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Leave those kids alone: the power of student activism


In the winter of 1969, students occupied the Computer Centre at what is now Concordia University to protest a professor who had been acquitted by the University of racism after being accused by six Caribbean students of failing only Black students in his class. The protests forced the University to reevaluate how it dealt with instances of racism on campus. On November 18, 1985, McGill was the first Canadian university to divest from its holdings in apartheid South Africa in response to student pressure. On May 22, 2012, one-third of all Quebec post-secondary students took to the streets to protest a provincial tuition hike. Four months later, the Quebec government declared a tuition freeze. Students have been organizing and making change for decades, and we shouldn’t underestimate our power.

When you put thousands of young people on a campus together and give them access to education about systemic social injustice, it creates the potential for radical political change. Those who are invested in the status quo, including university administrations, are rightly terrified of the power that students have to enact social change. They use tactics ranging from delegitimizing civil disobedience to infantilizing student activists in order to silence and dismiss our concerns, and are complicit in creating a generation of students who feel disempowered and apathetic.

Part of using student power responsibly means acknowledging who is doing the organizing, and ensuring that spaces are accessible to the affected groups that they seek to support. At McGill, marginalized people shoulder most of the labour of activism. 

This stems, in part, from the fact that McGill proudly brands itself as an “elite institution” – another way of saying that many students are wealthy and white, and unaffected by issues like racism and tuition hikes. They may be less likely to care about those who are affected, and this apathy can become outright hostility against activism. Earlier this month, hundreds of students crossed the picket line of the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE), which was striking for a $15 per hour minimum wage among other essential demands. These students then had the audacity to call the strike “frustrating.”

The McGill administration works astonishingly hard to prevent students from exercising, or even realizing, their power. When Divest McGill set up camp directly outside the James Administration building to demand that McGill divest from its holdings in the fossil fuel industry, Principal Suzanne Fortier said she “didn’t see it.” When students voted to pass a resolution at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assembly to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, the McGill administration rejoiced as soon as the motion subsequently failed online ratification. Ignoring or silencing student activism is a cheap tactic that universities and governments use to delegitimize the work that students do – and activism is, indeed, work. We cannot allow such tactics to distract us from our goals, or make us believe that we cannot effect change, because we can, we have, and we will.