Why I’m not attending the March to the Legislature | By Dongwoo Kim

Protesting is sexy. We grew up learning about the courageous people who changed the course of history through protests. We are young. We don’t conform. They will hear our voice. There is a sense of community. People get together for a cause. You feel righteous. You are taking your time off to show that you care about a public issue. Good.

But I have issues with the March to the Legislature that is taking place tomorrow (Friday). I think this is a misguided, too-hastily organized effort that is not only going to be ineffective, but also undermine the very cause that the organizers of the protest are trying to promote.

Why do you protest? Whenever I ask this question, my friend Andrew, who is probably going to the protest, always cites the example of a protester who could not do anything else but yell at the government. The objective of protesting is to demonstrate to the government that we are frustrated about certain things, and hope that it does something about these certain things—in this case, these certain things being cuts made to higher education.

So, the raison d’être for this March to the Legislature is to A) let the government know that we are frustrated about these budget cuts and B) hopefully make it fix this. Will this work? Maybe in other scenarios, but not in this case.

The key to a movement is to have a clear agenda and strategy. This protest was organized way too hastily to have these elements. Plus, it is led by people and groups who were deeply involved in Occupy Edmonton or Idle No More. These were polarizing movements, and especially the former has been an unsuccessful movement that became appropriated by the 1% of the left.

Why is this important? These people are not representative of U of A students. I’m not making a judgement call on whether participating in Occupy is a good thing or not (I even participated in one of their rallies in the past), but I am saying that they do not share the mainstream political discourse and verge toward, if not represent, the radical side of our political spectrum. They are the people who protest whenever there is an occasion for it—and they are too familiar, clichéd as to make the general population pay attention and side with us, students in this issue.

The media will be there. But the focus will be on that one crazy dude with a picket that says “legalize marijuana” or “make love, not war.” At least that is what the public will remember. When the Occupy protest took place on campus, students focused on one person with a sign that said, “books not bombs.” Point is, the world will not see the U of A student Joe, concerned about the rising cost of attendance, but Jim, the guy with a funny picket sign that he brought to the Occupy rally a year ago.

Then what is the alternative? We, students, need to get the rest of the population. We need to get the people who voted for the PC MLAs to this government. This is a rare chance in which the student body and the university administration can work together to address this issue. We shouldn’t have John, a person who subscribes to the Marxist theory of proletariat revolution, but Dr. Smith in political science, to speak to the media. We need to work with President Samarasekera, professors, university staff to educate people that what the PC government has done is outrageous and damaging to the public good. Once people outside of the Strathcona riding start to care, the MLAs will realize that they will have to do something to keep their jobs.

This kind of hastily-organized protest is what the government was expecting, and perhaps it is even desired. Protesting is sexy and it feels as if you are doing something about it. But are you contributing to the public good through this protest? Are you participating in this without a second thought? If you know this protest will not bring about a positive political change, aren’t you doing something for the sake of feeling great about yourself?

Think about it.

Dongwoo Kim (@dongwookim_) is a student of history and politics at the University of Alberta. He will not go to the rally tomorrow to be a good citizen, and respects his fellow students’ differing views on this issue.

CC Photograph Courtesy of VPickering on Flickr

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  • Anon

    Reading this article, its no wonder students keep getting screwed here in Alberta. Keep defending the status quo, Dongwoo!

  • Joel

    I completely disagree with you, Dongwoo. I don’t know who is organizing it, and I don’t care. And protesting is not sexy to most students (or most Albertans). That’s why when these things happen the crowd is always small. Last time I went on one of these it was over the CoSSS fee. Students’ tuition was going up by $550 and only 500 students showed up to say something about it. It was then that the government/university knew they could get away with it (though they lowered the fee slightly). If 20,000 students would have shown up, chances are we wouldn’t be paying that fee today (and then you could legitimately call protesting “sexy”).

