When protesters clad in black turned a Victoria Park bench into a podium during the Nova Scotia Day of Action for universities, third-year King’s student Phoebe Mannell decided to take matters into her own hands.
Mannell said the protesters were holding homemade flags and shouting throughout a speech by Laura Penny. So Mannell went up to them and demanded they stop. They complied.
One such protester—they’re often dubbed “anarchists” —was Brad Vaughan, 24. He was on the bench speaking with Mannell and believes that his heckling “encouraged discourse” among the students during the speeches. He was discouraged by the “unreasonable” requests of Mannell and representatives of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), who organized the rally. Penny, a university professor, had said some things with which he disagreed, and he was “pretty frustrated with a lot of it.”
In particular, he was frustrated by the idea that universities are vital to the economy, a theme of the rally. “Maybe that’s true, but is it the reason we’re promoting learning?” he asked.
Vaughan is not a student, but says he sits in on university classes because he likes to learn. He completed one year of history at Concordia University in 2005, the year of the largest student strikes in Quebec history.
At those 2005 strikes, Vaughan said, thousands of students walked out of school and demanded tuition fee elimination at a time when a proposed $103 million in cuts to the grants and loans program risked doubling student debt. Now Quebec has the most subsidised tuition fees in the country.
“A legal walk down the right-hand side of the street,” as Vaughan described the march, will not cause the changes needed to make post-secondary education accessible, he said. “We can do better than that. Students don’t want to pay tuition at all.”
Gabe Hoogers, a rally organiser and Nova Scotia representative for the CFS, said Vaughan and his friends “supported us in so far as they recognized a problem with how post-secondary education is run.”
They “wanted more extreme measures, but supported us.”
Vaughan said that rally organisers have privately told him that they share his views about changing education and societal structure. “They express very radical politics, but out in front of a microphone, they do their job,” he said.
The rally was a first for many attendees, and the CFS planned the rally with that in mind. On each participating campus, rally organisers spoke to the crowds about route plans. On the route, designated students served as marshals and first aid responders, trained in conflict prevention by Tony Tracy of the Canadian Labour Congress.
While Vaughan said the rally was a show of numbers to use against politicians during negotiations, Rebecca Rose, CFS Maritime organiser, said the numbers are useful in countering public opinion. Politicians believe “we’re apathetic and not interested in getting involved,” she said. This rally was the “first semi-political thing (many) did in their lives.”
Vaughan says that he’d like to be involved with the student effort. “But I’m not going to be involved on the level of being a number in a demo,” he said. He believes students should be individuals at rallies, as his group was: protesting with unique signs, or serving as Cop Watch, a branch of a North America-wide watchdog group for police behaviour.
He also says that he has more in common with most students than they think. “I don’t think I’m more radical than most people,” he said.
Put simply, he said, “Most students wish they weren’t engaged in a hierarchical competition for a piece of paper.”