Equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives at Canadian universities

Canada’s universities play an essential role in building back better post-pandemic, both in Canada and abroad. They are dedicated to improving and enriching lives through research and innovation, teaching and skills development, and serving as key pillars of their communities. They engage in critical work across the country and internationally to foster a resilient and equitable future and to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In this blog series, university presidents from across the country share their thoughts and highlight some of their institution’s initiatives to contribute to a sustainable, inclusive future.

December 7, 2021

Working together towards a better future

First Author Portrait
Published by
Joy Johnson
President of Simon Fraser University

During the last few weeks, all eyes and ears focused on the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Scotland. While countries are asked to mobilize financial resources and take actions to reduce emissions, it is our responsibility to work together to protect and restore our ecosystems.

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once said: “Climate change does not respect borders; it does not respect who you are – rich and poor, small and big. Therefore, this is what we call ‘global challenges,’ which require global solidarity.” Climate change is not an isolated problem that science alone can solve, but it’s about people, behaviour, policy, technology, social justice, and economy. The only way to address these problems is for every country, institution and person to work together.

Universities, which are institutions with significant influence in training future leaders, play an important role in addressing climate change and achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Universities Canada has recently adopted eight social impact principles that address the responsibilities at the forefront of the higher education sector today and for the next decade. As a member of Universities Canada, SFU is committed to aligning our actions with these principles, and is dedicated to working on climate action and research for impact.

Partnerships as an instrument for making positive impact

SFU has been actively engaged in creating a low-carbon future, both on campus and beyond. We work with communities, organizations and partners to create, share and embrace knowledge that improves life and generates positive change to make the world a better place.

Engaging communities to make an impact is a central element of SFU’s strategy. This year, SFU’s Renewable Cities program established a new regional Low Carbon Cities Canada Innovation Centre aimed at accelerating urban climate solutions for the region. The Centre will help cities across the region meet their climate action goals through innovation and reducing carbon emissions.

SFU’s Living Lab, a new program that applies the university’s leading sustainability and climate research to its own infrastructure and facilities, testing innovative solutions on-site that can then be applied and scaled anywhere in the world.

Oscar, an invention developed by SFU student Vivek Vyas, right, and SFU alumnus Hassan Murad, uses an AI-powered display and vision system to distinguish recycling from trash and offers visual cues to help users sort waste items.

We have established networks across the world to help mobilize our sustainability efforts and to have the widest reach possible. SFU has more than 250 international partnerships for research, experimental learning, academic collaborations and sustainable development projects. Our strong network of partners allows us to work together, across disciplines, sectors, and countries to advance the UN’s SDGs.

Taking actions for a better future

Since 2019, SFU has participated in Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, the only global performance tables that assess universities against the SDGs. In the 2021 rankings, THE placed SFU in the top-10 worldwide for three key areas: Climate Action (SDG 13); Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11); and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16). This year, we saw an opportunity to take the good work we have been doing for decades and ground it within the framework of the SDGs. By aligning our activities within these 17 goals, we have a roadmap to build on and scale up the sustainability work we have done, are doing, and are going to be tackling.

To make real impact, we mobilize the entire institution to focus on both climate mitigation and climate adaptation through operations, investments, learning and teaching, research, community and global engagement.

For example, with regards to operations, we joined the UN’s The Race to Zero global campaign to show our solidarity with marginalized peoples across the globe who are and will continue to be impacted by severe climate change impacts, and have committed to net zero for direct emissions by 2035.  Our Corix Biomass Plant on Burnaby Mountain, which began operating last fall, is expected to cut the university’s Burnaby campus greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent. This year, we are expecting a 69 percent reduction in our greenhouse gas outputs, which already exceeds our 2025 targets.

For investments, we had already reduced the carbon footprint of our investments by 60% since 2016, exceeding our 2025 targets. We’ve recently announced a full divestment from fossil fuels by 2025. Additionally, we signed on as a founding member of the Canadian Investor Statement on Climate Change—one of a small number of universities in a group managing more than $5 trillion in capital and sending a clear message to the corporate and financial community for climate accountability.

For teaching and learning, we offer more than 230 courses per year focusing on sustainability and the SDGs. We have recently created two new groundbreaking programmes: Sustainable Energy Engineering and Environmental Science to prepare our students to build a more sustainable future. We have also partnered with Embark Sustainability to create the Climate Action Student Collaborative—a sustainability leadership program co-run and co-designed by students.

As one of Canada’s fastest growing research intensive universities, our scholars continue producing world-class work on all aspects of climate change—from modelling climate, advising on government policy and studying advanced materials that will be used in the next generation of low and zero carbon technologies, to building low-carbon resilient communities and infrastructure, and providing opportunities for applied research and experiential learning that improve the sustainability of SFU’s three campus communities.

These are only a few examples of how SFU can leverage its capacities to build a sustainable future. We are redesigning our sustainability initiatives, strategies and resources to build on and scale up all the good work of the last two decades. Part of the redesign is grounding this work in a wider framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We want our community to know how SFU has been and is continuing to be strongly committed to sustainability and climate action.

We have the talent. We have the plan. And we want to work with you to ensure a better future for the next generations.