An argument for activism at StFX


The first thing my mom asked me when she came to visit StFX was where she could get a decent sandwich. The second question was where the picket lines were. Considering that she worked at York University, a hotbed of radical ferment, StFX might well seem to be an island of peace. Our fair university is said to be many things, but radical is not one of them. Even within the Canadian mainstream, however, StFX still seems to stand out as a uniquely calm and activism-shy campus. Protest and mass mobilization by the student body are not features of regular campus life. The question then is why?  What is it that makes StFX such a uniquely peaceful location, and can this really be said to be a good thing?

The first response would be to say that StFX doesn’t have the same activist tradition as say York, and lacks the same ultra-political surroundings that many of the more notorious Quebec universities have. This is demonstrably false. The most obvious and well-known counterexample would have to be Reverend Coady’s Antigonish Movement, which is deeply rooted in the StFX tradition. Its conception of economic democracy, social justice, and mass education holds a deeply radical reading of the economic system. University President Kent MacDonald, in his address to frosh students and parents at the beginning of the year, explicitly called back to this tradition of activism and positive change by pointing to Antigonish (StFX in particular) as a fundamental origin point for the cooperative movement and its re-imagination of capitalist society. We have a past filled with radical dreams.

These dreams, and the spirit of change and equality that they represented, were put into practice quite dramatically. In 1970, for example, mass protests directed by the Student Union broke out in response to draconian campus rules enforcing gender segregation in residences. Tensions boiled up as the situation worsened, and after the Student Union leadership were charged by the administration with incitement and an unknown individual set fire to the library, a strike was called. Quoting the 1970-1971 yearbook, “Hundreds manned the picket lines — and over two thousand respected them. A few made it to class only to find that classes weren't being conducted. Another group staged their own protest . . . the hunger strikers who fasted for justice. The group began small but at one point they numbered well over a hundred.” I doubt that any alumnus from that era could forget these events. Hunger strikes, subversion charges, dreams for a new social order, and mass action by Xaverians for a freer campus formed a powerful tradition of student activism. Arson is an unqualified negative, but breaking down strict sex segregation was a worthy cause that got thousands of students working together for change.

From this, one could guess that the StFX Student Union would be leading the charge in activism and student mobilization for change. As anyone who’s ever been anywhere near them would attest, however, this isn’t really the case. There was no better demonstration of this than the Student Union debates. Both the debate questions and the candidate’s answers orbited around the conception of the student union as a provider of services. It’s an institution that does things for you, and although candidates disagreed on some of those services (such as Drive U) even the anti-establishment standard-bearer, Phil Elzein, based his campaign on better management. Although I’m not enough of a historian to speculate on what changed, it is obvious is that the idea of what the StFX Students' Union actually is and what it does has shifted dramatically over the past fifty years. It is now a more democratic arm of the administration and is bound at the hip to the institutions. After all, its largest income, student fees, are handled via the application and administrated by the U.

Even if students had something in particular to mobilize about, the U’s model of being a provider of services first and foremost would make this difficult. Instead, the U sticks with advocacy, which might be a more pleasant and easy path to take but has been remarkably ineffective in the face of an 18% fee hike and the continuing Mi'kmaq flag debacle. Perhaps this could be because they have no force to back their good relations up, but regardless of one’s position on this issue the U is not a source of activism.

What about people working outside the U? Labour activists of a bygone era declared that “direct action gets the goods”, and if the U isn’t willing to engage in activism then perhaps outside groups could do it. This runs up against an unfortunate reality – the U’s structures make it difficult to actually do anything, as the U is structurally hostile to independent activism. The initial application for societies, for example, has no “political” or “activist” categories, which is somewhat indicative. Applications require a minimum membership, which becomes problematic when it’s difficult to organize unless you’re already a society.

Posters are also a particular sticking point. Dylan Thompson, head of the recently-formed StFX Students for Free Tuition Group, recently attempted to get a poster approved as part of a drive to get members organized and work towards society status. However, the staff member on duty told him to “come back another day” because they refused to condone any posters that could be construed as attacks on the institution of the university. The posters were approved, but this goes to show the onerous nature of the process and the easy potential for headaches. Furthermore, the U’s poster policy reserves the right to censor any posters that are “slanderous, offensive, harassing, discriminatory, etc.” without providing definitions for any of these terms, meaning that a poster opposing administration or Union practices could, within the bounds of the code, be forbidden or removed. The increasing waves of guerrilla poster placement (i.e., suspicious LGBT for Trump posters) show the problems that this process poses for any attempts at student mobilization.

It should also be quickly noted that we all love Sodexo deeply. However, its catering monopoly for almost all campus spaces has made it impossible for professors to buy pizza for their students. Horror stories about extravagant catering bills for on-campus charitable events have also circulated. Events are often more able to draw more people and get better results if they can promise food, and the inability to cater from outside coupled with the exorbitant costs that Sodexo imposes makes catering all but impossible for those without significant existing financial resources.

