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October 24, 2002 Taking sides: Do international politics belong on campus?




by Melanie Takefman and Peter Boer

Last month, Concordia’s undergraduates voted in favour of a more moderate student government. However, not all student union leaders are averse to taking a stance on external events. Explosive international conflicts are making Canadian student governments examine their role in conflicts on campus and beyond.

Like Concordia, York University was branded a hub of student activism when a speech by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes was cancelled and re-scheduled following a storm of debate on the Toronto campus. (Pipes runs a Web site, www.campus-watch.org, that monitors and denounces anti-U.S. and pro-Palestinian academics.)

According to Pablo Vivanco, VP external of the York Federation of Students (YFS), the YFS did not condemn the speech directly. However, Pipes’s “inflammatory, racist” rhetoric goes against the anti-racism mandate of the YFS.

While tensions between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students have been rife since Pipes’s speech, Vivanco said that most vociferous debate takes places in the public tabling area of the university. Thus, the YFS only handles conflicts that are brought to them directly.

“We take a mediatory stance,” Vivanco said. “We make sure [our actions] are consistent with the policies of the university.” He said that the YFS organizes speeches and panels to “promote a hospitable atmosphere on campus” and to encourage “reasonable debate within a controlled atmosphere.”

“It’s important for students to talk about international issues,” Vivanco said. “It’s also important for students to eat and get housing. Those are our priorities.” Similarly, a motion to hold a referendum to take a stance on Canada’s role in Iraq was recently voted down by the YFS.

Student executives at other universities, however, believe that it is their responsibility to voice their constituents’ concerns.

The Université de Montréal’s student union, Fédération des associations étudiantes de L’Université de Montréal (FAECUM), for example, recently voted unanimously to condemn the same war.

Nicolas Fournier, the president of FAECUM’s executive, explained that his student government only takes a stance on external issues in response to students’ demands. “It becomes dangerous when student governments become pre-occupied with [external] politics on a daily basis,” he said.

He added that FAECUM takes a “conciliatory” approach to resolving conflicts between students. If an invitation to a speaker like Benjamin Netanyahu had encountered as much opposition at his school as it did at Concordia, he said, he would not have allowed the speech. “When we take actions that can be considered provocative, we walk on thin ice,” Fournier said.

Fournier, however, does not believe that Concordia students are more radical than U de M students. They are vocal about the negative effects of the FTAA and the upcoming provincial elections, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.

While Vivanco and Fournier neither condemned nor encouraged the current CSU’s activism, others, like Anand Sharma, VP External for the University of Alberta (U of A) Students’ Union, embraced it. “It’s been refreshing to see the CSU addressing issues on a grassroots level and also be willing to take on more controversial issues.”

Sharma said that an activist student government does not necessarily lead to a decline in the quality of student services. While the U of A Students’ Union rallied against tuition and fee hikes, as well as taken positions on external issues such as the war in Iraq, they still completed an expansion of the student union building.

Sharma said that his government’s shift towards activism has resulted in a higher level of debate and student involvement on the Edmonton campus.

Joel Duff, chair of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, agrees with Sharma. He said that the majority of significant social movements in North America originated from activism on university campuses. “All social change from countering racism to sexism to homophobia has come from efforts within post-secondary institutions.”

With a mandate to prioritize students, it is up to the Evolution, Not Revolution slate to determine what role activism will play at Concordia next year.