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The hot mess of student activism

It’s not always pretty, but idealistic students continue to affect change, be it social, economic or environmental.

By DIANE PETERS | OCT 07 2015

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Last spring, while most students across the country were polishing final essays and cramming for exams, several thousand students in Quebec declared themselves on strike and hit the still-chilly streets in protest. At issue: so-called austerity measures from Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government. The campaign looked like Maple Spring redux – a replay of the 2012 protests over planned tuition hikes.

But, unlike those massive protests three years ago, this one seemed to lack popular support and lost what support it did enjoy following reports of intimidation, vandalism and sporadic violence. The surrounding politics of this campaign were also more complex. For starters, the rallying cry against austerity lacked the clarity of a call to freeze tuition.

“This is a large and broad issue,” admits Camille Godbout, former spokesperson for the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or ASSÉ. “It’s hard to get across what austerity is really about.”

The media was dismissive, even hostile, towards the campaign, criticizing ASSÉ for running an unclear campaign and calling the group a radical militant organization without full support of the province’s students. The campaign ended with a whimper when most of the remaining striking students quietly called it quits in May.

Regardless of its final outcome, in many ways this campaign epitomized the state of student activism in Canada today. On one level, this was a fairly mature campaign that drew in thousands, got media attention and made lots of noise. Student activists today have an ample communications and social-media toolkit at their disposal and know how to organize.

But, on the other hand, while they’re idealistic, student activists can lack experience. These are, after all, young people at the helm and they make mistakes. There is also the constant turnover as student leaders graduate and move on. As well, the subjects students are talking about today are complex ones, often with compelling arguments on both sides. The result: infighting, mixed messages and a divide between students who get involved and those who just want to graduate. Yet, the hot mess that is the student movement today still manages to shore up enough passion and skill to make things happen and play a pivotal role in social change.

“It’s my belief that student activism in Canada is very strong right now. And there are a variety of ways that activism is showcased on different campuses,” says Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, a national advocacy organization with 80 college and university student unions as members. Students are tackling concerns that are financial, environmental, political, sexual and ethical in nature. Actions range from in-your-face confrontations to behind-the-scenes hand-shakes with political representatives.

At university, young people’s worlds open up and they start to question the status quo. “Youth are very concerned about the world they’re about to inherit,” says Robert Huish, assistant professor in the department of international development studies at Dalhousie University. These factors, plus students’ ability to find like-minded people and places to gather, has meant that universities naturally foster activism.

Collective student action dates back centuries, to the early days of universities themselves. In the 20th century, post-Gandhi, campus activism flourished and began to alter history in earnest. In 1956, student actions triggered the Hungarian Revolution. In the 1960s, four black university students at a South Carolina segregated lunch counter helped spark a nationwide movement.

In Canada, national student groups rose to prominence in the 1960s, pushing for social change, peace (especially an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam), anti-poverty measures and civil rights. Students here began making headlines with events such as the 1963 March for Canada, held at Queen’s Park in Toronto to express concern for the future of the Canadian Confederation amid Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. In 1965, University of Toronto students staged a one-week sit-in at the U.S. consulate to advocate for civil rights south of the border.

In the following decades, Canadian universities stayed active in a range of causes, such as women’s rights, gay rights and environmental issues. In the 1980s, McGill University, U of T and Carleton University, among others, divested from South Africa due to student pressures. Many of today’s equal rights have roots in earlier student outcries. “Society owes a debt to student activism that deserves to be acknowledged,” says Aziz Choudry, associate professor of international education in the department of integrated studies in education at McGill.

Today, one of the prominent causes firing up students is the cost of education. “It’s not just students that bear this burden,” says the CFS’s Ms. McCormick. “When we graduate with student debt, we’re not able to buy a home, we don’t make major purchases, we don’t start families as early as our parents. There are significant economic repercussions.”

The CFS is known for its tuition-related protests, such as the province- wide action it organized across Ontario in April 2012 calling for a halt to a new tuition rebate and cutting fees instead. The federation was piggybacking on Quebec’s student protest, the Maple Spring, in a rare moment of integration. “Sometimes, protests are necessary to show how serious we are about an issue, to say enough is enough,” says Ms. McCormick.

These campaigns get headlines, but other student organizations deride both the simplistic call for tuition cuts and old-school protests. “The student movement is divided,” says Jonathan Williams, executive director of StudentsNS, which represents student unions at seven postsecondary institutions in Nova Scotia. “There’s a core divide across much of the country: the CFS vision of what the student movement is supposed to be, and the non-CFS vision.” StudentsNS advocates that eliminating tuition is not the answer and that other financial barriers – housing, food, transportation, books – add up to a lot more than tuition, and these costs impact disadvantaged students disproportionately.

It is a view and approach shared by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, or CASA, which was founded in 1995 as a reaction to CFS’s approach (and its perceived rigidity in making it difficult for student unions to leave the organization). “We’re more of a lobby group than an activist group,” says Travis Gordon, board chair of the alliance. “It’s important for groups like ours to be pointing out the issues; that’s how issues get fixed.” For instance, CASA negotiated with the federal government to remove the value of a student’s vehicle from their assets, as students who owned and often desperately needed their cars were getting their loans clawed back.

