April 6, 2009

OCCUPATION! - students overrun legislature

Lift the CAP!
right: pool of the Black Star
[photo: wikimedia]

expanded from the print edition of Rebel Youth Magazine #7
by David Tymoshchuk

WINNIPEG, November 5th 2008- So we're playing duck, duck, goose. Most of us playing are university students. Except one, a pre-school girl, who is delighted that we are playing with her on the marble floor. The shout of “GOOSE!!SSE!...SE!” echoed throughout the Manitoba Legislative Building along with quick footsteps and squeaking running shoes. It certainly is the most opulent gymnasium I've ever been in, and it is fitting, given why we are there. The toddler, the daughter of a student, is the youngest of the student activists fighting for access to post secondary education for Aboriginal peoples.

One hour earlier...

We are very serious about the state of education in Manitoba. Earlier that day, we held one the largest student rallies in years. About 1000 students, including high school students rallied in front of the building the activists were to later occupy. The Communist Party and the YCL were there. Unions came and brought along their banners in support of the students. A huge Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) banner in orange and a photo of premier Gary Doer's face demanded “STOP NDP LIES!”*.

The students were very upset at the government, and were pumped at the action they were doing. They finally had a voice and they were giving it a short test run this afternoon. 20 litre pails for drums boomed along with chants. I am sure many used their full lung capacities as many became hoarse when I talked to them later. Corporate press reports that attacked the student movement later had to admit that the rally invoked images of “army cadets ”, due to the discipline shown by the students, and “took on the atmosphere of a 1960s student protest ” for its passion.

The minister responsible for post secondary education Diane McGifford, was out of the country. Lucky her. So the education minister, NDP MLA for Gimli, Peter Bjornson, came to speak at the rally. After it was clear in his speech that he was only saying they knew best and was only an apologist, shouts of "LIAR!!!" rang out. It became a booming chant and this, along with other jeers and cat calls interrupted the minister from...uh, doing nothing... just delivering his speech of how superior market driven education was (omitting mention of who would benefit).

A sit in at an undisclosed “government office ” was announced at the end of the rally and those interested were to go to a parking lot and “wait for a bus ” to board. No bus would come. We were already there. Shouts of “Go!Go!Go!” signaled us to storm the legislature through the side entrance, a revolving door. I was one of the first through, but not sure were to go. I remember that we should go to the grand interior staircase and sit between the bronze bison statues. “Where the hell is that?” I thought as I ran through the Pool of the Black Star (a round room below the rotunda) to the corridor on the other side. Some guy forgot himself and a loud “whoo hoo!” echoed inside, followed by a harsh “SHHH!” from several of us.

Our action was well planned, we were as disciplined as we could be given the balance of working in an on a need to know basis we had to have to pull this off. It wasn't perfect, a few things expectedly didn't go according to plan (I lost my sense of direction for one) but we pulled the sit-in off. Later, I heard shouts, and they were not from us. I guess our guy's loud “whoo hoo!” alerted the guards. Or maybe a door alarm or TV monitor did. I can only guess. Now what? Think fast. It was best to stick together in the area we were, rather than attempting to go to the main staircase and risk getting isolated into ineffective pockets of activists throughout the building.

A hefty security guard was running full bore as chaos ensued. I ducked back into the Pool of the Black Star and the guard ran past and actually skidded to a halt before another entrance. They seemed to be freaking out and starting to lock all doors. Sounds of shouts, orders, echoes and the sight of student activists pouring in filled my senses before the doors locked. We were all in the same area (Pool of the Black Star) and sat down. I could see other activists with placards on the other side of the door. “They're calling the police ” I heard someone say. We were not to go anywhere, we could not leave, nor go to the washroom. Papers with legal and other instructions were passed around. “Have you read this?” we all asked each other as we finished reading what we could expect in jail and what lawyer to contact if some police brutality occurred.

We had extra CFS leaflets. I received one and held it up in my hand. I turned my face upward; “Want a leaflet?” I asked the guard behind my back. He took it in his black leather gloved hand. I was surprised he did, considering his menacing facial expressions. The situation was de-escalated as it was wisely seen as a bad political move if we were hauled off. We continued the sit in and watched the faces outside the revolving door.

Later, I found out that the reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press was shoved out of the door, along with students and their leaders. The president of UMSU, Jonny Sopotiuk, and the Chair of CFS Manitoba, David Jacks were not allowed to go in to talk to those carrying out the action, nor be able to negotiate with the authorities. We were “detained ” in a lock down, a spin to make us look bad. We occupied the building. A sit-in action protesting conditions in education was the truth of the matter.