    Working with the university administration, which usually sees itself as a sub-ministry of the Alberta government, may be justified in this case. But what is the leverage? Are you implying that students (and by implication the SU) actively campaign to elect a new government? Or what would your proposal be to prevent the government from continuing to dismantle post-secondary education?

    • Dongwoo

      Thank you Joel for your comment and being respectful in your addressing of the issue. I personally think that it’s beautiful to see people come out and do something that they care about. But it’s not what I or you think about it–it’s how it gets painted in the mainstream media.

      Second, by working university administration, we can gain a greater intellectual/moral authority in educating people outside of the Strathcona riding about the importance of post-secondary education for public good. When Indira, Carl Amrhein or a well-respected professor join students in criticizing the government, then our words will truly carry more weight in the political sphere.

  • Kirsten

    So Dongwoo, what ARE you going to do about this?

    • Dongwoo

      Dear Kirsten, thank you for your comment.

      I’m thinking very hard about this and having many conversations with friends. However, I have decided that 1) protesting would have a negative effect and 2) creating a more critical conversation about this issue with my post would be helpful. But it’s a work in progress.

  • Anonymous


    I will respond as respectfully as I can to what I interpret as basically a smear on a legitimate movement. You should note that I am no longer a U of A student but I did spend many years there and am well aware of the current problems facing the university.

    Your argument is deeply flawed. You suppose that 1) the current system of governance under which U of A students, and Albertans are governed, works; 2) that somehow a movement of leftist protestors constitutes a less legitimate representation of U of A students than the SU.

    1. It is increasingly obvious that working on the “inside” — i.e., the usual channels of decision making (the SU, Board of Governors, etc.) is not working for students. Since when has the SU stopped tuition fees from rising? Since when has Indira been on our side? You need to wake up to the reality that the President and Board of Governors interests are nowhere near what students’ are. The system doesn’t work anymore. How many times has the SU tried to lower student fees or tuition, in vain? How much real power does the SU have? These are the sorts of questions that you need to be asking if you want to seriously pursue the course of action that you are proposing. Do you think that the highest-paid university president in the country cares about students whining? Don’t think so. She (and others like Carl Armrhein) have made their position pretty clear on the issue.

    Appealing to Albertans will get you nothing — are you aware that this is the province where only 40% of people vote? Since when do Albertans care about students? I’m not sure I follow when you say “We need to get the people who voted for the PC MLAs to this government.” Why only PC MLAs? Are you aware that many students in Edmonton live in constituencies not represented by the PCs? Are you saying that buying into PC cronyism is the solution to the U of A’s own brand of cronyism which is headed up by Indira and the BoG? To sum up, your argument in favour of using the existing system in order to produce change is feeble.

    2. You claim that “We shouldn’t have John, a person who subscribes to the Marxist theory of proletariat revolution, but Dr. Smith in political science, to speak to the media”. Your error is assuming that professors and students share similar interests. In other words, the logic that you have applied to the protestors, namely, that they don’t represent everyone, can be applied to your example as well. Why does Dr. Smith’s opinion matter more than a marxist student’s? Elitist much? I guess your worldview precludes the notion that some people matter more than others — a disturbing position, given its undemocratic nature, but not surprising given that your entire argument rests on appealing to non-democratic institutions and processes to produce a solution that in the end only benefits a small upper-class of bureaucrats.

    It’s not my problem if you don’t want to be identified with leftist people that you disagree with. At least they have the courage to stand up and call a spade a spade. There is something wrong with how the U of A and other Albertan universities are governed and it’s too bad that you believe that an appeal to the status quo is a feasible solution. It isn’t.

