University of Toronto

Innis Alumni & Friends

Cherise Burda

Class of 1991 – Innis

Innis Alumna, Cherise Burda, heads up the Pembina Institute in Ontario – a clean energy “think and do tank”, promoting transit investment and development policies to “live where you go”.  A top voice on these issues, she leads a team of engineers, policy experts, and planners in strategic research and communications.

“My career path was not planned. I followed my interests and opportunities and made many ‘fork in the road’ choices.” Cherise was swayed by her family to pursue a “safe” career and as a result, she completed her Bachelor of Education at OISE. After a very brief stint teaching, she fled to Vancouver Island to become an activist again and fought to save BC’s temperate rainforests. While there, she completed a Masters in Environmental Legislation and Policy at the University of Victoria in order to improve her effectiveness and strategic abilities. 

In a few words, please outline your career path.

With both feet I jumped into the campaign to save BC’s temperate rainforests. For a couple years I worked and volunteered for various organizations, but then chose to pursue my Masters. I then worked at the U Vic Faculty of Law’s Polis Institute as a research associate for three years forging new ideas on forest policy reform, travelling to and working with forest dependent communities, writing and publishing prolifically and eventually affecting change in the Forest Act to include a new community forest licence. At UVic I also worked on international community forestry and enjoyed research stints in countries like Vietnam, Philippines and France.

In 1999 I accepted a position with the David Suzuki Foundation as Forestry Strategist and eventually became a program director. At DSF I spent 6 years working on forest tenure reform and First Nations forest management, leading a team of biologists and policy analysts. I also spent a year working on forest conservation in Tibet including a month travelling the Four Rivers Area of Tibet working with local leaders.

I moved back to Ontario in 2006, and took a position as the “environment” account director with a social marketing and advertising firm. The experience taught me communications and media skills that I continue to apply every day.

I joined the Pembina Institute in 2007 originally as a one-person policy shop, inheriting a portfolio of renewable energy and nuclear files.  In 2010 it became clear to me that the key issues in Ontario were transportation and urban development, so I shifted the Ontario program and forged a path in that direction.  Pembina Toronto is now a crew of eight, with four staff working on development and transit issues in the GTA.

What drew you to environmental science? What does your role at the Pembina Institute entail?

I started out in mathematics (on scholarship); then decided I wanted to be a writer, so I switched to English and urban planning – on course to study journalism.  In my final year I was researching an urban issues piece on pollution and was hooked!  I went “back” to U of T and switched over to Innis College to study the environment. I chose environmental science rather than environmental studies because I wanted to understand things like applied ecology, conservation biology, and measure our impacts on ecosystems.

My role at Pembina Institute is currently director of the Ontario program.  I lead a team of engineers, planners, communications and policy specialists to conduct strategic research, analysis and communications mainly in urban development and transit policy.

How do you see Toronto’s public transit developing over the next 5 years? How would you like to see it change?

This is an enormous question.  Toronto and the province need to work closely to execute the Big Move regional transit plan. Both jurisdictions will need to find new revenue to realize the full plan, and Toronto to build its own projects.  Toronto should also put resources into a coordinated express bus system on major arterials (like Vancouvers “B” line) and convert some streetcars (ie: the 504 King Streetcar) to right of way.

What is the most important lesson you have learned during your career?

If you are passionate about something, become an expert and establish a leadership voice to affect change.  Your skillset – whether it be strategy, policy or science – is transferable to other content areas as disparate as forest management and urban transportation.

What is your favourite memory from your time spent at Innis College?

Live Dead Fridays circa 1990.  Is there anyone as old as me to remember that? I was never a “dead head” and really didn’t like the band, but it was a time when the Innis community from all walks of life would hang out together in the café and talk about issues and ideas, and of course music. I recall lots of loud tie-dye.

Do you have any advice you would like to share with current Innis students?

Don’t get too hung up on establishing your goals now and sticking to a plan.  The fun part is going off the trail and following chances and passions.  I’ve been all over the map.  Above all, believe in your own ideas for change. We need them!

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