Corporate media say thirty of us were “detained ” inside. (“Thirty?...Don't reporters fact check anymore?” I thought the day after the sit-in as I read the newspaper at the library.) I did a head count. Thirty nine of us inside. “Must be a few more hiding somewhere ” I think, I round up to forty. Protesters shouted outside the doors demanding the doors unlocked and for our safety.

Later, a deal was reached as we were not about to just give in. Reporters were finally allowed in to videotape and interview some students inside. After the media left to file their reports, we started to play duck, duck, goose to keep the toddler busy given the circumstances. Actually I must confess that I enjoyed the game myself, I have not played duck, duck, goose in twenty years!

While we were doing our bit, students in Winnipeg and Brandon, MB were helping by sending faxes to government offices. They sent so many that the lines were jammed for hours. Of course, this was a international day of action so I heard reports over the following days of events in the rest of the country and in Europe.

Like I said above, a deal was reached. We were allowed to finally use the washrooms, and “given ” passes. We were to meet the minister whom we had booed and jeered at earlier. We were shown to the cafeteria in the basement level. We waited for several minutes, An aid of Diane McGifford's was there already. Bjornson appeared. We had his attention and were civil versus earlier at the rally. But we had our issues. It seems the NDP had theirs.

It is not worth reporting too long on this meeting as it only consisted of two sides that restated positions: the NDP's and student activists. The students in action were largely working class. The minister promised that: “the rate of tuition increase would not be allowed to reach double digits.” That seems to have stuck with me the most.

Among other things were that programs were available to help with access. I am not much of a gambler to hope for a chance to win under one of these programs. The minister told us there were channels to direct complaints, among them a hard to find commission web site were statements seem to vanish into the memory hole. I was told by an activist earlier that the mandate of this “Levin Commission ”** was even changed without notice or record, thank goodness for web archive caches!

We were not going to get anywhere at this meeting, so we made sure to be productive and made sure the government clearly knew our demands for Aboriginal access for post-secondary education. We were given the run around, told that it was a federal responsibility. We countered that Manitoba could lead by example. We gave examples of Ireland, Sweden, and Cuba as having free tuition why not Manitoba?

We stated that Metis were not under the federal Indian Act so Manitoba was able to do something, it was not just a “Federal issue ”. We stated that Cuba is only a small island while Manitoba is a huge resource rich province. Hydro-electric profits and royalties from resources (most Aboriginal) are huge and can be used to provide for Aboriginals. We received some excuse that “lake levels fluctuate.”
Wow, a government minister just told us that we have no money (Hydro profits) to spend on education because lake levels fluctuate.

“I have to pick up my kids...I'll answer two more questions ” said the minister finally. We kept him in this meeting for hours. Like I said, we going to be productive and drag that meeting out, make our issues known and see how many excuses the NDP minister could come up with. Lake levels...I was waiting for him to say it was the moon that caused those fluctuations. That and werewolves.

The purpose of the student occupation at the Manitoba Legislative building was to fight for increased aboriginal access to post secondary education.


  • Education including post-secondary education is written into the treaties with First Nations.
  • In 1996, the Federal government has imposed a cap of 2% increases on funding for basic core services, (this includes post secondary education) breaking the treaties at a time of increasing Aboriginal youth seeking an education, and increasing tuition fees, inflation etc.
  • INAC, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, provides funds for post-secondary education via the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP). It has a 2% cap on fund increases. The Inuit also fall under the PSSSP.
  • Over 50% of the Aboriginal population of Canada is under the age of 23.
  • Every thing is increasing faster than 2% will allow for example: fees, supply costs, cost of living, population growth. There are long waiting lists for First Nations youth to attend college and university.
  • Stephen Harper wants to stop giving grants and force First Nations students to use loans. It is easier for him to bash everyone down than to help everyone up.
What has the government done ?

Because the cap means limited funding to every service on reserve, and with a rapidly growing population, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada does what is does best: study the problem. It found that on-reserve per capita expenditures for basic services have decreased by 6.4% in 10 years. Education is only a part of the problem.

What about “Non-status ” and Metis? ́

Non-status and Metis people do not get any funding***, and are subject to the same racism and situationś that hold back Status First Nation students. The fight for Aboriginal access is a beach head for the student movement. To remove the funding cap is to stop attacks on the most picked on segment of the student population, Aboriginals. This segment of the student population is what racist governments across Canada use as a thin edge of wedge that ultimately attacks all students. The government of Manitoba thinks the voting public is as racist as it is itself and hopes they will not care.

Wrong. The student movement is united.And we showed it on November 5th.

* The NDP Doer government promised a tuition fee freeze in the last election.
**The Levin report was released in early April and recommended lifting the freeze and have students pay higher tuition
***No funding, as in grants that students under PSSSP have. Funding is indirect such as scholarships, but are few and competitive to get.

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