Student and school leaders react to last Wednesday’s violent protest at Queen’s Park
By Michelle Osborne
Pepper spray, police batons, and human barricades may have taken the spotlight, but last week’s demonstration at Queen’s Park served its purpose, according to the Canadian Federation of Students.
CFS, along with more than 400 university students from across Ontario, joined 5,000 protestors at Province House showing their disapproval of Mike Harris and the cuts to welfare.
Ashkan Hashemi, a researcher at the provincial office of the CFS, said the demonstration is the first step in a campaign to push the government to back down from its “ridiculous propositions” involving cuts to post-secondary education.
“I think it definitely got their (the Tories’) attention,” he said. “It was great as far as making people aware of the problems out there and conveying to the government that there is a sizable number of people out there, including students from across Ontario, who are extremely concerned about the future of their education.”
Paul Cheevers, president of the Ryerson Students’ Academic Council (RyeSAC), said the CFS should use another plan of action to get through to the government. “If there was only 400 students there, how does that look to the government when there is over 100,000 students in the greater Toronto area?” he asked. “That is a very pathetic demonstration if only four hundred (students) showed up. The message we need to give the government is that education is very important. It’s self-sustaining and it should be a priority well above welfare, social insurance and everything else like that.” Details on what the cuts entail will not be known until early next year.
Ryerson President Claude Lajeunesse said nothing should be done until the full effects of the budget are known. He said, however, that Ryerson is already planning to be prepared for the worst and encourages other universities to do the same.
“There is an on-going plan to deal with the deficit and of course we are looking at all our operations,” said Dr. Lajeunesse. “We are ensuring that we can streamline them as much as we can. Universities should be able to understand that if we group together, it will be easier to deal with than if we are at each other’s throats.”
In the meantime, the CFS has set up a meeting with Education Minister John Snobelen to discuss the possible cutbacks and what they will mean for universities.
“Our concern with the minister right now is that he is putting forward his cuts without actually looking at the bigger picture,” said Hashemi. “We want to make him aware of some of the problems facing universities. I don’t think he’s carefully looked at that yet.”
Cheevers said its’ time for student organizations to come up with alternatives to the cuts themselves.
“I think the government is sick of people coming to them, whining and complaining, ‘we need more money.’ As students, we need to present alternatives and say okay, given that there’s not enough money in the tax system, we need to find an alternative. The government wants to sit down at the table and talk to educated people, they don’t want people screaming and shouting and waving placards and trying to storm the doors of Queen’s Park.”
Hashemi said the Queen’s Park violence is justified. “Five years ago, when the previous government was sworn in, the demonstrators were allowed to go right up to the steps of Province House,” he said. “Now suddenly the whole area is fenced off. There’s a scenario where a lot of people are really upset that their livelihoods are being threatened. That caused a lot of aggravation. It was unfortunate that it happened, but it wasn’t a surprise.”
RyeSAC is reviewing a proposal created by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), a group aiming to avoid cuts by presenting alternatives to the Harris government. These include a proposed grad tax, in which graduate students are taxed a small percentage of their salaries.
National Student Day is scheduled for Oct. 11, and CFS is planning another demonstration against the cuts, with added support from other organizations.
“We’ll be beginning to work with the groups that put forward the demonstration on Wednesday,” Hasehmi said. “There is something in the works for that (day), centring around the cuts and showing the government students’ concerns.”