When I started my undergrad, the students at St. Thomas were not particularly organized. Simply speaking the word “fees” (if you were Ella Henry or Craig Mazerolle) got you booed in a crowded auditorium. There were no free buttons or colourful posters declaring opposition to mounting student debt. Advocating for reductions in tuition fees in union elections was seen as unrealistic; utopian, even. If you self-identified as a student activist or organizer (as opposed to a student politician), you could expect to be branded a radical. The nomenclature was fair, I think.
In 2009, a few second-year sociology students started getting together to talk about inequality and post-secondary education, weaving the theories in our readings together with the stories we told about ourselves, about our lives, doubling back every now and then to correct some ideas that didn’t make sense anymore: that you had to pay for something in order for it to have value, that education ought to be a private investment, not a public good. While the group was small, it was something. A few folks cut up magazines and newspapers and made collages to draw some attention to the group. Lots of the collages were posted around campus…I remember many of them being ripped down.
St. Thomas is a small, liberal arts, primarily undergraduate university, which also offers a few professional second degree programs. When I was there, the majority of enrolled students received some kind of government assistance, through provincial or federal grants or loans, which meant they had to qualify for that help in the first place. There were plenty of first generation university students from smaller towns in rural New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island: places with high unemployment rates, hollowed by deindustrialization, resource collapse, outmigration. Most of us were women. These things needed to be said aloud.
When we started organizing teach-ins, we brought people who could shed some light on the history of the student movement to speak. While hearing Dorothy Smith talk about being at Berkeley in the ’60s was certainly powerful, it was the space that such events created that was truly precious. The teach-ins were opportunities for students to talk openly about their struggles in ways that were not abstract. We gathered to be heard in our pain and anxiety; to name not just the crushing burden of debt, but the structures that rendered it seemingly inescapable; to see that in dreaming of another world, we weren’t alone.
When we started speaking about the impact that high tuition fees and soaring debt had on our education and our own lives, it was easier to see how the privatization of the university degrades education more generally: discouraging students from pursuing disciplines less readily monetized, and dissuading students from racialized and working-class backgrounds from enrolling at all. With less diversity, the quality of thought itself is corrupted. This is to say nothing of the impact that cuts to public funding for post secondary education have on teaching and research in the modern university, characterized as it is by ballooning administrations and the separation of the professoriate into tiers. To reflect and say together that we do not want what is being imposed on us, that we do not consent, that we can imagine and build something better and more just is a sign of our abilities and our potential.
The Day of Action is an effective lobbying tool. Mass mobilization gets things done in government, but it does more than that. It is an exercise in hope. It is a powerful articulation of our values. We write the future we want with our bodies, in the streets, together.