    • W

      Do you believe that the same people who now do not care about higher education will be convinced by a professor? How can one expect a professor to have more “legitimacy” than the average individual, whether or not he is Marxist? It seems that if the public hears from students themselves that they have benefited from higher ed etc. and that they have “contributed to society,” they will be more sympathetic.
      Also, I’m not so sure how “leftist” one can consider Occupy. Their main complaint seemed to be a lack of bureaucratic jobs they could take after getting humanities/social science degrees. What they seem to really want is increased employment in the capitalist economic system, not the abolition of capitalism/private property etc. I think this protest is useful not because the government will be directly affected by it, but simply because it brings together broader interests to focus on a single issue. The word “coalition” is key here, i think.
      Will (not the anonymous above)

  • Aaron

    Dongwoo, I think you’ve highlighted a number of significant limits to the proposed protests:

    1) Frustration is not enough. The government is clearly under pressure to alter the status-quo. Simply arguing that universities should not be the ones to bear the burden of said alteration is not enough (indeed, it is quite normal for organizations to protest cuts to their own livelihood). What the university community needs to do is present an alternative arrangement that can capture the imagination of both the Albertan populace and the government (whether that be cuts to different services or increased revenue). Without such an alternative, the university simply becomes another self-serving entity trying to save its own hide. The university is more than that and needs to present itself as such.

    2) Student protests are not enough. Part of the reason that students were saddled with the CoSSS fee is that it was only students who were upset with the cuts and we, unfortunately, have very little political pull. As you point out, this time is different. The proposed cuts will not only affect elements within the university, but all Albertans. Departments may be cut, support staff will be let go, research will be delayed, and programs (which are offered across Alberta) will be cancelled. It is worth taking the time seeking out all the elements affected by the cuts and forge a united front. It is only once we convince the average Albertan tax payer that the cuts will harm them, that we can change the government’s mind. To do that, we need allies in the administration, among the professors, across the industries that rely on the universities research, and from the communities that benefit from its services.

    As you point out, students will be unable to overcome either of these barriers if we get cast as fringe elements. Keep up the good thinking!

    • Lauren

      I really like your first point Aaron –
      There’s something to be said for presenting alternative arrangements, and it’s very important to capture the imagination of our community. Your claim about a self-serving entity trying to save it’s hide otherwise sounds true too. You’re absolutely right, a creative solution is probably what’s needed here.

      A researcher from BC, Cheryl Stenstrom, studied Vancouver’s Public Library system and how they’ve faced budget cuts and how the position that they’ve taken has negatively impacted their chances at future funding – and her findings tie in very much with what you’ve said. If an organization does not come up with an alternative, and if they’re not prepared to have a respectful dialogue with politicians, then the organization risks ruining chances at future funding both because the government takes the organization less seriously, and because the public sees the organization as an organization trying to save itself at whatever cost (instead of seeing what the organization provides as valuable).

      I think this touches on what Dongwoo is saying too – protests can be damaging if they’re not done right.

      One area where I disagree with you – and it’s something that I’ve been nagging Dongwoo about – is that this protest really isn’t just students only. Staff unions are involved, some members of administration are, some professors are. Members from across the campus community are talking about this. Ideally, there would be community member buy in too (maybe there will be, maybe there won’t). While I’m not sure if this protest will be successful in swaying the government or Albertans as a whole, I DO think that it can empower a lot of very frightened people, and that it may mark the start of some sort of collective dialogue (hopefully).

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  • Roy Coulthard

    Dongwoo: Working with administration and politicians (aka negotiating) works when you can negotiate from a position of power. As a former student leader, I can tell you that current student leaders, professors and support staff are all working hard “on the inside” to achieve the best results for their constituents. Notably these results often do not directly correspond to the goals of administration, but they do the best they can. The flaw in your argument is assuming that “john the protester” and your “professor smith” necessarily have different goals. When people rise up, often independently of their representatives on the inside, the representatives on the inside can often achieve much more than they ever otherwise could because they can negotiate from a position of power. This has been the way that many major changes in Canadian society have been motivated, from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike through to today. And if you think protesting is “sexy”, you might want to read up about that event since getting beaten by thugs with billy clubs has never been sexy.

    Seriously, think about it.

