Every year, QPIRG McGill and QPIRG Concordia host Study in Action, a series of free workshops for undergrads focusing on activism as well as social and environmental justice. This year, the conference took place from March 14 to 17 at Concordia, with panels and workshops focusing on a wide spectrum of social justice topics, including everything from Idle No More to feminist graffiti. The Art in Action visual art exhibit complemented the conference, illustrating these themes through works by both students and members of the local community. The interdisciplinary conference was created in recognition of undergraduate writing and research linked to social and environmental justice, with the goal of transcending the borders between academic and popular knowledge. I attended a panel and a workshop at Study in Action, and although both touched on illuminating topics, I left the conference more confused and disillusioned than when I arrived.
I began my Study in Action experience by attending the Saturday morning panel “Whose strike was it, anyway?” The panel included four speakers, including Alex Matak, a self-identified queer anti-capitalist nerd and student strike activist, and Gabrielle Bouchard, who works with the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy. A recent Concordia graduate, Matak opened the panel by presenting her research on the student strike and ways in which power was experienced, constructed, and reproduced within the organizing bodies at Concordia. She qualified her presentation with data gathered in interviews, and backed it up with academic theories of geographic and social space. Her presentation was by far the most structured, clear, and interesting, despite also being the shortest. The other speakers did not have formal presentations prepared, and embarked on anecdotal rants about their experiences subverting the Concordia administration during the strike. Although these monologues were illuminating at points, for the most part, they were just an outlet to voice disdain for Quebec’s educational institutions. At the end, the panel’s overarching goal remained unclear.
After a delicious vegan lunch served by The People’s Potato, I attended the workshop “A $400,000 Fence and Other Stories: An Introduction to the Prison System.” The workshop gave an overview of the prison system in Canada, particularly focusing on Bill C-10. This bill was created to allow for increased federal funding in prison infrastructure, with the aim of keeping people within these institutions for longer, and consequently creating more jobs in security and prison construction to stimulate the Canadian economy. The workshop was more organized than the previous panel and had a clear topic focus and thesis: how prisons in Canada are a business.
The workshop invited people that had experience with the Canadian prison system to speak about how Harper’s reforms have dramatically changed their day-to-day lives in prison. “$6.90 a day is the most you can make in jail,” said one speaker, “and Harper is cutting this by taking 32 per cent of our annual earnings for ‘room and board’ costs.” The average convict in Canada serves 27.5 years in prison for a murder conviction, and such cuts to the absurdly small amount they make every day is affecting their ability to support their families while in prison. Perhaps even more upsetting is how the university programs and college workshops that were previously available to prisoners have been replaced by petty chores such as lawn mowing. One speaker expressed that he did not know where to draw the line between being in prison and being a slave. Since 2007, provincial governments throughout Canada have been in the process of building 22 new prisons and 17 additions to existing prisons with an estimated total cost of over $3.375 billion. Through these reforms, the Harper government is not increasing the number of jobs, but simply displacing them by decreasing employment opportunities for prisoners, and increasing the number of guards employed.
Although this workshop was fascinating, I felt it didn’t directly fit with Study in Action’s mandate of showcasing undergraduate student research. I left the conference more informed about the Canadian prison system than undergraduate research on local activism.
As a political science student, I appreciate events that create a space for minds to debate and coalesce. I had hopes that Study in Action would create such a forum, but, unfortunately, the promise of an “undergraduate research conference linking students with community activism” was false advertising. I would have liked to see the conference use a more academic lens when examining local activism, and they could have done so by allowing undergraduates to actually present their research.