What People Forget about Student Protesters? They’re Usually Right

From apartheid to Gaza, university campuses remain crucial arenas for political change

A large group of protestors holding up lights.
(Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

The students were told their protest would cause trouble. Others argued they were overreacting; some called their actions inappropriate. Keep your head down, don’t draw attention, don’t get police involved.

It’s not hard to imagine the chatter from parents and professionals in the weeks and months before McGill University students succeeded in forcing the institution to fully divest from banks and corporations doing business with apartheid South Africa in 1985. Their protest was the culmination of a sustained, multi-year effort that saw dozens of students occupy university buildings and a company’s head office, where protesters were arrested and charged with “illegal occupation.” That this dissent faced considerable opposition, both from within McGill and without, is of secondary importance today. What matters is that the students won.

McGill’s anti-apartheid student protests, part of a wave of similar protests in Canada, have certain parallels with today’s campus occupations related to the siege of Gaza. The decision to take over a campus space might look like an impulsive act, but such occupations are typically an expression of frustration after other pressure tactics fail to produce meaningful action. The protests are not mass mobilizations—they involve, at most, a core cluster of students, whose numbers can vary. While the present occupation at McGill, which began in late April and now involves dozens of tents, has been described as a “tiny city,” this is more a reflection of the services provided—wooden walkways, stockpiles of donated supplies, a library—than sheer numbers. While encampments weren’t part of the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s, just about everything else remains the same: a polarizing social justice issue, the occupation of “elite” spaces, and demands for divestiture. McGill students today aren’t really doing anything that different from what their parents’ generation did in decades past.

The broader public—even if their feelings are divided about calling Israel’s war on Gaza a genocide—seems to understand that. New polling from the Angus Reid Institute reveals that 81 percent of Canadians feel university campuses are fair game for protests. This support contrasts with the heavy-handed response by university administrators, politicians, and pundits clamouring for “law and order” after students occupied campuses across Canada in solidarity with the people of Palestine. Despite the fact that the McGill student protest has been completely peaceful, that the Quebec superior court twice rejected requests to dismantle the occupation, and that it was counter protesters who denied the public right of way and blocked traffic, Quebec premier François Legault called on police to clear the encampments. (This following an earlier request from the university to do just that.) Ontario premier Doug Ford essentially demanded the same. The premiers of Canada’s two largest provinces have witnessed the brutal repression of American students by police, university administrations, and anti-Palestinian counter protesters and apparently want the same to happen here. Alberta seems to be following the lead of the United States: the University of Calgary brought in police with shields and riot gear to forcibly remove protesters, and police cleared the encampment at the University of Alberta in the early morning hours.

That so many Canadians tacitly approve of protests on campus reveals an appreciation for the fundamental Charter rights to freedom of expression, conscience, peaceful assembly, and association. It also reflects an understanding that no better place exists to express those Charter rights than a university campus. The space is the literal marketplace of ideas—where students can question what’s happening in the world, imagine something better, and debate how that might be achieved.

The idea that the university would play this role stretches back well over sixty years. In the West, much of the middle class gained access to publicly funded university education in the post–Second World War period. It was a consequence of postwar prosperity and a promise made to the victors of the war. After the postwar generation gained wider access to higher education, they began forming social bonds that had been broken by, among other things, suburbanization, and this in turn would eventually lead to new civil rights efforts and new social movements as much as protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, and all manner of political organizing. In some respects, the university campus replaced the union halls or church basements of earlier generations. It almost demands the question: Are you sure you’re getting a proper university education if you haven’t seen or participated in a protest?

It is also worth considering that campus protest movements tend to be on the right side of history more often than not, even though that may not be apparent at the moment they happen. American students were right about Vietnam and civil rights in the 1960s, just as Canadian students were right about apartheid in the 1980s.

Consider not only the method of protest but also the goals. Here we find one of the few areas of genuine political innovation. We tell students to take an active role in their community and to become involved citizens. And while our society doesn’t explicitly tell students to limit their political involvement to party politics, quadrennial election cycles, and the ritual of voting, the fierce opposition to university encampments suggests otherwise. This is misguided: there shouldn’t be any caveats to political involvement in our society, amongst any demographic group. Students demanding their university divest from problematic companies is not only a form of peaceful protest but such civil disobedience constitutes one of the most effective tools of engaged activism we have. Quebec students have not only managed to keep tuition costs down over the course of several decades but also helped take down the very government that sought to suppress their protest in 2012. Liberal leader Jean Charest’s popularity plummeted while the striking students gained support from rival politicians.

Most politicians advocating police repression of the protests have no intrinsic interest in the cause one way or the other but are simply looking to exert power over something they cannot control. Violent crackdowns by police and the suppression of students’ fundamental Charter rights aren’t going to solve anything. In the US, MIT students reoccupied their encampment nearly as soon as the police had cleared it. The campus protest movement has now grown worldwide despite a heavy-handed police response. And if the violence that met the student-led protests of the baby boom era is any indication, repression tends to not only increase support for the students’ cause but may have consequences reaching far beyond the campus. The Kent State Massacre, whose fifty-fourth anniversary was marked just a short while ago, not only revived public opposition to the war in Vietnam but also further provoked the single largest student strike in American history. The long-term political fallout of the 2012 Quebec student protests included a major restructuring of the province’s political organization, the collapse of the Quebec Liberal Party, and the ascension of former student leaders in the political mainstream.

As long as our society wants its younger generations to get a higher education, think for themselves, challenge their assumptions, and broaden their horizons, we have to accept that this will likely result in students questioning the status quo and challenging the establishment, particularly when it comes to the historically marginalized and oppressed. Universities routinely tell their students to be the change they want to see in the world. The alternative to this isn’t students “living peacefully,” as Ford demands. It’s elementary school.

Taylor C. Noakes
Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montreal.