By Jacqueline Nelson
Brian Petz’s new role as the president of Ryerson’s Progressive Conservative Club isn’t a marriage of convenience — it’s a love match. And, love them or hate them, the 21-year-old has a lot of radical ideas on how to reform policies in the notoriously left-leaning campus climate.
Petz arrives at the Ram and the Rye on foot for the campus PC’s second official meeting of the year, and as the clock strikes six he seats himself at an empty table. He removes his aerospace engineering leather jacket from his tall frame to reveal a black Batman t-shirt. He points down. Matching Batman belt buckle. He’s suited up and ready for action.
Second in command is the next to arrive. Vice president of the club and fellow engineer Adam Bakos grabs a seat across from Petz.
Insisting they are “waiting for people,” Petz and Bakos turn down the waitress’s offers for drinks and load up the table with literature in support of the Toronto Central PC candidate, Pamela Taylor. Five more friendly looking guys finally show up and Petz turns to the meeting’s agenda.
“I have three goals I want us to try and stick to this year,” says Petz, “and the first one is to expel this notion that being conservative is somehow taboo.”
Nods from around the table.
With their middle-aged view on issues like tuition fees and student debt, a conservative university student in Ontario is thought of as an anomaly — a campus white tiger.
But Ryerson’s chapter is determined to help change that, even if they must battle the fact that their beliefs contradict the values of the average student.
Young conservatives across the province have been quietly gaining diverse campus support, and they aim to show their opposition that the conservative party isn’t just an old-white-guy club, but a group of young voices who have a passion for old ideas.
“A lot of young people think it’s bad — it’s old, it’s backwards. But that’s where the progressive part comes in,” Petz says. “The Progressive Conservatives — it’s kind of an oxymoron — but what it means is a careful, deliberate and thoughtful approach to change as opposed to rushing into things.”
But even with Petz’s optimism for ideas, the question still sits: where there is talk, is there also action?
As members are quick to point out, Ryerson’s Conservative Club has only just begun its third year on campus. And while the infant group has always had grown-up ideas, Bakos says they’re finally garnering the support they need to take action. “We were worried we were going to get shot or something,” says Bakos of this year’s student group fair, “but then people started signing up.”
The Tory troupe is an offshoot of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA), which oversees all the PC campus groups in the province. Led by 22-year-old Ryerson graduate Holly Bacchus, OPCCA only asks that its satellite groups adhere to requirements made by their school, and most importantly, adopt its constitution: to “actively pursue the objectives of the Association.”
Put simply, Ryerson’s chapter needs to stimulate conservative support at grassroots and academic levels. Petz and his friends need to spread the John Tory word. Not an easy task in an epicentre of liberal thought.
But the looming election has caused OPCCA’s support to swell. Gauging provincial membership is a challenge, says Bacchus, but Ottawa’s Carleton University has amassed around 300 members. And as OPCCA recruits students with its “reality check” campaign, Bacchus expects increased support. “Each week, we focus on a different issue. One week it was coal plants, one it was health care and once it was jobs,” she says. “We want to get people interested in our party.”
Back in the Ram, the boys have noticed three girls seated at a table near theirs. The girls smile coyly at the Tories, whose keen eyes spot that the women have some intriguing literature on their table and appear to be having their own meeting. The campus conservatives raise their eyebrows at the red leaflets; some shake their heads, others avert their eyes. Not liberals. Communists.
“Is that just coincidence?” laughs Bakos. “Maybe we should join forces?” “They’re probably expecting that their meal will be free,” says Petz. “It’s not gonna happen.”
So it’s back to business with point number two on Petz’ list. His second goal for the club is to put an end to the campus’s “lower tuition fees” campaign. Seriously.
Petz is tired of the student union thinking short term about the issue of fees and not approaching the problem like a taxpayer. He doesn’t think that the student union is fairly reflecting the views of all students, and he is embarrassed by the RSU’s noisy campaigns.
But Heather Kere, the RSU Vice President of Education, insists that the RSU listens to the student population and has different methods of surveying students to get a sense of where the majority stands on an issue and acts accordingly.
“No decision is made by one person,” she says. “There was a referendum about the tuition fees a couple of years ago, I remember voting in it, and I think almost 98 per cent of students voted in favour of reducing tuition fees.”
In the eyes of democracy, that huge majority of students arguably warrant all the noise the student union can make.
But the campus conservatives are undeterred by facing that majority. In fact, Petz boils the tuition fee question into a cost-assessment formula: “You have to look at your education as an investment in yourself,” Petz persists. “You’re putting time in and you’re putting so much money in, but that goes towards increasing your earning potential. The opportunity to invest in yourself at school, now that is the right.”
But taking on tuition fees is a big idea: it’s easy to talk about. So Ryerson’s PC club has their sights set on OSAP, a change that requires a lot less money. Petz argues that the loan system has failed to make things easier for students because while students in the lowest income brackets are given financial assistance, and the upper classes can fund their education with ease, the middle class majority is left stranded.
“Okay, so my house is worth a certain amount of money,” says Petz, “but are my parents going to re-mortgage the house so that I can go to school?”
The club expects some initial student shock and an RSU outcry of “Oh, but then you’re left with all this debt!” That’s correct, they nod. Nothing is free.
The waitress approaches the table again to gather the menus and take orders. Again, the boys look around shiftily.
“We’re alright for now,” says one. “Next week is the election,” says another. “We’ll all get a pitcher then.”
The club lowers its eyes to the year’s third mission: to provide a healthy conservative balance to left wings and radicals.
Despite his resolve that the PCs on campus are maintaining a political equilibrium, Petz doesn’t see the opposing Liberal campus group as competition compared to his battle with the RSU. In fact, he doesn’t see them at all. “The Liberal campus group? I haven’t encountered them, really,” Petz says. “I haven’t seen them doing anything, which is very typical of the liberal party to not really do a whole lot.”
The campus Liberal club has indeed been unusually quiet in view of the impending election, but they’ve had a strong presence on campus in the past. Last St. Patrick’s Day, the liberals entertained party leader Stéphane Dion with pints of green-tinted beer. Plus, Ryerson’s Liberal club was recently voted best Ontario Young Liberal student club in Ontario.
Back in the Ram, rapid-fire political banter has turned the club from a group with a mission to a meeting of minds. Support for campus conservatives may indeed be increasing province wide, but after only 45 minutes the boys decide they have had enough politics and motion to adjourn their meeting.
In a flash Petz swipes all the literature into a blue bag, not bothering to hand any out, and leads the way to the exit. Without so much as a glance backward, the campus conservatives abandon the pub that they never actually bought anything from, their talk left idly behind.