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A conflict of student politics

January 29, 2021

By Talha Hashmani

Hermes Azam remembers the evening of Sept. 25, 2019, with great reverence. Azam, the former president of Ryerson’s Socialist Fightback club and a recent graduate from Ryerson University, recalls how, on that day, about 200 students packed the amphitheatre inside the campus’s Student Learning Centre. It was a meeting for students to vote on a course of action against the provincial cuts to OSAP. Soon after, the university organized a mass student strike movement that packed the outskirts of the campus.

“This was a real plebeian movement… it was a mass meeting of rank and file students who all had a vote and who all had a voice,” says Azam

Harrison Faulkner, on the other hand, became president of Ryerson’s Conservative club in September of last year. Faulkner, a fourth-year journalism student, says that the goal of his club is to act as a voice for “specific campus issues” that are “dominated by the other side.” In contrast with the Socialist Fightback, Ryerson Conservatives did not partake in the student strike movement.

“We’re also affiliated with the PC party of Ontario, which means as an extension, this club can represent the Ontario government and the party in power,” says Faulkner.

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Student politics are the cornerstone for emerging identities and conflicting ideologies. It is futile to overlook the significance of the role played by student groups on campuses, many of which are political in nature while others are more niched in their struggles to address student issues. Imperative to their role are the ideologies that drive their cause, which at times can co-exist with one another but effectively remain as intangible like water and oil. Every Canadian campus has student groups that, in one way or another, engage in political activism.

In the last few years, Ryerson University has become home to various organized movements – from the 2018 demonstration against the re-implementation of a free speech policy to the 2019 student strike against the provincial government’s OSAP cuts. As it happens, the campus’ student body is inherently vocal about the issues that they face. And sometimes, the solutions put forward are not enthusiastically shared among each. While Ryerson hosts a large Marxist student population, it is also home to an increasingly growing Conservative group.

The Socialist Fightback

Socialist Fightback is a Canadian wide organization with branches at over 17 universities, colleges, and high school campuses. One of their branches, at Ryerson University, plays a big role in addressing campus-wide student issues. Hermes Azam, a former president of Ryerson’s Socialist Fightback, said that the club’s goal is to “bring socialist ideas and tactics to the forefront of the student and labour movement…”. He now holds a more supportive role with the club, running online events and campaigns, while also hosting discussions on Marxist texts and contemporary politics.

According to Azam, Socialist Fightback is a “revolutionary, Marxist, and socialist” group that takes its inspiration from the writings of Karl Marx, Frederick Engles, and the collaborative Communist Manifesto. In speaking with Burnout Digital, he said that opposition to socialist fightback comes from other political groups on campus, such as the Ryerson Conservatives and other groups of liberal-minded students. 

“They believe that socialism is responsible for the deaths of X and Y amount of people throughout history,” said Azam. “It is morally reprehensible that people still put forward these ideas and all other nonsense.”

Fightback, unlike other political groups, is a grassroots movement that is student-funded and student-organized, according to him. But although the club isn’t affiliated with an organization, he pointed that it supports much of the ideas put forth by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT).  The IMT, Azam explained, is the “single largest source of international news from a Marxist perspective.”

The tension between student political groups is apparent in the manners through which various student issues are approached. Such approaches seem to be very ideologically based. According to Azam: “This is almost an old tradition. The student movement in the 70s and the 80s would essentially be Marxist; be communist at heart. In their principles, in their tactics, and so on.”

Ryerson’s Student Strike campaign organized a campus-wide strike in 2019 to oppose the provincial government’s cuts to OSAP funding. The campaign, which was a part of the Socialist Fightback club, was chaired by Azam.

Socialist Fightback’s poster promoting the General Assembly meeting to decide on a student strike, in 2019. (Courtesy of Socialist Fightback Students)

“We had a strike committee with a bunch of different clubs and course unions. Students were rank and file from across the campus. [They] came together to abolish tuition, abolish student debt, and to fight for democratically controlled campuses,” said Azam.

Ryerson Conservatives

The Ryerson Conservatives is a student political group affiliated with the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. Its president, fourth-year journalism student Harrison Faulkner, said that the club is an extension and reflection of the provincial government and the party in power. But despite the affiliation, he noted that the club is free to organize its own events and decide who to host.

“It’s just that they are like the RSU [Ryerson Students Union]. They provide funding for the clubs and provide general oversight… job and volunteer opportunities. And they assist in connecting us to MPs and cabinet ministers,” said Faulkner.

The goal of the club, according to him, is to provide a “voice” on campus issues that the club believes to be “dominated by the other side.” The club also aims to expand its membership and attract more Ryerson students.

“We were able to grow our membership last year. And it looks like we’re on pace to do that again,” said Faulkner. When asked further about why he thinks more people are joining Ryerson Conservatives, Faulkner said this club has been the most politically active club on campus last year.

The Ryerson Conservatives have hosted various events in the past, such as with the Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, with the National Firearms Association (NFA), and former Conservative Party leadership candidate Derek Sloan. In terms of the club’s approach to student-related issues, its approach contrasts those taken by other groups such as Ryerson’s Socialist Fightback.

“We don’t shy away from issues that matter to Ryerson students… so when it comes to the perception on campus, I think a lot of students are happy to see a Conservative group be vocal on issues that matter to Ryerson students,” said Faulkner.

