Social justice activism slim on Calgary campuses

Students only get riled over rising tuition costs

It’s lunch hour and as usual the University of Calgary’s MacEwan Hall is teeming with students. Tables in the concourse are packed and fast-food kiosks are lined up. What is surprising however is that the venue offering free lunch is drawing relatively little attention.

On this day the U of C Students’ Union invited students to sign a petition have their photos taken for a protest postcard then score a plate of free mac ’n’ cheese as part of a demonstration to protest a proposed ‘market modified’ tuition that would increase costs by almost 47 per cent in some programs. Yet despite of the relevance of the issue there were less people participating than those in line at the Kobe Beef outlet.

One could assume this scenario is just another example of local apathy but the issue of activism on Calgary campuses is far more complicated. Contrary to the stereotype local students do take action. They march sign petitions camp and even undress to protest a hand in their pockets. What Calgary students aren’t big on save the occasional red herring issue is the kind of social justice activism for which students have historically been known. Student leaders say this is pure pragmatism based on limited time and energy resources. Others argue this trend is indicative of a Calgary culture of privilege and a campus culture geared to career development rather than intellectual growth.

In the end the Students’ Union’s planned Tuition Day of Protest did rouse the U of C student masses. Almost 2000 students voiced their discontent that day by signing petitions and letters to the education minister and student leaders breathed a sigh of relief.

“We were definitely concerned about whether students would mobilize” admits Kay She SU vice-president external at the U of C. Shea says that while it is not a huge political campus students here have a history of being riled by tuition issues. In 2008 about 550 students wrote letters to protest the university’s decision not to accept credit cards for tuition payment. In 2007 students around Calgary assembled to take part in a national day of action to protest 16 years of tuition hikes.

But while Calgary students will fight higher tuition causes outside of academe seldom draw the ire of the student body. Some say this phenomenon is unusual.

“Students actually have a deep-seeded history of being at the fore of social change movements” says Dave Molenhuis chair-elect of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) an organization representing more than 80 university and college student’s unions across the country.

From civil rights activism in the 1960s to the APEC Summit demonstrations in the 1990s to protests against the Iraq war social justice activism has tended to germinate on campus.

“I came from McGill where the second something is wrong someone is protesting. It’s not like that here” says Veronique Dorias president of the U of C Graduate Students’ Association.

This activist divide is reflected in the campus’s choice for national student organization membership. Most students’ associations and unions in Canada are members of either the CFS or the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA). There are significant differences between these organizations but the main philosophical divide is that CASA the newcomer focuses strictly on academic activism. The CFS formed in 1981 has always included social justice activism in its mandate. That the SU at the U of C and the students’ associations at Mount Royal and SAIT are all CASA members is telling.

“Student government is not for social lobbying” says Colin Rose president of the SAIT Students’ Association. “The students’ association is only here for one thing and that’s the students at SAIT.”

Rose adds that SAIT’s student government has a strict policy of consultation not confrontation. “By protesting you’re only hurting yourself” he says.

This ethos is not surprising says Darren Lund an activist and U of C professor of social justice activism and education. Political activism and political conversation are usually seen as impolite in this city says Lund. “To many Calgarians protest is associated with radicalism and terrorism rather than with active participation in democracy.”

Lund believes this distaste for protest and the lack of interest in social justice issues may be due to the fact that many Calgary students benefit from the status quo. “In short they live in an oil economy and many of them and their parents profit from big oil.”

As a student leader She says she sees truth in some of Lund’s points but disagrees with his conclusions. “We are a privileged city” she says “but I would also argue that students are a demographic within the city that are less privileged.”