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A day, not a season in the protest machine

Taking in the speeches and the atmosphere at the All Out rally, nothing in me was stirred.

Perhaps this is because, having a bachelor’s degree already, I would not benefit from the promise of free tuition in the same way that many attendees could.

Perhaps this is because I have yet to hear a concrete plan of how education can be made free. To date, I’ve only heard assertions that it should be and promises that it can be.

Perhaps this is because I lived in Montreal during the Printemps Erable (Maple Spring) and many nights, close to 11:00 PM, I could hear the clank of pots and pans off in the distance as protestors roamed the streets.

Creating a viral moment for a cause doesn’t correlate with true action or change – just ask Joseph Kony. More than a one-time protest with glossy, professionally-printed signs and a Snapchat filter, students should be focused on an ongoing dialogue about fees at their individual institutions.

Protests like All Out are the offline version of slacktivism. Just as you might share a link or like something on Facebook, you can now parade through the streets with a sign, once, and feel as though you, yourself, are integral to a movement.

As disheartening as the Maple Spring was – the province in turmoil, tempers flaring, Montreal often grinding to a halt – you had to admire the dedication of those involved. Even I – grudgingly – admired their victories along the way. Protestors weren’t giddy at the thought of getting “amnesty” from classes for the day to go wave around a sign. Many went on strike with a degree of recklessness — consequences be damned.

One of my big concerns reappeared in the stump speeches at the rally before the All Out march on Nov. 2: the conflation of the terms “free” and “accessible.” If you listen closely to the rhetoric you’ll hear both terms used interchangeably.

Free education is not necessarily accessible. A 2007 paper from Mark Frenette “Why Are Youth from Lower-income Families Less Likely to Attend University?” found 96 per cent of the reasons to be observable. How much was related to finances? A mere 12 percent. Meanwhile, 84 per cent of the gap was accounted for by differences including student marks, parental influence and the quality of high school the student attended.

Accessible education is not necessarily free. Dispatching other definitions of accessible, and focusing solely on financial, I don’t believe the argument holds that getting a university degree is inaccessible in Canada.

There are a variety of options for students of even the most limited means. There are student loans, grants, merit and need-based scholarships. Students can work part-time while at school or full-time during summers to help defray costs. They can start their degree at a community college and transfer. They can take a gap year to work if they need to. While yes, there are trade-offs to be made, there are options for students who need them.

I’m not sure why the terms free and accessible are interchangeable. I don’t want to believe that those making stump speeches on the topic haven’t drawn the distinction, but it does feel that way. It’s a convenient narrative that once education is free it will revolutionize our society.

One line of thinking that came up at the rally was another variation on the old chestnut that we’re all trapped in little boxes by society. One speaker refused to buy into the narrative that “they” are trying to sell us. The narrative being “that post-secondary education is only good as a personal economic investment that only serves to oil up the cogs of this economic machine.”

Oh, please.

Again, the shifting sands of the narrative try to paint a picture of good (education) triumphing over evil (capitalism and an uncaring government). The protesting students are suddenly David; everyone else is Goliath.

It’s important to note that the protest itself was a cog in a larger machine. Observant protestors surely noticed the CFS – Canadian Federation of Students – logo all over their signs and swag. The CFS is a lobby group, and, as a cursory Google search will show, an organization that is subject to a lot of criticism that it’s not effective at fighting for the interest of their student members.

A 2013 National Post article addressed these controversies, including the lawsuits some schools found themselves involved in when they tried to break ties with the organization.

The Cape Breton University Student Union settled a lengthy court battle with CFS earlier this year. Before the out-of-court settlement, they were going to be on the hook for over $500,000 in assorted fees and damages.

Perhaps this is why the CFS, an organization that is funded by students and has been in costly legal battles with other student unions looks at the concept of free tuition and thinks: “Sure, why can’t it be?”

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