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By Joe Rayment

I first heard about this year’s tuition protest when the RSU rejected my bursary application. Chris Drew sent the e-mail. “It is not easy to be a student in 2007, and making the decision to select recipients was a difficult task,” he told me. He went on to tell me about the evils of the McGuinty government, that tuition had become unreasonable and that RSU bursaries weren’t the solution.

“Please consider getting involved in the campaign to REDUCE TUITION FEES. When we work together, we can make a difference.” I sent a reply, something to the effect of “go to hell.” I can’t remember what I expected it to accomplish but it felt good doing it. He responded within an hour. He’s sorry. He’s not well off himself. He wishes there were more he could do.

I hear the truck before I see it: crowing megaphones, thumping music and the throbbing rhythm of the diesel engine. The driver of the white flatbed, sympathetic to the cause, donates the use of his truck every year on the condition that he can fly his banner on the cab: CAW Local 4268. From there, the RSU, with help from the Canadian Federation of Students, sets up everything they need for their offensive on the back of the truck: microphone, PA, DJ, hot chocolate and apple cider. It’s the mobile stage of the revolution, the mechanized platform of machine politics.

A sizable crowd has gathered in front of the truck, attracted by grand ideals, spectacle and free toques. There’s a disproportionate number of journalists — and why wouldn’t there be? It’s a good, easy story: lots of visuals, outrage and a conveniently placed mass of human interest tangents. “Joe Rayment is a fourth-year journalism student who’s accumulated $22,000 debt.”

But who are we kidding? We know the game: protesters give the media their story, media gives the protest exposure, politicians respond and everybody contents themselves with their progress. I take out my notebook and join the ranks of uninterested observers.

Speakers take turns at the mic, giving speeches and leading us in chants. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” says Judy Rebick, social activist. “I’m going to ask you a question and you’re going to answer ‘Reduce Tuition.’” There’s a pleasant energy in the crowd, hope for the revolution. I decide there’s a good photo in this: the crowd, the placards and banners, all lined in front of Rebick on the truck.

I step out on Lake Devo so I can fit it all in the frame, focus and push the button. The shutter doesn’t open. The cold’s sapped the camera’s battery — reality pervades.

The truck drifts down Gould Street at 11:30 a.m. and the whole calamitous mess follows behind chanting. It rounds Yonge Street like a paper dragon dancing, just happy to be in the streets.

The last time I believed the government cared about tuition was during the 2003 provincial election. I was new to university and the age of majority and hadn’t yet learned to ignore political promises or the posters I found stuck to walls.

I read the party platforms waiting for the elevator: NDP will lower tuition; PC will give us more loans; the Liberals, playing to their strength, will freeze tuition and maintain the day’s status quo. The Liberals won and the Canadian Federation of Students started putting self-congratulatory ads around campus. We could make a difference, they said.

The Liberals hired ex-nemesis Bob Rae to look into the issue. They lifted the freeze last fall, allowing for 8 per cent increases in professional courses such as law and medicine and 5 per cent increases for undergraduate degrees.

On Yonge Street, once the parade passes, so does the mood. The cold sets in, the music and chants become yelling and noise and a row of cars is faced with the reality that they’re going to spend the next leg of their trip at slow walking speed. I follow well behind the crowd listening for what it sounds like to non-participants. “What do we want?” asks Nora Loreto, RSU president-elect, over a megaphone. “Reduced tuition,” she answers to herself.

Protesters from other schools join us on the way and by the time we pull into King’s College Circle at the University of Toronto, the crowd’s about 200 strong. Loreto hands the stage over to speakers from the CFS.

Someone starts into another speech of outrage and self-congratulation and my attention drifts to a group of white signs making their way through the ocean of maroon “Reduce Tuition” placards. “CFS fees suck,” reads one. “Get back to class truant hippies,” reads another. “Do you want a) socialism b) quality of education?” With an asterisk below: “The correct answer is b)”

The signs are attached to a group of Trinity College students making their way through the crowd dressed inexplicably in judge’s robes. They circle around and stand to the east of the crowd. The police and some journalists follow for exactly the same reason: conflict. “Why don’t you do this tomorrow?” a police officer asks. “They planned this. They have permits. You’re going to start fights.” One of the judges eyes me taking notes and asks if I’m with the media. Yes, I tell him without looking up. He stands beside me for a minute and then rejoins his pack. There are maybe 20 judges protesting a protest of hundreds. They’re a vast minority and I’m not playing their game; it’s not good enough.

The judges agree not to speak to the protesters or follow them on the parade route and the police allow their presence. They settle neutered in the courtyard and endure the jeers of the crowd until it leaves for Queen’s Park.

I sat down one day and decided I’d set up interviews with three people who might actually be able to do something about tuition: John Tory, Howard Hampton and Dalton McGuinty. It’s an election year and I have a captive audience of nearly 20,000 students, albeit mostly ones who don’t vote. Just the same, I figured it might be politically profitable for them to speak to me.

