The Student Day of Action: A Critical Perspective

Posted on February 6, 2011


I began last Wednesday with a moral dilemma. You see, I wholeheartedly agree with the Canadian Federation of Students that tuition fees should decrease. Raising tuition fees is not just a massive transfer of wealth from the young to the old, but also an excellent way to undermine competitiveness in a global economy that is increasingly reliant on knowledge. The problem is that I don’t agree so much with the Federation on their whole monopolizing the student movement while gouging member unions for millions of dollars and suing any school that tries to leave the organization thing. I felt like I would be betraying my conscience by participating in the Day of Action scheduled for today, but I also didn’t want my quibble with the group to get in the way of my arguably more important conviction that tuition fees should be reduced. I resolved the dilemma by striking a deal with myself: I would attend the protest, but commit to maintaining a critical presence. No simple marching and chanting for me, I was going to evaluate the event! So I headed out into a snowstorm and sprinted to catch up with a march that had already left without me.

The green placards are from the CFS. The red ones are from CASA.h

Many aspects of the march went very well. The organization was excellent, and there were some phenomenal speakers. I arrived late to Victoria Park, just in time for the start of Laura Penny’s speech. The first thing I noticed was the even and homogenous mix of Canadian Federation of Students and Canadian Alliance of Student Associations placards. Given the unfortunate history of counterproductive feuding between these two organizations, this was a very encouraging sign. Penny’s speech itself was also fantastic. Insightful political commentary laced with her trademark brand of snark. It was the perfect thing to get the crowd going.

After a few more speakers, it was time to begin our march to the provincial legislature. The plan had been to march down Spring Garden Road. For those of you who don’t live in Halifax, Spring Garden is the main outdoor commercial strip of the city and therefore  the sensible choice for any protest march which intends to get noticed. The police, unfortunately, were not so keen on this choice of route.

No sooner had we left Victoria Park than two paddy wagons, a handful of cruisers, and about a dozen officers blocked our path. Presumably they were concerned about black bloc violence or some other implausible nonsense and wanted us to march down a less significant street with fewer windows to break. The problem is that fewer windows means fewer businesses and fewer businesses means fewer people. Given that the whole point of the march was to get the word out, this was a bit of a sticking point for us.

We were rescued from this unwanted detour by, I shit you not, a giant guillotine. Some of the attendees had brought a rather offensive float that featured a blood-stained blade, some headless dummies, and a sign proclaiming that this represented “The Cuts We’d Like to See”. This gruesome display parked itself across the road the police wanted to funnel us down, and held the crowd in the intersection right in front of the police line. After several somewhat tense minutes of chanting, the police finally relented and let us through with a stern warning to stay to the right of the road. This was undoubtedly one of the high points of the march. We couldn’t have been more encouraged as we surged through the police line and past all the confused shoppers, diners and consumers sheltering themselves from the storm all the way down the street.

There’s not a whole lot interesting to mention from the march itself. Things went fairly smoothly and despite the nasty weather, there was a very jubilant feeling among the protesters. One notable fact: It was fucking huge.

Lots of protesters on Barrington Street.

The turnout really was impressive until we reached the legislature and people immediately started to leave in droves I can hardly blame them; the weather was atrocious.

There were also some excellent speeches at the legislature, coupled with some jeers at Darrell Dexter which were very satisfying despite the fact that he couldn’t possibly have heard them from wherever he is spending his vacation.  I think  “very satisfying” is just about the best endorsement I can give for the event. I briefly lost my distaste for the CFS in the midst of the wonderful feeling of being part of something so much bigger than myself which was strong enough to overcome both terrible weather and police barricades. I am genuinely glad that I turned up, because it was a lot of  fun.

Unfortunately, I remain skeptical about the extent to which positive feelings of solidarity can actually act to change political policy. In her speech, Laura Penny noted that she found it appropriate for the protest to occur on Groundhog Day, because she felt like she had been saying the same thing over and over again since she was a student herself. Despite this pop-culture connection, the coincidental date was probably unhelpful in the end, seeing as the media coverage of the march was so lukewarm that we found ourselves competing with Shubenacadie Sam for column space and airtime.

We can level a lot of very valid criticisms at the corporate mainstream media for prioritizing such fluff over more politically relevant news, but the fact of the matter is that the mainstream media is corporate and it does prioritize fluff. If they wanted media coverage, then the organizers of the rally should have taken that fact into account while they were planning the action. Unfortunately, “2000 Students Walk to the Legislature and Listen to Speeches for a While Before Going to Just Us for Free Coffee” just doesn’t make a very good front-page headline.

The media is not the only body which is unlikely to be impressed by this kind of protest. “Let’s not kid ourselves-they [meaning the provincial government] already know what students want”, was one of the lines that got the most cheers in front of the legislature. While I agreed with the statement, it gave me no reason to cheer. If the Darrell Dexter already knows what we want, then what can we expect to accomplish through a rally that presumes to tell the government what we want? 2000 students marching through a police barricade and a snowstorm is impressive and all, but it brings absolutely nothing new to the negotiating table. No number of placards will be able to exert the slightest pressure on a government which has made up its mind to follow shitty the shitty regressive advice about education policy offered by a Friedmanite banker. Every time somebody demanded that Darrell Dexter lower tuition fees, I could just imagine him adopting a classic supervillain voice and replying “Or you’ll what? Hang out in front of my office some more? Send a representative to visit me so that I can offer some empty platitudes? Sign another petition for my aides to shred?”. My imaginary bond-villain premier has a point.

Another sentiment that got a lot of applause both times it was said with the exact same wording was that we need to “build a movement and build solidarity together”. That’s great and all, but solidarity does not magically translate into political pressure. If we build a movement, then it has to actually do something. To put it bluntly, Canadian campaigns to lower tuition fees need to get a whole lot more assertive if they expect to obtain real results.

I don’t claim to have all the answers as to how this can actually happen, but I have a few ideas. We should take a good hard look at the tactics employed by the British Tuition Protests. Their situation is quite superficially similar to ours. The British Browne Review is analogous to the Nova Scotian O’Neill report; both were commissioned of fiscally conservative business to give advice on education reform, and both came to the same horrifying but predictable conclusions. The respective student responses, however, have been quite different. While it took four and a half months of planning, organizing, coalition building and placard printing for the Nova Scotia component of the Canadian Federation of Students to march against the O’Neill report, British student activists using an innovative decentralized mobilization strategy were able to put 50,000 demonstrators on the streets of London just a month after the Browne Review came out. This was followed up by repeated demonstrations of comparable scale all over the UK, along with university occupations and creative public outreach actions. The movement is continuing to grow, and has expanded into a massive coalition aiming to place the fiscal burden for the recession where it belongs, rather than on students, libraries and national forests.

I don’t deny that the British model has had its problems, notably the unfortunate prevalence of vandalism, but it seems to be getting results. Activist tactics are evolving at a rapid pace on the other side of the pond, and it’s about time we colonials sat up and paid attention. The social media revolution is facilitating forms of civic action which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, and if the noninvolvement of and antagonism towards the British National Union of Students is any indication, then the days where it is necessary to have a massive top-heavy organization to organize protests may be coming to an end. The kind of political theatre I took part in last Wednesday was tons of fun, but all the marches in snowstorms and speeches about solidarity have done nothing to stop the continuing increases of tuition fees over the thirty year lifespan of the Canadian Federation of Students. It’s time to rethink our approach.