Student activism: a thing of the past?

A 1989 pro-choice rally at Queen’s.
A 1989 pro-choice rally at Queen’s.

During the 60s and 70s, Ontario experienced a boom of student activism. Whether they were advocating for the environment, LGBTQ rights or against racism, many important social changes were incurred as a result of student involvement. 

But today, students are more likely to tweet their stance than shout it through a megaphone, which can’t have the same impact.

Canada’s history of activism include rallies in opposition to the Vietnam War in Toronto, the famous anti-nuclear protests held at a nuclear test zone by Greenpeace in 1971, and many smaller protests and rallies that sprung movements that are still creating an impact to this very day. 

One thing all North American counter-culture movements had in common was a strong student involvement. They were the ones that did the legwork, provided the donations and attended the rallies that would eventually create tangible change. 

This is the kind of action we need to see again. Originally made up of students attending the University of Toronto, Pollution Probe quickly blossomed into the foremost environmental non-government organization in Canada. 

Through a combination of high profile stunts, involvement in government policy and grassroots volunteerism, Pollution Probe takes much of the credit for making “pollution” and “environmentalism” household words. They coined the now ubiquitous slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” and inspired the creation of a variety of other activist groups. 

Recent student activism in Canada has, for the most part, been reduced to ineffectual rallies and the occasional furious bout of #activism — where awareness is spread about an important issue using social media. While this isn’t a bad thing and has resulted in some tangible, positive change, #activism has never reached the same heights as more traditional methods. 

#activism can often reduce the willingness of students to engage in creating tangible change, due to the ease of simply sharing a status. This clears our conscious and creates the illusion of direct help, without the effort required to join, assist or create a movement. 

In some cases, such as the ice bucket challenge, spreading of awareness can be extremely helpful. However, for the most part, it spreads awareness without creating a real impetus for action. 

Some examples, such as the Quebec 2012 student protests, did occur in recent times, but they lack the deliberate, concerted approach of earlier organizations like Pollution Probe and are rare occurrences.

What, then, is the difference between activism then and now? Primarily, it’s a lack of cohesion and centralization. 

Student activism nowadays takes the form of a nebulous network of connected groups and people without central leadership to accomplish real objectives — many movements, hashtags and campaigns exist with the intent of spreading awareness or educating the masses without striving to create change at an institutional level. 

The success of organizations in the 1960s stems from their insistence on having an impact on governmental policy. More people are aware and motivated than ever before, but there are no solid leaders to guide students to make change. 

Queen’s has many organizations that do a great deal to improve our society. OPIRG Kingston comes to mind as a shining example of an organization supported by students that’s greatly useful in creating research on important issues, as was seen with their recent report, “We Believe In A Campus Free of Sexual Violence.”

However, the student body as a whole is characterized by apathy, where the vast majority engage in little more than #activism, rather than real student activism. 

Students are just as capable of creating social change as anyone else. All that’s required is taking a look at precedents set by generations that came before and attempting to follow in their footsteps. 

By taking initiative, setting solid goals and creating strong leadership, the volume of change seen before can be seen again. All that has to happen is for a student, any student, to take that first step. That student could be you.

Nathan Bateman is a first-year history major.

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