.

Regarding those who did not participate, Johnson stated, “Other scholars may choose to incorporate these issues in their classrooms through teaching and discussion.”

Was it more effective to facilitate discussion within a classroom setting or to participate in an organized action aimed to highlight anti-Black and anti-Indigenous police brutality and violence that exists in Canada?

If education is about working with students to participate in the issues of their time, then facilitating discussion about important social issues already happens often in a university setting. Is another two days of facilitating discussion as a footnote in a lecture/seminar/tutorial more effective, or is it more effective to take an organized stand against the oppression of racialized groups?

The lack of full participation from SFU faculty and staff in the Scholar Strike calls attention to the theory of incrementalism, which in the context of social justice is a theory that values small-scale socio-political changes over time instead of large-scale. But in an effort to be ‘realistic’, incremental changes are fundamentally opposed to changes that will disrupt the status quo.

Incremental changes allow for the existing structures of power to adjust and adapt to the efforts to defund or abolish them.

In 2018, Canadain Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to work with Indigenous peoples for a new legal framework regarding Section 35 of the Constitution Act (1982), by October of 2019. Indigenous leaders, such as Neskonlith First Nation Chief Judy Wilson, were skeptical of his promises, noting an integral component left out of his speech — the Indigenous title to lands.

On October 24, 2019, the Government of British Columbia announced the introduction of Bill 41, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. 

Article 8(2) states that, “States shall provide effective mechanisms for the prevention of, and redress for: [ . . . ] (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources; (c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights [ . . . ]”

Unfortunately, recent events such as the invasion of the Wet’suwet’en territory by the Coastal Gaslink pipeline and RCMP, and the continued construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline during the pandemic, show that Bill 41 is nothing but an incremental change designed for the Canadian Federal government to maintain control over Indigenous peoples.

Almost 100% of injunctions filed against First Nations by industry and governments involve resource extraction or development, and most are granted in their favour,” said Desmond Cole, during the teach-in Abolition or death: Confronting police forces in Canada, referencing a report from the Yellowhead Institute. What follows is the militarization of Indigenous lands, and criminalization of land defenders.”

This is not to equate the lack of full participation in the Scholar Strike to the Federal government actively oppressing Indigenous peoples. The point is, incrementalism will not produce fundamental change.

Considering the current climate and circumstances surrounding anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in Canada and the United States, SFU faculty members had an opportunity to participate in a country-wide action approved by the SFU President, and they lost an opportunity to advance this dialogue.

Advancing the Dialogue

Evelyn Encalada Grez, SFU Assistant Professor in Labour Studies, had the opportunity to be a speaker on the teach-in, Migrant Workers in Canada: Unfree Labour on Stolen Land. In an interview with The Peak, Grez provides a synopsis of the teach-in.

I presented about our work and knowledge about the structural and every[d]ay racism that migrant farmworkers are subjected to in rural Canada to the invisibility and indifference in mainstream Canada. Migrant farmworkers have been participating in government run guest worker programs since 1966 and form a part of Canada’s legacy of a white settler nation because workers are from the [G]lobal South and cannot claim permanent residency status in the country no matter how long they have been living and working here, basically they are permanently temporary in the country.”

“Our panel consisted of Adrian Smith, Ossgoode Hall Law Professor, Chris Ramsaroop, OISE PhD student and Min Sook Lee. Adrian and Chris are Justice for Migrant Workers, organizers. It was Chris actually who invited me to the farms on a fact finding mission to a town called Leamington, Ontario back in 2001 where we first met with migrant farmworkers and started to learn about their conditions of work and life. We never stopped going. Adrian has been an ally and organizer with us along the way, having an important role in the legalities of these guest worker programs and challenging the ways that the law allows for migrant workers exploitation and exclusions from basic human rights.” 

“Min Sook Lee has been coming out with us to the farms over all these years and she filmed two documentaries with our collaboration in rural Ontario, namely El Contrato and Migrant Dreams. It was the first time the 4 of us were in a panel together and we shared of our historic memory of the movement for migrant rights and many stories and analysis of what systematic racism looks like in the lives of migrant workers and their families too who we cannot forget in the configuration of agriculture and as part of our communities that we are connected to transnationally.”

A teach-in that stood out to Ramirez, an urban geographer whose work explores how racial capitalism, art-activism, and urban space intersect, was Two Crises: A Virus and Labour.

“Dr. Rinaldo Walcott’s lecture on [T]hursday resonated with me quite a bit regarding the anti-Blackness inherent in the university, and what this moment asks of us as critical scholars in pushing back against the recalibration that the university is doing in this moment of pandemic and mass uprising,” said Ramirez.

“I think this applies to faculty, but also more broadly to graduate and undergraduate students [—] the demands we make of the university are imperative and necessary as we work towards building more just futures.” 

While this was a missed opportunity to have a larger impact, it was still a historic strike according to Grez because it allowed them “to engage in these [discussions] beyond the ivory tower and reach a wider public [ . . . ] all the conversations were archived and we will be able to refer to them constantly over the next few weeks and months.”

“The discussions centered [on] the voices of BIPOC scholars and thinkers who often have to fight for spaces to be heard. Our voices get muted by a deafening liberalism imposing a type of respectability politics. Also, when we do speak we get dismissed for being biased or too angry while other[s] who are constructed as [W]hite can discuss issues of privilege and racism without the same backlash as many of [us] have experienced in our careers and activism. “

Ramirez notes that “there is a general feeling that we cannot return to “business as usual” in the wake of the global pandemic and the ongoing uprising against anti-Black violence and carceral systems.”

“[W]e need more knowledge sharing among us and to open the paywalls and borders of the university and communities to expand our spaces to reach more people and include more voices of those who have been excluded for too long,” said Grez.

For more information about the Canadian Scholar Strike, visit To watch the digital teach-ins, visit their YouTube channel, Scholar Strike Canada