    • Dongwoo

      Roy, thanks for your comment.

      Indeed, insiders could use protests as a political leverage and I think that’s a great point, especially coming from someone like you. However, I think today we have an opportunity to bring in outsiders (ie. voters outside Strathcona district) to fundamentally change the discourse on post-secondary education, and from my perspective, a protest like this would hamper that outside participation by reasons outlined in the main article.

      Second, the historicization of protests (eg 1919 Winnipeg General Strike) is what makes protests sexy “today.” I have no intention to devalue the courageous works of historical actors. However, I do not think that protests of today are necessarily the same in nature as those in the past — and neither are the risks entailed to coming out to the streets today.

  • Aaron

    Lauren: I have heard the rumblings about staff participation. I think it’s a good step forward! It will be interesting, however, to see what the staff turn out is like, as I assume many regular staff members will have to work till 4:30 (I suppose we will find out soon enough though!) I just worry that if the turnout isn’t very representative or overly composed of fringe elements, it will impair the ability of the movement to attract a wider base of support. Such a base will be necessary if the movement actually wants to have an impact upon government policy.

    Rory: I don’t think that the groups’ objectives are all that different this time around. In this particular case, it seems as if both students and staff are aiming to reverse the cuts that are being imposed upon the university. In the past, the administration was willing to pass the cost of the cuts on to the students, but (based on what the government has said) this doesn’t appear to be an option this time. This puts students and the professors/admin/staff on the same side–trying to prevent the reduction in services offered. If you have powerful allies that you can tap to aid your cause, why spurn them? Such a course seems foolish to me, as it has been a lack of allies that has caused previous student protests to fizzle and fade.

    As an aside: I do support the idea of holding a meeting to discuss the options students and staff have in responding to cuts. It’s the actual march section that I think is a tad hasty. If you’re going to do a march, do it right. Have a cross-section of support and have alternatives to propose. Otherwise, you might just end up shooting yourself in the foot, as Dongwoo (rightly) fears.

  • Dongwoo,

    I myself am not involved with any interest group associated with the rallies (CAPSE, U of A NDP, APIRG, etc.) but I have been worried about the implications of the March 7 budget, and participated in yesterday’s rally.

    Yesterday’s events were not solely the rally, but also also included the discussions by students and faculty on campus before the march to the Legislature. Yes, CAPSE was organized quickly over less than a week, and yes, the Coalition is only in its infancy. However, by arranging a successful demonstration that included all members of the academy, the CAPSE movement helps to raise awareness on the irresponsible budget cuts.

    Furthermore, I think it’s unfair to compare to this movement to “Occupy” or “Idle no More”; unlike those, might I say “fad”, movements, the Coalition is working to address concerns of Alberta’s post-sec institutions, and facilitated plans for action towards sustainable education, not simply utopian ideals. In addition, I don’t believe CAPSE will camp on public grounds nor blockade QEII highway, in the footsteps of the other two movements.

    Yet the Coalition is imperfect; for one, it seems to be guided by organizers who have a partisan agenda: the presence of NDP representatives and the use of red square pins symbolize the left-ist direction of CAPSE. In addition, further organization and deliberation would be needed to ensure that this movement doesn’t become just another fad, nor that students start Fall 2013 without concern for the demise of education quality and university autonomy.

    Through the rally, the U of A community and our allies, we demonstrated our defiance to the government’s overextension into post-sec education. It gave prominence to our cause, and organized our discontent into a unified voice. Dongwoo, no matter your opinion towards CAPSE and the act of demonstration, I hope you are equally concerned about the changes to our university as I am, and make your voice heard.


    • Dongwoo

      Dear Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. My main concern is not what it is, but how it is perceived by others.

      And don’t get me wrong — I’m not promoting inaction or indifference. I’m actually livid at the fact that the value of the university education is undermined by people who do not understand it. In a way, this post was an effort to start a more critical conversation about this matter in a public venue.

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