This is my first journalistic piece in quite some time, about last night's "casseroles" demonstration by students and supporters in downtown Sudbury. It was original published at the Grassroots Sudbury Media collective's site on The Media Co-op network.
The day after students returned to classes at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, red squares could be seen on the city's streets. Students and supporters donned the red felt badges made famous in the Quebec student strike, picked up pots and pans, and noisily took up space on downtown streets to demand accessible, equitable, public postsecondary education.
Though the numbers were modest at between 15 and 20 participants, Brendan Lehman, who is doing a Masters degree in Neuroscience at Laurentian, described himself as "excited" at the turnout. Weekly "casseroles" marches began in Sudbury in the spring, initially with upwards of 40 participants, but attendance had dwindled to a handful during the summer months, and Lehman saw last night's event as a good early step in building something bigger.
In addressing the group through a megaphone, fourth year Political Science student Tom Sutton said, "Although we might not be many right now, this is just a humble beginning. The Quebec student strike had humble beginnings too." He continued, "And guess what -- they won!"
Not only was this march being held on the day after the start of classes, but Sutton pointed out that it was also the day after the electoral defeat of Quebec Liberal Premier Jean Charest, after an election campaign shaped in large part by his government's confrontation with Quebec's student movement. The new Premier, Pauline Marois of the Parti Quebecois, has already announced that two central demands of the student movement will be met by her new government: the fee and tuition hikes introduced by the Liberals will be rescinded, and Law 12, which was passed by the Charest government to repress the student strike, will be repealed.
Student activists in Sudbury are working hard to learn from the experience in Quebec. Several attended a weekend-long training at the University of Toronto earlier in the summer in which Quebec organizers passed on lessons to students from Ontario universities. In addition, this first "casseroles" march of the new school year is meant to build towards speaking events by activists who will be visiting Sudbury from the largest and most radical of the Quebec student unions, CLASSE. They will be speaking at Laurentian on September 21 and downtown on September 22.
A handful of non-students also participated in the march, including Lyse Godard. Though it has been many years since she herself was a student, she can testify to the impact of rising education expenses. She said, "I basically had to sign my life away for my son, for six years of school, six years of student loans." She had to use her house as collateral, and has found her role in supporting her son's education to be a tremendous financial burden. Godard favours free postsecondary education for students who attend classes and get adequate marks, and thinks more should be done to enable graduates to get jobs in their field of study.
Research has confirmed that rising education costs have widespread impacts beyond students themselves, as in the 2011 study Under Pressure: The Impact of Rising Tuition Fees on Ontario Families. In it, David Macdonald and Erika Shaker of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives write, "Ontario undergraduate tuition fees are now the highest in the country," and the combination of tuition and other compulsory fees have risen, even when inflation is taken into account, by a staggering 244% between 1990 and 2011 (11). They put this in the context of significant increases in mortgage and consumer debt for Ontario households, and of stagnating incomes for a great many Ontarians, and conclude that not only is this a barrier to students but it hurts families as well. They write, "By increasingly downloading onto families and exploiting the parental desire to provide for their children, Ontario is severely hampering its economic and educational potential" (6).
While Godard is eager to support a growing student movement in Ontario, she worries that many of her peers might not be. A lot of the people she hangs out with are retirees who do not necessarily understand the circumstances of students today, and many have "no sympathy at all" for student demands. She says they say things like, "We paid our student loans, they can pay theirs."
Fourth year Laurentian English student Heather Harris is worried about the response from her peers, too. For her, a central point of student mobilizations is to demand that governments "take us seriously" and to make sure they "don't underestimate the youth of Canada." She believes passionately that other students "should be here," and that "because [other students] aren't doing anything about it, the government doesn't have to listen." Some students, she thinks, are "apathetic," while others "think there's other things that could be done" apart from getting into the streets. She thinks that the big barrier for the movement is information – that more students will only get active once they have better information about the realities of postsecondary education today and about what mobilizing has accomplished in Quebec.
Lehman agrees that it will take determined work to build the movement in Sudbury, but he argues that if organizers keep the focus "local" and "personal," and work "to try and hold our own school accountable," there will be a response from students. "We can really connect with students at Laurentian," he said, "because every year, everyone's tuition goes up," and every year there are courses and programs that are cut, "especially francophone ones."
Theatre student Linus Cunningham Closs sees the student victories in Quebec as key to mobilizations close to home: "Because there has actually been change in Quebec," Ontario students can begin to imagine what is possible, and "we can get some change.”
The students involved say they will continue to mount "casseroles" marches in dowtown Sudbury every Wednesday at 8 pm.
Scott Neigh is a writer and activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of his writing, see his personal blog as well as the site about his forthcoming books on Canadian social movement history.