Where do we go from here?

Comparing photos from last year’s Day of Action to this year’s, it doesn’t seem as though much has changed. After more than a year’s worth of discussions, and now a second Day of Action under our ever-tightening belts, what do students have to show for it?

Comparing photos from last year’s Day of Action to this year’s, it doesn’t seem as though much has changed. The same blue face paint adorns the faces of protestors holding the same loudspeakers, chanting the same slogans. The same colourful signs bob above the crowd, the same “we-mean-business” expressions on the faces of students, the same fists in the air. Okay, maybe there was a bit more snow last year. But after more than a year’s worth of discussions, and now a second Day of Action under our ever-tightening belts, what do students have to show for it?
Last Feb. 2, Halifax students took to the streets to make their voices heard by the provincial and federal governments about tuition increases and funding cuts. Just days before the march, the Nova Scotia government announced they were ending the tuition freeze that had been in place, capping tuition increases at three per cent annually over the next three years while reducing grant funding by four per cent.
Last year’s Canadian Federation of Students-organized march went off like a snow-globed dream—thousands of students from five universities participated, with a fire that only the infamous O’Neill report could have sparked in them, and a fresh political wound from the provincial government’s announcement. The energy was staggering. Gabe Hoogers, King’s Students’ Union President and the National Executive Representative of the CFS says, “a really amazing thing happened that day. It was the biggest march that Halifax had seen in ten years.”
Almost a year later, another memorandum of understanding between the province and Nova Scotia universities was released, cutting grant funding by three per cent and enabling tuition fee increases of three per cent per year. Now students’ worst fears about tuition increases are one step closer to coming true. Earlier this month, around a thousand students turned out to protest tuition hikes and funding cuts, in addition to high school students, professors and Haligonians-at-large.
The turnout was impressive. The chants hit the perfect balance between appropriately rousing and disparaging. DJ Yellow Fever’s U-Haul dance tunes were infectious, as always. Was it still inspiring? Absolutely. But something was missing. The sting of being snubbed by an NDP government that was supposed to be helping students, the fresh rage that drove the protestors through a blizzard a year earlier was gone. In its place was a sense of weary frustration with change that has yet to come.
After almost two years of trying to negotiate with the provincial government with little headway, some students are disenchanted with the “All out February 1!” rhetoric. A student who would prefer not to be named, because she is worried about sharing her financial situation, says that she feels “alienated” at King’s with her student debt.
“You know, you come to King’s and you’re already behind.” The Student Day of Action seems more like a social event than a protest, she says. Rather than marching once a year, she says, “there’s so much more we could be doing to make university accessible.” Even having more of an open and stimulated discussion amongst students before the march would be helpful, she said. “You believe in this community and you want to be a part of it.”
Despite the scepticism, King’s students were leading the pack on Feb. 1. But groups that had participated last year—both the DSU and ANSSA, the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations—were conspicuously absent. What changed? Lindsay Dowling, the DSU’s communications coordinator, says it’s simple: because the DSU isn’t a member of the Canadian Federation of Students, they weren’t formally invited this year. “We’re all fighting for the same thing, but CASA (the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, of which the DSU is a member) goes about it in a different way. CASA focuses on building relationships and engaging in an ongoing dialogue about the issues,” says Dowling. “It’s what works for CASA best. We’ve had more success in terms of building relationships instead of protesting.”
Mark Coffin is the executive director of ANSSA, which represents the DSU amongst five other students’ unions across the Maritimes. He says that ANSSA also takes more of a lobbying approach to change. “For instance, we’re the only group who lobbied for the student debt cap, and we didn’t do that through taking to the streets—we did it by lobbying, and we were successful.”
Coffin admits that they’re not always so successful. Over the summer, ANSSA was tasked with creating a negotiating committee to come up with policy for the next two years on tuition regulation, fee increases and how the funding the universities give students is distributed.
“It didn’t happen over the course of the eight months that we were part of the negotiations for. What happened was they couldn’t come to a decision. Essentially what they said was that the university presidents weren’t comfortable making decisions with students in the room.”
The student voice being relegated from the negotiating table is not unique to the provincial government. Last month, The Watch reported that the KSU has been shut out of the committee responsible for the school’s financial planning. Hoogers says this widespread atmosphere of exclusion is “utterly frustrating.” “To be excluded from a process that we know we can contribute really fully and knowledgeably to … it’s a shame the administration and the province have taken that route to proceed.”
But despite the overall mood of secrecy, Hoogers says he remains hopeful. “We know the government really doesn’t have too much longer until it faces another election,” he says. “They’re going to be looking to appease voters that they’ve really alienated over the past few years. The idea of two thousand students hitting the streets will definitely get the government moving.”
In fact, even the idea of one thousand students on the streets this year is enough to get the government moving—or at least budging a little. The day after students addressed Darrell Dexter outside his offices (“Darr-ell, Darr-ell”), Hoogers says he got a call from the NDP caucus. The MLAs were requesting a meeting with the post-secondary education coalition, of which Hoogers is a part, to discuss funding priorities later this month.
While this year’s Day of Action obviously sent a clear message to the MLAs in this particular case, it’s a complicated thing to get a government to change its politics. “Protesting is just one piece of a spectrum of activism,” Hoogers says. The protesting can only be effective if it’s paired with the lobbying aspect, he continues. “That’s how protests come to make a big difference in the eyes of government. Students will benefit from knowing that we have the public on side.”
“Students need to recognize that our job doesn’t stop with going out into the streets for one day. We need to take that energy back to our campuses … and engage with our communities.”

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

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