John Tory’s office told me he’d be happy to talk, which was a little surprising. The Progressive Conservative Party’s tax-cutting philosophy makes it hard to reduce tuition and loan schemes aren’t usually popular with groups such as the CFS. Later in the day Tory’s communication director called me back to tell me the interview would have to be over the phone.

The next day I got another call telling me Tory could no longer speak with me, he’d be travelling and would be “nowhere near a phone” until after my deadline. I asked about his exotic location: Ottawa.

They forwarded me to Jim Wilson, the PC education critic. He called me a day later, while I was sleeping, and left a message on my voicemail: tuition is too high. The PC wants to make post secondary more accessible. The election platform hasn’t been set yet, but they’re meeting with students to figure out a solution. Sounds good.

Hampton got back within a half hour, which made sense. The NDP is sympathetic to tuition cuts and is usually invited to speak at these days of action. They would re-regulate the professional courses such as law and medicine, setting limits on tuitions that sometimes approach $20,000 a year. They’d freeze tuition, maybe roll it back and make post-secondary school generally more accessible. Again, it sounds good.

McGuinty wouldn’t speak to me. Chris Bentley, the Liberal Colleges and Universities Minister, called me back in a timely fashion though. He explained to me that under the Liberals, post-secondary enrolment is up 22 per cent, or 86,000 students. They’ve invested $700 million in improving the quality of schools and handed out grants to 120,000 students, three times more than before. They’ve asked students to make an additional investment in their education but it’s a reasonable one.

When I push him about what he’s saying, he points to the records of the other parties: the NDP promised freezes and cuts in the ’90s and under the Rae government, tuition went up 50 per cent. When Mike Harris was elected, he cut post-secondary operating grants by 20 per cent and deregulated tuition for professional courses, which, depending on the course and school, allowed tuition to go up as much as 1,000 per cent.

He makes all good points, I tell him, but the Liberals were elected in my first year and I’ve come very close to dropping out the last two years because I couldn’t afford tuition and living costs. I still haven’t paid off my tuition and between my line of credit and credit card, I paid $130 in interest last month. You’ve had three years, why should I vote for you now?

“Sir, with respect,” he answered, “if you’re arguing your own case and you just want to write an article about your own case, if that’s what this really is, that’s one thing. But the fact is is it’s not worse for students in need.”

Which isn’t at all what I said. He points me to a website they’ve set up for students like me who don’t know where to look for scholarships and bursaries. There’s a section that tells us the difference between the way funding was then and the way it is now. “You can check it out, and then you can find out what institutional support is available. But the facts do not support the statement you just made,” he said. I yelled. It was unproductive.

The protest travels to Queen’s Park in the most convoluted route imaginable: five right turns stretched over miles of unnecessary road in sub-zero temperatures. A block away from where we started they’d erected a stage beside the parliament building. The Black Eyed Peas blast over the speakers by the stage when the protesters round the corner. They’re more than a thousand strong now and an hour behind schedule. “My humps, my humps, my lovely lady lumps.”

The judges wait patiently at the top of the park. A man approaches the judges, stops 10 feet away and puts a megaphone to his mouth. “Rich kids go home. Rich kids go home.” Contented with his progress, he walks away and lets the passing crowd take over. After a few minutes of abuse, a parade marshal asks the judges to stand on the other side of a hedge to avoid conflict.

A woman takes the stage and delivers what must be the twentieth speech I’ve heard in three hours. “We’re here to send a message to the McGuinty government that we’re united against tuition hikes,” she proclaims and then breaks into chant. “Sol sol sol, solidarity!” “So so so, socialism’s dead!” answer the judges, emboldened by the fervour of the moment and their new armour of greenery.

There are a few quick speeches and a Kardinal Offishall concert. Someone throws a snowball at the judges and their leader launches into a spiel about free speech and intelligent debate. I point to one of their signs, “He has ‘hippy’ underlined twice. How is that intelligent debate?”

“I think I should point out that we’re not united around a particular cause,” he tells me. Another judge sidles up to the conversation. “In fact,” he points to the new judge’s sign, Tuition Cuts Hurt International Students, “I don’t agree with his point at all.” Argument erupts amongst the judges, adding to the arguments they were already having with protesters. Some people with banners file in in front of them to hide them from the crowd and cameras. It was as valid a move as any other that day.

I leave before festivities finish; it’s cold and I can guess what’s going to happen. The NDP will address the protest. The Liberals won’t visit the protest but will list their accomplishments to the media later. The Tories will make as little noise as possible. No one will accomplish anything, this is just routine. There’s nothing here but politics and a massive display of mutual masturbation.

Sid Ryan, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, takes the mic as I’m walking away. He speaks of grand ideals in syllables and exclamation points, tinged in an Irish accent. It’s pleasing to the ear.

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