Canada
3 min

Lessons learned in campus activism

Don't turn off critical thinking after the classroom

I’ll never forget the first time someone called me racist. I was 20 years old, and the editor of the student newspaper at Concordia University in Montreal. A self-proclaimed activist, I had joined every leftwing group that I could when I first set foot on campus in 1998. My answering machine was routinely choked with messages from various collectives seeking my volunteer labour — including one group that spent months constructing giant chicken puppets to be used at a demonstration against genetic engineering.

So you can imagine the shock on this Jewish girl’s face, when a six-foot tall white dude with green hair stormed into the newspaper office and angrily informed me that I was in need of an anti-oppression workshop.

This was after I’d run an ill-informed editorial about the Palestinian solidarity group on campus, and managed to upset hundreds of people. But as a budding journalist, I was still invested in the questionable notion of journalistic objectivity, and was seriously miffed at being challenged on my story-gathering prowess.

Within a few weeks, the situation got out of hand. After a very public campaign under the mantle of “accountability and democracy,” a group of students delivered a petition to me, with over 1,000 signatures, demanding that I resign from my position. I refused. That led to months of heated arguments about who was censoring who. And believe it or not, the student radicals on campus accused me of being, well, not radical enough. After a very public turf war, I was happy to spend my last year of university quietly buried in the library stacks, swearing I would never again go to another demonstration or write another column.

So, what’s changed? I graduated from university and got involved with a local neighbourhood association that ran a food bank and organized tenants to fight back against slum landlords. I read whatever books I could get my hands on about the successes and failures of various activist movements. But more importantly, I finally left campus, and realized that there was a wide spectrum of activism and community involvement out there that hadn’t been apparent to me from my ivory tower perch.

I thought about this when I heard that students at McGill University students had successfully booted Hema Quebec off campus, protesting against their donation policies, which explicitly ban gay men. When I was a student, I would have celebrated this as a major victory, but now I’m not so sure.

There’s no question in my mind that the blood bank’s policies are unjust. Rather than screening based on specific activities that may be regarded as high risk, Hema Quebec and Canadian Blood Services specifically single out men who have sex with men — virtually ignoring everyone else who could represent an equally high risk.

Still, I wonder if by banning these groups from campus, students are ultimately harming the people (including queers) who desperately need blood transfusions to stay alive. There’s no cut and dry answer here — and that’s the point.

I was involved with a similar campaign when I was a student. A bunch of us had discovered that Sodexho Marriot, the university’s cafeteria provider, had financial links to the private prison industry in the United States. At the newspaper, we dug up horror stories about privatized institutions, and put major pressure on the school’s administration to dump the company when its contract came up for renewal. Bowing to our demands, the university complied. And dozens of low-wage workers lost the jobs they’d had for over 20 years. This was an unintended consequence of our youthful zeal, but one that somehow seemed much closer to home than an incarceration facility in Texas.

Looking back on the Sodexho Marriott situation, I can’t believe we didn’t involve the workers in our campaign. We could have easily included their need for decent wages and job security in our demands, and pushed the company to make some serious changes if they wanted to keep the contract. Because within months of being chased off of dozens of campuses in North America, Sodexho eventually divested of its stake in the prison industry.

In Ottawa, the campus queer groups are proving themselves to be real forces for change. It’s been heartening in the last few months to attend political and social events and to see dozens of under-20 faces eager to get involved in the fight for queer and trans rights.

I would advise them to listen to opposing arguments — even when they are delivered rudely. There are lots of ways to make a political point, from engaging people in a conversation to targeting a specific organization. But you don’t need to go from zero to sit-in overnight. Sometimes it pays to think about who you might be ignoring.