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U of O students take note: this is how you inspire political change

Photo: Andrej Ivanov, The Concordian

Even though Quebec students are facing heavy criticism for spearheading another series of politically charged protests, their passion for instigating change should be admired.

The power of political dissent was made clear during Quebec’s Maple Spring in 2012, when around half the province’s 400,000 students came together to protest the government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent over five years.

The movement was not without its critics and setbacks. Swaths of protesters were arrested when the controversial Bill 78 was passed in May of 2012, and public opinion shifted against students as the protests dragged on. Students in other provinces scoffed at the movement’s ultimate aim to freeze tuition fees, basically saying, “You guys pay far less than the rest of us, so stop your whining.”

But when the protests finally came to an end, Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois replaced the Liberals and tuition fees remained far below the national average, with increases no longer on the table. It was a true victory for students in Quebec. Some might say it was a victory for students everywhere.

The latest Quebec student strike, which began March 23, promises to be as divisive as the last.

The overriding goal of the 50,000 students who have already joined the strike seems even more unrealistic: putting an end to the province’s planned austerity measures, including provincial wide cuts to public services. But, once again, with enough support the movement may succeed in forcing Phillipe Couillard’s Liberals into action.

It might be tempting for us to criticize the apparent “whininess” of our francophone neighbours, but we must resist our urge to do so. We in Ontario have our own problems: high tuition fees, high unemployment, and massive provincial debt, to name a few. The difference is that we, unlike the students in Quebec, are doing little to change things.

The University of Ottawa is but one increasingly sad example of this phenomenon.

In February 2014, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa finally succeeded in instating general assemblies as the highest decision-making body of the student federation after two referendums. But after two attempts, the GAs have garnered such little interest from students that they have yet to make quorum. The blame could be placed on a number of shoulders, but the bottom line is no one showed up.

This kind of political apathy even extends to the act of electing our student government, where only around 11 per cent of the student body bothered to vote during the last general election.

Our disenchantment with student politics, and politics in general, does not bode well for the future of our province or our country.

Duff Conacher, a visiting professor at the U of O, perfectly summed up this problem in last week’s Fulcrum feature story: “If any group in society does not vote then politicians will not address that group’s concerns.”

In Ontario, it’s a notion that sounds surprisingly fresh because we’ve kept our wheels greased for far too long. In Quebec, the message was never lost, and in light of this latest student strike it is clearer than ever: Get off your ass and make yourself heard.

We don’t all have to be in solidarity with the students in Quebec. But we should at least be inspired by them. The last time they took to the streets they achieved what seemed like an impossible goal. Who is to say things will be different this time?