Rules of engagement

Campuses of decades past may have had an aura of activism, but dean says students are as involved as ever

Getting involved in political initiative during university can mimic real world experiences.
Getting involved in political initiative during university can mimic real world experiences.
Journal File Photo
Campus politics can serve as a stepping stone to larger initiatives.
Campus politics can serve as a stepping stone to larger initiatives.

In the late ‘80s the world started to find out about HIV/AIDS and people were scared.

“It was devastating,” said Bill Flanagan, dean of Queen’s faculty of law. “It was a new disease which governments were very slow to respond to and it was highly stigmatized.” At the time, no one knew what caused it, how it could spread or how to treat it. As a student at Columbia University, Flanagan took a stand.

“This was something that required a huge amount of political activism,” he said. “I became quite involved in a group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).”

In so doing, he learned how engaging in politics could lead to change.

“It was a great affirmation of the democratic process,” he said. “It was a tremendous eye opener for how a group of engaged citizens working together … could have over a few years an enormous impact on government policy.”

While today’s university students are often touted as apathetic partiers, Flanagan said this simply isn’t true.

He said that it’s easy to contrast the protest era of the ‘60s with today’s calmer campuses but that isn’t to say students don’t care.

“The ‘80s didn’t have the issues [of the ‘60s] and students were very engaged and I think they remain very engaged,” he said.

Flanagan is currently running for the Liberal nomination for the Kingston and the Islands riding. In the three months since he entered the race, Flanagan said he’s amassed about 30 student volunteers.

“In my campaign students have been central,” he said. “Students bring energy and new ideas. … They’re the future, so that’s a very powerful collection of interests.” He said students often underestimate their influence, but that when they band together, leaders listen.

“Seniors are a very engaged group, I talk to a lot of seniors and they care a lot about politics and politicians listen,” Flanagan said. “When seniors say ‘we’re concerned about health care or treatment of our veterans,’ politicians pay attention because seniors are engaged and they vote.

“Students have the additional advantage of being young and what they have to say carries tremendous weight,” he said. “If students are engaged, it means student issues will become front and centre on the political stage.”

He said politicians in the Kingston area are lucky because Queen’s students tend to be especially engaged.

“Queens has always played a major role in forming national policy,” he said. “That’s [part of] why students are drawn to Queen’s.”

Flanagan said that as dean, he feels it’s innapropriate for him to recruit students to help with his campaign and so all of his volunteers have approached him.

The onus isn’t completely on students though. He said politicians need to focus on what young people want to talk about and how they want to talk about it.

“That involves technology,” he said, adding that he was especially impressed with Obama’s ability to address young people through social networking.

“His use of Facebook was one of the first major campaigns to make use of these technologies,” he said.

While Obama activley sought out young people, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, prefers to let students come to them.

“We get a lot of wander-in traffic,” said Leda McDonald, the OPIRG Kingston office intern, of their on-campus office.

The group focuses on political activism and encourages members to petition, protest and put pen to paper to evoke change.

“It can be really overwhelming to think about how huge politics is and I often feel like we can’t make change,” she said. “But engaging informs you and makes you more aware and a better citizen.”

McDonald said she is interested in politics but prefers to grassroots projects to political campaigns.

“I like on the ground as opposed to sitting in suits in important rooms,” she said, adding that OPIRG hosts an alternative “Rad Frosh” roster of events for others with a similar mentality.

Events include workshops, concerts and panel discussions throughout September and October, but McDonald said attendance hasn’t been as high as she would like.

She said almost 60 people came out to a Reelout film screening but only about 15 people came to an alternative transportation demonstration.

McDonald said that nonetheless, this isn’t a sign of indifference.

“People tend to discover these cool things a little later in their university career,” she said.

Simon Hickson, ArtSci ’11 certainly fits this profile.

Now the director of recruitment and membership for the Campus Conservatives, Hickson only got involved with the party this year.

“It’s not like I haven’t voted conservative in previous elections but I didn’t want to tie myself down to a political affiliation,” he said. “I tried to stay independent because I wanted to enact my own change for my own attitude.”

Now in his fourth year, Hickson said his idealism gave way to practicality thus prompting him to work for change in a more organized manner.

“Say you don’t like a noise bylaw and you refuse to cooperate, that may be a form of protest but unless you’re organized, it’s going to be a lot harder to get that done,” he said. “It’s extremely hard to just change things according to your whim ... unless you have the support of a large group of people.”

Hickson said the executive team has been working to recruit new members at Frosh Week events but also targets upper years.

“[We’re looking for] people like myself who had never considered joining because they never knew what they could do,” he said, adding that students are often unsure of what organizations really do and how they can help.

“That’s the problem,” he said. “[Students] don’t look into what they can do and they’re waiting for the organization to tell them what they’ve been doing.”

By engaging in politics, Hickson said students host socials, fundraise and campaign manage for candidates and lobby politicians and in so doing, get real-world experience.

“If you get involved in a political organization you’re on a good track to learning what the political system is all about,” he said. “I found out just recently at a youth [Progressive Conservative] conference that they’re looking for anyone who wants to get involved because once you show the desire it’s just [a matter of] getting out there a really making a difference.” Hickson said that students may say a campus political organization doesn’t lead for change on a grand enough scale, but that’s no reason for apathy, he said.

“If you’re looking for more change, then think of it as a stepping stone.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.