OPIRG: Working Towards Environmental and Social Justice at Trent


Co-written with Matthew Davidson

As life returns to campus after the quiet months of summer, so does student activism. Against the rising inequality and injustice in Canada, the student-based environmental and social justice organization OPIRG-Peterborough is once again working to make the campus and community a safer and more equitable place.

Pursuing social justice and environmental activism on campus since 1976, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) is a major part of the Trent community. “OPIRG is the vehicle to create the social fabric which bonds our community together,” Fair Trade Trent Organizer Mark Soares noted.

Working on issues such as human rights, animal equity, anti-oppression, poverty reduction, decolonization, and more, OPIRG helps link together the disparate ways that Trent students are working to make the world a better place. As Volunteer Paola Hernandez observes, “OPIRG is a place to meet other activists and create the community that we want to live in.”

A campus-based, community-oriented, non-profit organization committed to research, education, and action on environmental and social justice issues, OPIRG aims to foster engagement on the issues that matter most to students. Through working groups, which are small collectives of self-motivated volunteers that come together to work on a specific issue, students are able to use OPIRG resources to push for change on the issues they are passionate about.

Current working groups include a chapter of Amnesty International, which is part of the global human rights organization; the Animal Equity Society, a group interested in ethics and the welfare of animals; Fair Trade Trent, which has successfully lobbied for Trent to become a ‘Fair Trade University’; Canadians for Mining Awareness, which aims to highlight Canada’s complicity in mining injustices around the world; and the Peterborough Coalition for Palestinian Solidarity, which organizes against Israel’s apartheid occupation of Palestine. New members of these groups are always welcomed, and new working groups can be formed by anyone interested in starting one. OPIRG will be holding a working group recruitment meeting on September 17 for anyone interested.

A volunteer board of directors supported by one full-time coordinator and numerous student staff organize multiple workshops, guest speakers, film screenings, and other events every month, making OPIRG one of the most active groups on campus. Throughout September alone, OPIRG will be holding two ISW events on September 4, a free vegan BBQ on September 20, a free film screening on September 30, plus taking part in Peterborough Pride and the Purple Onion local food festival. Starting in October, OPIRG will also be launching its popular “Light Your Spark” activism skills workshop series.

Based out of the student-owned Sadleir House, OPIRG also runs the Free Market. A totally free thrift store, the Free Market is a place where anyone can drop off used household items and clothes to keep usable items out of the landfill. They are then made available for free to anyone who wants them, challenging consumerism, reducing waste, and saving your wallet in the process. The Free Market is open Wednesdays from 3-5pm, as well as Thursdays and Fridays from 1-5pm. Donations can be made at Sadleir House or any of the donation bins located in the colleges and at Biko (Bata) Library on campus.

Beside the Free Market is OPIRG’s Food Cupboard. As a member agency of Kawartha Foodshare, OPIRG’s Food Cupboard provides food for anyone who needs it, recognizing that access to food is a right currently denied to many people. The Food Cupboard is open on Wednesdays from 3-5pm and Fridays from 1-5pm for anyone who needs access, including both students and community members. No identification, proof of income, or address is required, and no one is ever denied food.

“We want to provide a space where people feel respected, regardless of their reason for being there,” says Jesse Whattam, who works in the Food Cupboard. “Food is a right, and no one should be shamed for trying to survive.”

The organization is largely volunteer-driven, so it is thanks to the many people involved that OPIRG is able to do all it does. The organization is open to anyone who would like to get involved, in all that it does. OPIRG will have a table at Clubs and Groups day, and people interested in working for environmental and social justice are encouraged to stop by and find out how they can be involved. People are also invited to visit opirgpeterborough.ca to find out what else the group does.

OPIRG Board Member Heather Ray promises that you won’t be disappointed if you get involved. “What I love about OPIRG,” she says, “is its ability to bridge issues within the community, embrace activism, engage for change, enable opportunities (both for research and life), and do it in a safe and welcoming space!”