A field guide to activism

The whats and wherefores of trying to change the world

Last weekend’s demonstrations against the Salon des ressources naturelles – referred to by its critics as Salon Plan Nord 2.0 – set the stage for another spring of demonstrations and heightened activism this year. As the province grapples with budget cuts, resource extraction, pipelines, and the highly contentious upcoming education summit, McGill is debating cuts to Arts classes, investment in fossil fuels, military research, ongoing labour negotiations, and a protocol on demonstrations that has been denounced far and wide. With these issues and more already on the table, activists of all stripes will be taking the opportunity to make their point of view heard and try to affect the decisions that are made. Whether you are interested in participating, standing on the sidelines, or actively organizing something yourself, as we move into this season of debate and protest it can be useful to understand what different tactics can be used by activists and what their various purposes are.

The following is a short field guide to identifying various strategies for activism, including definitions, and examples of tactics used to achieve them:


Education can be useful when the change you want to see can be achieved through individual behaviour (for example, getting people to no longer make hurtful comments and assumptions about a marginalized group), or as a way of getting more people to participate in some other form of activism. This sentiment is often expressed as: “If only people knew about this, they’d be outraged!”

Unfortunately education, though useful, is rarely an adequate mechanism for change in and of itself.

Examples: Social Justice Days; the SSMU Equity conference; teach-ins such as Climate Justice Montreal’s one-day conference on the Line 9 pipeline last month; informal conversations among friends.


Activist research can serve to uncover information that would be useful for educational purposes, so it is often paired with the kinds of tactics described above. Sometimes research can serve to develop alternative solutions to the ones being proposed; at other times, it can be useful for developing more effective strategies for activism. Finally, people like Aaron Swartz make the mere ability to do research and have access to information the central point of their activism.

Examples: The investigative journalism done at The Daily; the Independent Student Inquiry into November 10, 2011; Access to Information requests filed by students, faculty, or staff; the work of the Community University Research Exchange (CURE).


Advocacy involves working within a decision-making system to convince someone to make a decision you would like to see. This can include educating them, suggesting alternative solutions, or, in the case of elected officials, using the threat of losing votes in the future. It can often include a show of numbers, suggesting that ‘the people have spoken’ on an issue. In a labour relations setting, the process of bargaining for a collective agreement includes similar elements.

Examples: The petition submitted by Divest McGill to McGill’s Committee Advising on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) to divest from fossil fuels; large permitted rallies intended to show support or opposition to a cause; participation in the upcoming summit on education.

Pressure tactics

These are some of the most misunderstood tactics in the activist toolkit. I use the term ‘pressure tactics’ instead of the not-quite-synonymous term ‘direct action’, because it lays the strategic aim of these tactics right out in the title. The goal of employing pressure tactics is to put pressure on a body that has the ability to make the change you want: in other words, making it so costly not to make that change that they are forced to cut their losses and concede. That may sound harsh, but keep in mind that many of the most serious problems in the world are not caused by ignorance but by greed and self-centeredness. Many activists turn to pressure tactics only after having exhausted other means, but when those other means have been tried and failed, pressure tactics become necessary.

Because of the system we live in, the kind of pressure applied is almost always economic. A labour strike causes economic pressure by depriving an industry of its labour, while a boycott of a toxic corporation hurts them by cutting their revenue and profits. Blockades and intentionally disruptive protests shut down key economic interests or simply reduce a workforce’s ability to get to work, lowering productivity and thus the government’s likely tax revenue. Even an action like Divest McGill’s Valentine’s Day break-up with the oil industry puts economic pressure on McGill by threatening to tarnish their reputation.

Although more visible forms of attack on productivity are often singled out by the media – things like property destruction that costs money to repair, or people chaining themselves to equipment in order to halt work – in fact, all pressure tactics are sabotage. The purpose of pressure tactics is specifically to make business as usual impossible. So impossible, in fact, that one is forced to deviate from it permanently. Only then can whatever change activists are working toward be assured.

In conclusion, then, I just want to draw attention to the sorts of activism that are permitted under McGill’s proposed Statement of Values and Principles and the operating procedures that accompany it. Education and advocacy seem to be okay, so long as the proper tone of civility is maintained and it all occurs within acceptable channels. Research, though not prohibited by the Statement, is coming under attack through McGill’s motion to deny students’ Access to Information requests. Pressure tactics of any sort, however, are explicitly prohibited, not just by the operating procedures but by the guiding principles themselves, which set out to protect people’s ability to carry out the activities of the university. This is, in fact, a ban on all effective protest and by extension a ban on making any change the administration does not already agree with. Are we willing to put up with that?

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. Email Mona at lookingglass@mcgilldaily.com.