Article from used with kind permission of Joey Coleman

[Our PIRG is mentioned in this article, with a quote from board member Todd Wescott.]

PART TWO The quiet revolution

Although you might not read about it in newspaper headlines, student activism is alive and well

Joey Coleman, | Sep 24, 2007 |


Joey Coleman,


In a three-part series, looks at the changing landscape of campus activism. In the second article, we investigated whether there was more to student protest other than the predictable call for tuition reductions. Read the first article, on Concordia’s secret safety committee, here.

University campuses are known as hubs of activism. But in recent years, student activism has lost much of its profile among the general public. It seems that Canada has no Berkeley, a university name that conjures up images of students marching down the street protesting. But just because the Canadian brand of student activism is less visible, doesn’t mean it’s not there—it’s just more Canadian, that is to say, more low-key.

Still, student activism may be on the decline if one looks to the traditional venues. For instance, student union involvement has decreased to the point where many see student unions as glorified political clubs for “career students” and professional “student” leaders to push their agendas using mandatory levies. It is not unusual for voter turnout at student union elections to be under five per cent of the student body.

But some say that this doesn’t mean students are no longer interested in activism. “Students are involved in activist movements,” said Dr. Dale Kirby, assistant professor at Memorial University and former chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students in the mid-90s. “They are just as active, if not more active than ever.” Kirby points to the growth of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) as one example.

PIRGs have sprung up at on campuses all across Canada and are funded for the most part by student levies. They are grassroots organizations that link students to the community. A typical PIRG, such as the one at McMaster University, has working groups like: Eat Local, Food Not Bombs, McMaster Battery Recycling Organization, Transportation for Liveable Communities, and Students for a Renegade Society.

Todd Westcott, president of the McMaster PIRG, says student involvement is growing. “I think that students are getting involved in PIRGs, because we do not have the ridiculous bureaucracy of students unions,” he said. “We are focused on being hands-on and getting things done. We really focus on being open to all students and all ideas.”

Kirby thinks that student groups with tangible goals are more popular than those focused on abstract ideologies. He points to the large number of active Christian groups that are not focusing on their beliefs, but instead on community service. There are also active groups such as Engineers without Borders and Journalists for Human Rights that have university chapters and are organized on an international scale. So with such a wide spectrum of student groups out there, why do we not hear anything other than the same old “reduce tuition” rant from students?

Kirby says the perception that students aren’t as active as before has to do with the media and its demand for easily processed news. “Many media outlets look at the Canadian Federation of Students [Canada’s largest student lobby group] as the head office of students,” said Kirby. “Whenever they are doing a story about students they call the CFS, assuming that this covers the student angle.”

Amanda McCuaig, president of the Canadian University Press, a cooperative of student newspapers, agrees that there has been an increase in student activism lately. “Students are more affluent than previous generations and have more resources, time, and money to engage in social causes.”

Student newspapers also provide an opportunity for activism. McCuaig says that the publications have attracted more volunteers because of increased activism. Many papers see themselves as a platform for students to express their beliefs and report on stories which otherwise are forgotten by the mainstream media.

Titus Gregory, an activist who uses his blog to promote more accountability in student union governance, doesn’t agree that students have more time to invest in activism. “I have seen increasing tuition fees and increasing costs forcing more and more students to take part-time jobs and work more hours,” lamented Gregory. “Between work and school, many students do not have time to volunteer in the community, let alone be activist leaders.”

“Activism comes in different shapes and sizes,” said Gregory. Although he is not affiliated with any traditional activist movement, he became involved to keep the unions themselves in check. He helped lead a movement that impeached the Simon Fraser University students’ union president last year, and is presently one of the students leading a drive by five students’ unions to leave the Canadian Federation of Students.

Regardless of any rise in student volunteerism, the majority of students are still not involved in campus activism. And while the perception that students are wannabe bourgeoisie, drinking lattes at the local Starbucks, may be partly true, I suspect that the reason they are not in the streets calling for change is more likely because they are behind that Starbucks counter.