Despite the lack of cohesion and the occasional bickering on this key front, there have been victories. In 2009, Newfoundland put in place a tuition freeze and Quebec did the same in 2012. Recently, the federal government stopped charging interest on loans for part-time students while they were still in school. “It’s hard to finesse what caused an actual action,” admits Mr. Gordon. “Was it a protest or a meeting or a letter that led to the change in opinion of a Member of Parliament? It all contributes along the way.”

Most critically, student activists of all stripes have been able to get education and financial issues on the public agenda. “What I have noticed is that there’s been a shift in the public’s discussion about education,” says Ms. McCormick. “It’s more of a kitchen table conversation than it was 20 years ago, and I think that helps students.”

Environmental concerns also loom large for student activists. Students working on this front have a plum cause of late: the so-called divestment movement, which calls for universities to stop investing their endowments in fossil-fuel related companies. At last count nearly 30 Canadian campuses have active campaigns. Students are the primary leaders in these campaigns, and increasingly faculty associations are joining in.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a campaign that’s so tangible. People can really grasp it and how it can affect change on a systematic level,” says Kelsey Mech, national director of Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, which helps organize divestment campaigns at Canadian schools. While those handling endowment purse strings aren’t saying yes to divestment in droves, some seem to agree it’s a good idea, at least in theory. Divestment is so palatable that groups in oil-dependent Newfoundland and Alberta are finding that students – even those with family members working in the oil and gas industry – are receptive. “A lot of them agree this is not a long-term industry,” says Ms. Mech.

And then there are the more personal issues tackled by students. Decades ago, university campuses offered the first safe places for gays and lesbians to meet up and feel accepted. Particularly in the 1970s, those groups played a key role in helping change society’s views on sexuality by protesting, writing and advocating.

But today, some say things in this area have gotten a little too quiet. “You get complacency when people wonder what else is there to fight for,” says Rachael Sullivan, a lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Research she conducted for her PhD thesis shows LGBT students still feel some places on campus are not safe for them, yet they rarely speak up. The work on this front, like many others, has grown more complex. Students are now asking for things like all-gender washrooms and for language in campus communications and in courses to be more accepting of all gender identities. “It’s no longer an activist issue, it’s about shifting the culture,” says Dr. Sullivan.

Meanwhile, campaigns to combat sexual violence against women on campuses have seen a resurgence due to some recent high-profile incidents. The phrase “rape culture” has entered the lexicon and now sits on the public agenda.

Yet even this relatively clear-cut issue has triggered some pushback. The so-called men’s movement has been simmering on university campuses for years and of late has become more vocal. In 2013, Ryerson University’s student union refused official status to a men’s group affiliated with the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) amid concerns the group was spreading misogyny and hate speech. A media frenzy ensued.

And this is where many truly complex personal and political campus issues remain: mired in verbal, and sometimes physical, conflicts between opposing groups of student activists, with university administrations and the media stepping in and out of the fray. “When you’ve got people who are really upset on one or the other side, the possibility for civil dialogue becomes more challenging,” says Nona Robinson, associate vice-president of students at Trent University.

This past January, two student groups – Sustainable Trent and the Ontario Public Interest Group (OPIRG) Peterborough – advertised a week-long Israel divestment week at Trent. Posters for the event contained the image of the Israeli flag with the Star of David crossed out. Campus and Jewish groups complained, the media got involved and accusations of anti- Semitism and supporting oppression were thrown around.

Then the campus group Trent 4 Israel demanded the Trent Central Student Association scrap its policy of boycotting academic, culture and consumer exchanges with Israel. After lengthy, and heated, discussions at the association’s annual general meeting, the policy was scrapped. “I would not say the process was perfect, but when it came down to it there was dialogue,” says Dr. Robinson.

Passions still flare over abortion rights: in March, students at the University of Alberta protested for the removal of graphic abortion images display-ed in the school quad. In addition, well-known speakers voicing strong and controversial opinions can ignite debates and trigger protests. When U.S. conservative commentator Ann Coulter was to speak at the University of Ottawa in 2010, the event was cancelled over fears of violence from demonstrators.

The conversation over such issues has a common vibe: one side argues for the right to free speech; the other discusses whether free speech has slipped into hate speech, and whether people feel safe and respected. These kinds of arguments can get messy, but they also can be healthy for schools and for society. “That’s a consequence of trying to ensure that our campuses remain open to dissent and open to a diversity of opinion,” says Dalhousie’s Dr. Huish.

To this back and forth, there seems to be no simple resolution. For student activism, however, the point may not be the causes on the agenda, but the process itself. Writing letters to politicians, organizing a march, working together on posters, drafting a press release for an event, researching before a meeting: these activism-related activities have educational value. “There’s an informal process where people engage with ideas and learn just as much as they do, if not more so, than in the formal classroom,” says Dr. Choudry of McGill.

Dr. Huish has taken this idea to the next level. In his course Development and Activism, his students launch campaigns both to achieve social goals – such as improving human rights in North Korea – and to learn from the experience. So, while the issues may change, what endures is the sense that protesting, saying what you think and seeking out social truth – whatever it means to you – still plays a vital role for campus life and Canadian life. Students have been able to affect change, and they’ll keep trying to do so, even if it looks messy through the process. Says Dr. Choudry: “Social change has never been neat.”

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