Another problem for independent activist groups is the Risk Assessment Process. The largest issue with this is that it requires all events to be submitted for approval at least two business weeks in advance for approval. Considering the planning processes beforehand and the reality that one can only really coordinate logistics after the two-week approval process, this means that spontaneous actions – the bread and butter of any successful activism – are impossible. Given the Risk Assessment Process, no student event in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington could realistically be held on the StFX campus. Of course, such events were held across Canada and the world, but within StFX it would have been all but impossible. Even if one were to dismiss this issue altogether, the extremely vague hate speech laws, coupled with the bureaucratization of the approval process, mean that events could theoretically be turned down for their potential to cause offense.

Of course, it goes without saying that genuine hate speech and directly harmful rhetoric must be opposed at all turns, but there is a clear constitutional and legal line between hate speech and offense. The Supreme Court of Canada declared that “The repugnancy of the ideas being expressed is not sufficient to justify restricting the expression, and whether or not the author of the expression intended to incite hatred or discriminatory treatment is irrelevant. The key is to determine the likely effect of the expression on its audience, keeping in mind the legislative objectives to reduce or eliminate discrimination,” meaning that causing offense or discomfort alone is not enough to justify these measures, especially when they have the potential to degrade freedom of association: the lively, organic, and open character of a liberal society.

Outside the student sphere, of course, activism exists as well. Shortly after the election, a rally of affirmation was held in Chisholm Park to allow people to confront the realities of the situation, talk out their feelings, and discuss how to go forwards. There has since also been a rally in solidarity with the striking workers of the Chronicle-Herald and a march to protest the electoral reform issue’s stalling. The Antigonish Film Festival screened “The Brainwashing of My Dad”. Local community organizers worked with the university to put together the peace event to mourn the deaths of innocent Muslims killed in Quebec. Regardless of where one stands in regards to all of these important issues, the mobilization around them is a positive.

What is interesting about these events, though, is who shows up. At the Chronicle-Herald march, for example, representatives of several labour groups, along with the local New Democrats, called their members out. The Electoral Reform march was organized by Fair Vote Canada. The post-electoral rally involved labour, as well as the Women’s Centre and several other justice groups. In each case, we see an effective but old-fashioned approach in which groups turn out their own members, a decided contrast with more modern social media-driven event organizing. Because none of these groups have much direct penetration into the StFX population, students – who are traditionally at the forefront of social movements for change – don’t show up in large numbers. This is a manifestation of the unfortunate divide between students and community, but also of the relative lack of organization on campus. Different strategic approaches incorporating more social media might work, but for now it is enough to say that student activism isn’t coming from this sphere.

Why does mass mobilization even matter, though? We are, at present, governed by a perfectly respectable and honest set of individuals in the U. As of next year, this is not likely to change. We have few egregious abuses of authority to worry about, and ongoing challenges in the sphere of justice are being slowly but surely addressed. The press is free – certainly free enough for me to publish this – and despite the potential for problems in speech issues, none exist. Why bother organizing and getting involved? Aren’t things good enough as they are?

To twist the words of Eugene V. Debs, voting for democracy isn’t democracy any more than a menu is a meal. There’s more to living in a democratic society than choosing your leadership, expecting it to do a good job, and then turning your attention completely away. This is simply an elected dictatorship which we can trust with restraint, regardless of how admirable its members are or how good their intentions. For a democracy to truly exist, the people within it must actively exercise and defend their hard-won rights at every turn and struggle continually to improve it. They may disagree fundamentally on what that improvement entails, but unless they are willing to give their time and energy to that improvement, they have effectively given up on democracy itself. There are plenty of issues on campus left to organize around – food insecurity, forbiddingly high tuition rates, weak enforcement of sexual assault prevention, and continued issues around aboriginal justice and recognition affect us personally and deeply. Even simpler things like BurMac or campus planning present issues that students must organize around if they wish for their perspectives to be properly addressed and respected, regardless of where they stand. Democratic progress cannot be achieved unless people actively learn to rely on their own strength and defend their own views.

When deciding on what to write, my mother’s comment on the picket lines came back to me. I’ve heard horror stories from McGill and U of T about horribly bitter disputes, campus chaos, and even disruption of basic academic functions. During the debates, the example of the University of Calgary’s lawsuit against its own student union brought up an important point. Even the broader issues around far-right trolls and the response on American campuses, like Berkeley, can offer cautionary tales about when activism becomes warfare. Even StFX’s own history with the firebomb serves as an abhorrent reminder of what taking things too far looks like. However, I believe that StFX’s strong community, shared values and continuing agreement on a need for broader justice on campus (and in society) are potent fuel for movements dedicated to positive change. We have the ability to set a model in these troubled times for impassioned, respectful advocacy and activist mobilization. Failing to do so would be a betrayal of the rights which previous generations of Xaverians struggled so mightily for, and a loss of contact with the deepest spirit of this institution.

As an aside, in response to the sandwich question I took my mom to Mini Moe’s.