Different day, different action

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On Nov. 5, students and community members will rally at U of M, U of W and the legislature for the annual Students’ Day of Action. The Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba and Make Poverty History Manitoba have teamed up, along with students and community members, including the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, to take a stand on issues of poverty in Manitoba (see “Time to Act!” on pg. 8 for complete details).

It is a slight departure from past years. Rather than attempting to build a ragtag coalition of students to shout and yell at the upper windows of the Legislature about reducing fees and keeping the freeze, the goal this year is one that, while relating to the lives of students, also reaches the lives of 125,000 Manitobans who live in poverty.

The initiative includes a petition signed by students and members of the community demanding the Manitoba government implement a plan “to meet the goal of reducing poverty in Manitoba by at least 25 per cent by the year 2015.” The petition sites a “more concrete” anti-poverty plan that was released May 26, titled “The view from here: Manitobans call for a poverty reduction plan,” prepared by Make Poverty History Manitoba and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba.

Sounds tricky. Can we really get all of that done with a single day’s rally?

The focus of the event marks a stark change compared with previous Days of Action. Most notably, it’s not all about students. It is relevant to students, but its reach stretches beyond the campus and into numerous communities across Manitoba. This change in focus sends a message to students and to our government about the changes we’ve become comfortable with and how we can go about making positive change.

For one thing, it follows a slope that Canada has been slipping downward, one towards relatively fewer and fewer government dollars being spent on education. The protest’s organizers are sending a beleaguered message to anyone who will listen; we’ve seen these protests swerve from keeping the freeze, to reducing fees and now to fighting poverty, which is realistically the same path that students have to follow all the way to their degrees. Each year of campus life puts many students deeper and deeper into debt.

The U of M started participating in the Day of Action back in 2004, when the rally was held in protest of rising tuition fees. The following three years saw similar protests, focused on reducing tuition fees and increasing government spending on education. No doubt, shouting about keeping the freeze and lowering fees is great, but with education’s financial roots deeply entangled in that “economy” thing, and with an immediate effect only on students, the chances of anything actually getting done were nil. Couple that with the usually poor turnout, ranging between a thousand or two and an abysmal 300 students, and you’ve got a lost cause. Indeed, the government unfroze the freeze last year, other fees have continued to increase every year, and public spending on education in Canada has remained feeble. According to The Walrus, Canadian public spending on education in 1995 was comparable to that of the U.S.. Since then, we have practically flatlined. To catch up with the U.S. on per capita spending now would require “over $21 billion across all levels of government in Canada.” All of this in spite of a several-hundred-people protest one day per year!

Now, with almost 15 years of neglect, a lot of people have grown accustomed to a certain number of dollars being spent on education. If that number goes up, the number of dollars that goes toward other things goes down — and so I have completely exhausted my understanding of the economy. A political party in Canada making the move toward greater spending on education could very well end up with fewer votes, and, with Canada’s soap opera politics, this is not a leap that any party seems willing to take.

So let’s face it; one day of protest in the year generates some media attention and makes a point, but unless there is some sustained representation, nothing will get done. That’s why working with Make Poverty History Manitoba is a definite step in the right direction. The rally will bring exposure to student issues, but will also bring exposure to a local group that can actually use that momentum. Students have to go back to class, but community organizations can remain hell-bent on achieving their goals.

The Day of Action rally this year is a worthy cause, but it also serves as an example for how students can work toward improving education in Canada over the coming years. The type of involvement that is required to make anything happen is sustained involvement, not mere single days of action. Don’t get me wrong, the Day of Action is worth the effort, but only now that it is supporting a more sustained action.

Maybe the Day of Action will eventually multiply into two days of action, or maybe even a week of camp-style action! Or better yet, maybe students will just generally take an interest in these matters and go out regularly to try to confront them without having to have their arms tugged by student politicians for weeks in advance. Those with offices in the legislature might experience a pang beyond vague amusement at the students protesting below — they might even become motivated enough to do something beyond saying a few words to the crowd.

It definitely seems more likely now that the Day of Action is reaching for issues that involve communities and organizations across Manitoba, and ultimately into the deep, dark pockets of our government, rather than just into our own backpacks.