February 1, 2009

I would rather act than remain silent

Semra Eylul Sevi is a student activist at the University of Toronto. She is a member of the Fight Fees 14, a group of students who organized a sit-in at the President's office demanding action on tuition fees last March. As People's Voice reported, the students were later arrested and slapped with restrictive bail conditions. Eylul spoke to PV about how the case against them is now collapsing.

PV: What is the current situation with charges?

Semra Eylul Sevi: Of the fourteen people charged, nine have had their charges and their University code of conduct investigations dropped. For the remaining five, one is under age so his charges are expected to be dropped soon. For others, we will have to wait and see but we expect them to be vindicated soon. The case against us is crumbling. But it is crumbling slowly.

PV: They made you sign a peace bond?

Sevi: Yes. The nine basically can't attend any demonstrations in certain buildings for the time we signed on. We donated $100 to a charitable organization of their choice. If we break these conditions we pay a $500 fine. We considered not signing. But we were scared of the student code of conduct charges - scared in the sense that since they didn't get their way in court, it seemed likely they would try through the student code of conduct. And we can now talk to whomever we want.

PV: Why are the charges being withdrawn?

Sevi: It is two-fold - we've been going to court since April. By law, 35 days after our arrest we should have received "full disclosure," explaining why we were guilty. We haven't received that, we still haven't got the police notes from the time of our arrest, and it seems the crown keeps delaying.

But the real reason was to stop us organizing. After our arrest we had bail conditions to abide by, including who we associated with, where we could go on campus, what we could do. They tried to exhaust us, but they really had nothing against us.

And it wasn't that effective. For example, over 200 people rallied and marched down from the U of T, to the court building beside city hall. We had a garden party in front of President Naylor's house, right on his lawn. We went to the Alumni Association AGM and almost took over the meeting, bringing in proxies.

When Oriel Varga graduated, she made herself a gown and embroidered "I spent a night in jail for U of T's crackdown on student dissent." [Varga was told to leave the ceremony by police, but had brought her lawyer and so received her Masters in Education on stage]. Since they laid the charges against us, we've had at least eight demonstrations. So we organized despite the bail conditions.

PV: Would you have expected what you went through?

Sevi: No. The U of T has tried to hide that history, but it has had occupations before. But I believe this is the first time in fifteen years the university has gone to this extent. While we were worrying about exams, we got the calls from 52 Division of the Toronto Police. The police said they would come into our exams and arrest us. If you walk into an exam at U of T and write your name on the paper and then get arrested half-way through, you automatically fail. That's the rules. It was really tough.

So I've learned that laws in Canada are not made for us. The police kept us in custody in little cold rooms. While we were there, the officers were on the phone with the administration asking them what kind of bail conditions they wanted. It was shocking.

PV: What would you say to other young activists?

Sevi: I think being arrested is a risk with every kind of protest. You don't have to take over a building. At the York University CUPE 3903 strike, students were arrested on the street. Going through the legal system is not easy, so you should know your rights. You should also expect to have your emails hacked, and police officers follow you - we had police officers follow us to the subway and randomly on campus.

But I am no longer ambiguous, I know that this is the same institution that basically wants to crush students who question the status quo. Once you know about the system, I speak for myself, but I would rather be one of the people who act than remaining silent. I guess it is a choice people need to make.

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