Features | Waiting for the groundswell

It’s been over 40 years since the student movement’s 1960s heyday, and the image of a small core of student activists fighting ever-increasing apathy on our campuses has started to become a well-worn cliché.

Why are students apathetic in the first place? For a number of reasons – out of distrust for ideology, a lack of incentive to follow politics, a high sense of risk, and a low sense of urgency. The stakes either seem too low – particularly in a country as developed and relatively prosperous as Canada – or too high to begin to tackle, in the case of larger structural issues or international trends. We’re in debt and have to focus on positioning ourselves to get jobs, at a time when most job markets are looking disconcertingly unpromising.  Perhaps most significantly, the individual issues around which student activists rally often don’t seem like such a big deal on their own, out of context of the underlying, systematic problems that connect them.

A generational question 

The federal and provincial elections raised little excitement among students at McGill, with low turn-outs at both Gert’s on election night and minimal attendance at a meet-and-greet with representatives from the provincial parties at Thomson House – unsurprising outcomes, given the low voter participation among Canadian youth in recent years.

It’s reflective of a trend that doesn’t bode well for the nation as a whole, according to Ilona Dougherty. She is one of the founding members of Apathy is Boring, a Montreal-based non-partisan organization that tries to get young people more involved in the democratic process, making use of art, concerts, and social events to attract those who wouldn’t otherwise be politically inclined.  

If young people don’t get politically involved when they’re 18, it’s increasingly unlikely that they’ll become involved later on in life. “In Canada we’re looking at 36 per cent of the country voting in 20 years,” Dougherty says. “So that’s something to really think about and get concerned about.”

Apathy is Boring, founded in 2004, conducted research into potential reasons for student apathy.  “I think there are a lot of different reasons, and it’s pretty complex,” Dougherty says. They found that individuals worry their contribution to the political process doesn’t make a difference, sometimes because the political process is too large and bureaucratic for their efforts to register, and that it will carry on regardless of their input.

“Part of it is generational,” she says. “Our generation hasn’t thus far really understood why it’s important to get involved in traditional decision making.”

Students are even more skeptical about more direct forms of voicing their concerns outside of the traditional democratic process.

Patrick Imbeau, a sociology Master’s student at Université Laurentienne in Sudbury, Ontario, noticed palpable distrust among students of protest as a political tool. “It’s seen as rebellious and really radical; it’s portrayed as being really left-wing, like the brick-throwers at protests.”

It’s also difficult to get students to identify with the movement. “[They’re] frustrated about social issues, but feel like the idea of the student movement is exterior to them,” Imbeau notes. 

So what happened to the sixties – those romanticized images of school occupations in France, of real, collective action? 

Jean-Marc Piotte, professor emeritus in Political Science at l’Université du Québec à Montréal, was active in the Quebec student movement since the time of the Quiet Revolution, and continued to be involved in union activism long after graduation. He contends that it was easier to rally an earlier generation in Quebec because everyone’s attention was concentrated on just a few media outlets, and this did, for better or for worse, make for a more collective experience. Everyone watched the same few TV channels, heard about the same news events, read the same journals. The society was restricted enough then, in large part under the oppressive influence of the Catholic Church, that being exposed to outside thought could cause a substantial youth reaction. When Piotte and a few of his compatriots founded the radical publication Parti pris in 1963, conditions were right for it to amass a large following.

Today, our attention is more diffused. Our generation is also more individualistic – though not necessarily in the sense of egotism, as Piotte said in a plenary discussion at a unionist’s conference in 2003, now transcribed online.

We conceive of ourselves differently than members of his generation did, in part as a result of the battles for personal freedoms that they fought. When Piotte was young, people were often defined by the neighbourhood they came from and who their family was. Today identity is seen more as something you assert as you go along, through all the particular choices that make up your life – especially consumer choices.

In 1994, Paul Loeb published Generation at the Crossroads, the culmination of several years’ worth of interviews with students at colleges around the U.S. about their attitudes on politics and civic engagement. For many of the students he interviewed, not seeing themselves as fitting a certain activist “type” – something they associated with images of hippies from the sixties – barred them from taking the idea of participating in something like a demonstration seriously.

The two solitudes and cultural memory

There’s a common perception that Quebeckers are more politically active than their English-Canadian counterparts. Imbeau took on this assumption in his thesis on the perceived lack of student political involvement in his province.  

“I’ve been working in the student movement for the last six years in Ontario, and it’s always been frustrating when I look over to Quebec and see students on strike or the large-scale protests that’ve been going on, and then looking in Ontario and not seeing anything remotely similar,” he says.

Dougherty observes a similar trend. “I think when you are a ‘minority’ in Canada the reality is that there’s more of a sense of something to fight for…. It’s a cultural thing,” she explained.

During his Master’s research, Imbeau interviewed a man from a school in southern Ontario who said to him, “It’s hard to fight the man when you’re the man.”

“He explained that franco-Ontarians are taught to fight for the survival of their heritage and language from a young age,” Imbeau wrote in an email, “where they’ve had a constant reminder that protesting and fighting for the franco-Ontarian community can get results.”

McGill, in particular, has a track record for low student engagement in politics. “Effectively, McGill is the least militant of the [universities in Montreal],” Piotte says, “and that was also true in the sixties and seventies.”

In part, it’s because a lot of McGill students don’t have much invested in the surrounding community.

