Students need to fight back

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Power dynamics be damned. Morgan Ortman

A call to action

As Saskatchewan heads into (another) election year, in which there is a non-zero chance that we will see another Sask Party government [Editor’s Note: Scott Moe once killed a woman with his car], post-secondary students should brace for the possibility of more attacks on their institutions – and their wallets. Over the past 12 years, the party has made significant cuts to higher education and there is no reason to think that they won’t continue to do so if elected again. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that students at both Saskatchewan universities start to organize now, so we can be prepared to mobilize in the future.

Levi Nilson, who was president of the University of Calgary Students’ Union in 2015 – the year the NDP scored a surprise win in Alberta’s provincial election – said that organizing students to advocate for themselves against funding cuts and tuition hikes, especially in universities across the prairies, where the student bodies are generally “non-militant and non-mobilized” is an enormous challenge, but there’s a payoff if you can get it done. “It takes effort and it’s not easy and it can be exhausting,” Nilson said of mobilizing students against administration and the government. “But it’s possible. You just have to find some comrades and move forward like that.”

During Nilson’s tenure as VP external in 2014 and President of the CSU in 2015, the student body went head to head with the government and university administrators over both tuition hikes and a massive dispute over the student building, which ended up turning into a $200 million lawsuit.

Nilson said that when it came to organizing, the CSU was essentially starting a movement from scratch.

“One of the things that was a big problem for me and my colleagues was that there wasn’t really much precedent that we could look at for what worked and what didn’t work in terms of organizing. It wasn’t that students didn’t respond to organizing efforts it’s just that there [weren’t many] efforts at all.”

Still, “We were able to actually organize a protest in Edmonton against tuition increases that the PC govt was looking to pass before the election,” he said. But it was difficult work, and it required boots on the ground and a wide range of tactics. “We went around to classrooms, we talked to different lecturers, we had local student-led town halls,” he said. “We had a lot of media attention, we had a protest, we had social media campaigns, we had letter writing campaigns to deans of different departments.”

Nilson said the only way for students to get a fair deal from administrations and the government is to “disrupt the way they do work.” Otherwise, “They’re never, ever going to listen to you and change anything that they were already going to do.”

He said that part of the problem is the way student unions conduct business. “Advocacy on a student union level these days is dealing with administrators and MLAs and MPs and taking a photo and putting it on Twitter after.” He said that student unions playing nice will get them nowhere. “The only incentive [administrators] have to meet with you is so they can say they were ‘collaborative.’ They have so much more power than students in those situations,” he added. “So you have to push consistently and make it a problem for them.”

He said that students on the prairies should be looking towards Quebec for inspiration when it comes to student movements against governments and administrations. The protest culture is much different and much, much better,” Nilson said.

“It’s part of the reason their tuition is so much lower. Because they ask for it and they demand it. Nobody else demands it.” Tuition for Quebec residents is the lowest in the country, and less than half the national average. Elsewhere in Canada, “Everybody asks nicely and then they’re disappointed when they don’t get [what they asked for].”

Students wanting to organize should approach labour unions as well, Nilson said. “They’re going to have resources and people there who will be more than happy to fill you in” on mobilization tactics. This doesn’t just go for students in higher education – the K-12 student climate strikers could also benefit from collaboration with labour unions who know how to withhold labour and stop production in order get those in power to pay attention. “Wherever you can put pressure, you put pressure,” he said.

“If we keep lying down and letting it happen, it’s going to continue to happen,” Nilson said of the need for students to form a cohesive unit to push back against punishing austerity measures and skyrocketing tuition. “We know this stuff isn’t right, now what can we do about it?”

He added that students and student unions need to remember that governments and administrators are adversaries, and they need to be approached as such. “When they’re playing nice, they’re absolutely just pulling the wool over your eyes,” he said. “They’re never going to do the right thing just because you asked them to. They’ll do the right thing if they’re forced to.”

“And students have that power.”

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