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Protesters march through the University of Toronto campus to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office as part of a nationwide walkout on May 1.Tuan Minh Nguyen/The Globe and Mail

Graduate students and researchers held protests across Canada on Monday, calling on the federal government to increase its funding of science and ensure they can be paid a living wage.

The students are fed up with what they describe as meagre federal grants and scholarships that haven’t increased in 20 years. Many PhD students say they are living at or near the poverty line, with average income in the range of about $23,000 a year.

About 200 protesters marched through the University of Toronto campus to the constituency office of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, chanting slogans in the rain.

The U of T event was part of protests at as many as 45 campuses across the country, according to organizers at Support Our Science, a grassroots group.

Ms. Freeland’s office referred questions to Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne’s office.

Mr. Champagne’s spokesperson, Laurie Bouchard, said the government recognizes the central role that graduate students and postdocs play in research. She said the government has been “steadfast” in its support of researchers and scientists, pointing to $17-billion in science funding since the 2015 election.

But according to Support our Science, federal policies are pushing researchers out of science because they simply can’t afford to eat and pay rent.

The ambitious Canadian science projects getting $1.4-billion in funding from Ottawa

“Increased funding amounts for grad students and postdocs are key for the future of Canadian science,” said Henrietta Bennett, a postdoctoral researcher and cell biologist who spoke at the protest in Toronto. “The current levels are not enough to support us, especially in cities like Toronto.”

Kaitlin Kharas, a U of T PhD student, said the protesters want to send a message to Ottawa that science must be supported. She has funding of about $28,000 this year, she said – about $5,000 more than when she began her program. The extra money she received has allowed her to move out of an apartment with cockroaches, and buy meat and spinach without thinking twice.

“That’s a big jump in quality of life,” Ms. Kharas said.

She added that funding decisions are having an impact on who is able to continue in science, as students from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have family support may not weather the years of financial hardship required to stay in the field.

Monday’s protests also called for an increase to the budgets of the federal granting councils. Most graduate students don’t receive federal scholarships but are paid through grants that go to university faculty.

Marc Johnson, a U of T professor of biology and one of the protest organizers, said he was offered a meeting by Ms. Freeland’s staff, but that it was called off Monday because of a scheduling conflict. The meeting has been moved to mid-May, Prof. Johnson said.

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