Fred Burrill, a U3 History student participating in the McGill class on student movements, points out that the low tuition fees in Quebec can create a student experience that’s structured differently, leaving more room for university to develop into a politically-engaged experience. Students often take much longer to finish degrees than those paying higher tuition fees. “They take a few courses and then work for a few years; they get the opportunity to develop political sensibilities, develop a sense of how to organize. It’s a completely different sensibility,” he says. 

Given the province’s recent history – even reaching as far back as the Quiet Revolution – student strikes remain fresh in the collective consciousness as effective means of weighing in politically. Most recently, the 2005 strike sent the message to the government that if it wants to make cuts indiscriminately, there will be a backlash – students will abandon their classes, make a lot of noise, take to the streets, and keep commerce from happening until student voices are heard.

“It was kind of like a lightbulb moment,” Devin Alfaro, SSMU VP External Affairs says. “A lot of people saw students becoming relevant political actors and shaping the discussion and pushing the discussion.”

Tips of the iceberg

But why does the student movement focus in on campus in particular? Why the focus on tuition, and not on broader issues?

It’s not necessarily that a university campus is special as a location, but more that it’s the community we’re part of right now, and the most immediate entry point from which to address larger trends.

Alfaro describes the recent Reclaim Your Campus (RYC) initiative as a local campaign that addressed manifestations of broader issues found close to home.

“There’s the broader Canada-wide, Quebec-wide context of lack of investment in public institutions, that’s the fundamental problem. In the mid-nineties the federal government decided it was going to cut taxes, balance the budget, and pay down the national debt at the same time…so they started giving less money to the provinces for education, giving less money to the provinces for healthcare. They also did other things at the same time; they tightened up the employment insurance system,” Alfaro explains.

The lack of funding for public institutions – and the resulting increased corporatization of institutions of higher learning – come to bear on campus in the form of seemingly isolated phenomena, from increasingly privatized food services to crumbling buildings and strained labour relations.

“Most of the food services on campuses were at one point run by student groups, and now because McGill is underfunded, they’ve decided they’re going to extract as much money out of campus as possible, and that’s one way to do it,” Alfaro explains.

Because they’re underfunded, “one of their strategies is to push down the costs as far as possible,” leading to more aggressive dealings with students and staff. “Anything that happens that could possibly cause them more money, they’ll fight, even if it means pushing students around or damaging the quality of education.”

These are the kind of events that RYC was trying to rally students around, before it got temporarily shelved toward the end of last semester due to lack of student participation. Protests on campus can be a means of letting the administration know that students are paying attention to these changes.

“Reclaim Your Campus is mostly focused on the local level – the McGill admin needs to know people are noticing these problems and that there will be a push-back,” Alfaro asserts.

Too much ideology, not enough vision?

Student groups have also had trouble recruiting broad support bases like they did in 2005, and this isn’t just the fault of apathetic students.

The student movements in both Ontario and Quebec suffer from a general split within their ranks, between lobbying groups and those who want to take more direct forms of action.

2007-2008 was a particularly bad year for the student movement. It was as if “all the nastiness of the student movement [were] coalescing in one semester,” says Burrill, who recently completed an independent study project on the movement in Quebec.

A general strike was proposed for the fall and failed, dissolving under the combined strain of police repression, infighting, and the suspected sabotage of general assemblies by young péquistes.

Burrill describes how student groups over the past decades have had limited life spans. “The freshness of ideology, related to the specific material circumstance that forms a generation of activists – that wears out. They start talking about consolidating their membership rather than about the movement.”

He concluded that the student movement is “really only a solid force in the Quebec left and Quebec society in general when it has a solid consensus around syndicalist tactics.” It’s only once they’ve gotten past infighting that they can connect with other movements around the province.

Piotte cites the lack of a larger vision as a potential problem. “Perhaps what’s missing today is une grande utopie, t’vois?” Piotte speculates. “We need a new utopia, a new vision of the world.  Because when you look at the situation [today] – maybe what we’re missing is this vision of a new world.”

But it’s hard to believe in, let alone strive for, utopian ideals today, particularly with some knowledge of 20th-century history in mind. “I think what we need today are more paths for action and concrete ideas of what will and won’t work,” says Joël Pedneault, coordinator of the independent study class on student movements at McGill this term. One of the goals of the class is to get a better understanding of which tactics have worked and which haven’t.

Apathy and other myths

“I’m not sure it’s steadily getting worse,” Imbeau says. He cites the wave of optimism around Barack Obama’s election campaign this past year. “I don’t think he’s a saint by any means,” he says, “but the whole organization behind him, the rallies for change for whatever else, the idea of hope…I feel a bit less cynical about where we’re heading.”

Dougherty agrees. “Charisma can’t help but get people excited and involved, so it’ll be really interesting to see what happens when reality sets in,” she says. The question, for her, is really, “How do we keep that [enthusiasm] going when there’s not a charismatic leader? How do we sustain that and keep it going?”

The answer seems to be: by making larger issues relevant to the immediate realities students face.

RYC, for its part, still hasn’t been done away with completely, and some of the organizers are optimistic about trying to give it another push. Hariyanto Darmawan, Post-Graduate Students’ Society representative on QPIRG’s board of directors and an active member of RYC, stresses that gaining a broad base of support is a problem of logistics – not one of chronic apathy among students.

“I think it’s a myth,” he says.  

“I think it’s a question of the movement itself being able to become relevant to the day-to-day needs of the students,” Darmawan continues. “To unite all the personal concerns into one mass action. I don’t think it’s apathy. I think it’s a question of the leadership in the movement making it relevant.”


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