He said that he is more focused on creating content on social media. He cites the difficulty in expanding the club’s membership in a virtual setting but says that the strategy of attracting more people online has been successful.

“I think a lot of people find this new approach that we’re taking refreshing. They’re excited about how we do things, how vocal we are on issues we really stand for,” said Faulkner.

Free Speech on Campus

Near the end of 2018, the Government of Ontario introduced a mandate to protect free speech on campus. “Colleges and universities should be a place where students exchange different ideas and opinions in open and respectful debates,” said Doug Ford, in a news release by the provincial government. The mandate states that colleges and universities would have to “develop, implement, and comply with a free speech policy” or be subject to a reduction in operational grant funding.

Looking back at it, Hermes Azam said that the mandate was actually far from protecting the free speech of students.

“When you read the free speech policy, it is nearly a blanket ban on any form of protest, not simply of hate speech,” said Azam. According to him, any demonstration or protest that obstructed others, or came in the way of regular campus activities, would have been subjected to penalties under the policy. He noted that after reviewing the policy, Socialist Fightback dubbed the free speech mandate as an anti-protest law, mobilizing against it and preventing it from being implemented at Ryerson.

“It was a mandate as to what students can and can’t do on their own campuses. A state-enforced order on what kind of free speech is allowed and not allowed,” said Azam.

Faulkner, on the other hand, said that the Ryerson Conservatives did not partake in the event.

“We support the provincial government. So we don’t have any interest in leading strikes or anything that goes against the government,” he said.

As for the government’s mandate, Merrilee Fullerton, then Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, had this to say in a news release:

“Open debate and exchange of ideas are central to university and college education. Today’s announcement will help protect free speech and foster learning environments that encourage freedom of thought, by making sure that all universities and colleges have a strong, clear and consistent free speech policy…”

Merrilee Fullerton

But the struggles and debate over free speech were well underway, even before 2018. Azam remembered it having started between 2016 and 2017, with the rise and controversy of Jordan Peterson.

On the subject of Jordan Peterson, Faulkner said that “[Peterson] is one of the leading intellectuals in the world”. According to him, Peterson is a major voice for free speech activists.

Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist, and a bestselling author. But beyond such acclaim, he is not without controversy. Just recently, The Concordian wrote an article on how the Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) barred Peterson from ever being featured in any of their events.

In 2016, he inserted himself into the conflict over free speech after rejecting a law that would legally compel people to use alternative pronouns for transgender people. In an interview with BBC News, he said that he was tired of a culture where “social justice warrior, left-wing political activists ran rampant.”

Despite their differing views of each other, the two groups have been able to coexist on campus. But of course, that doesn’t come with the occasional spat. Yet, Azam stated that it was a “cool little milestone” for the Fightback to be hated, especially by someone like Peterson.

Egerton Ryerson

Amidst protests against racial injustice last year, Ryerson students and alumni reignited calls for the removal of Egerton Ryerson’s statue. These calls were in opposition to his legacy with the Canadian residential school system. Maaz Khan, a Ryerson graduate, started a petition last summer that called for the statue’s removal. As of now, the petition is currently 200 short of its intended goal of 10,000 signatures.

The statue has been a hotbed for the debate over the legacy of Egerton Ryerson. A plaque stands beside his statue, placed there in 2018. It acknowledges the role that he played in the design and implementation of residential schools. Part of the plaque reads:

“This plaque serves as a reminder of Ryerson University’s commitment to moving forward in the spirit of truth and reconciliation… the aim of the residential school system was cultural genocide.”

Ryerson University released its Truth and Reconciliation report in 2018. The report can be found here.

But as calls for the statue’s removal have resurfaced, student groups on campus have employed conflicting approaches to address the issue. Speaking on this matter, Azam pointed out that Socialist Fightback wrote an article on the “question of Egerton” and how the statue should be taken down along with an overhaul of the campus’s legacy.

A month after Khan’s petition, protestors painted over the statue and hung a banner that read: “Tear down the monuments that represent slavery, colonialism and violence.”

In response to the debate over the removal of the statue, Faulkner said that Ryerson’s Conservative club is in “clear opposition to the calls [for] removal”.

Ryerson Conservatives have been adamant about opposing the removal of the Egerton Ryerson Statue. (Image Courtesy of the Ryerson Conservatives)

“People who say that they don’t think [the statue] should be taken down… are often demeaned and silenced by social justice, left-wing activists on campus,” said Faulkner.

Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole recently came under fire for statements made to members of the Ryerson Conservatives. In a Zoom call with the campus’s conservative club, O’Toole said that the residential school system aimed to “provide education” for Indigenous children before it ultimately became a “horrible program”.

Under pressure to walk back on his initial statements, O’Toole released the following statement:

“The very existence of residential schools is a terrible stain on Canada’s history that has had sweeping impacts on generations of Indigenous Canadians. I speak about the harm caused by residential schools regularly. In my comments to Ryerson students, I said that the residential school system was intended to try and ‘provide education.’ It was not. The system was intended to remove children from the influences of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures.”

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Regardless of the stream of issues prevalent across campus, student groups are well inclined to address them in differing manners. At its core, politics is the defining conflict between each group. Neither would love to work with the other.

Azam, on the question of collaborating with the Ryerson Conservatives, said that there is just too much opposition in terms of principles between the two.

“It’s like rowing a boat in different directions,” he said. “You’re just going to go in circles.”

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