Backlash on campus: A student union is under attack for being too successful at organizing resistance to the corporate agenda

Backlash on campus: A student union is under attack for being too successful at organizing resistance to the corporate agenda – Concordia Student Union

Yves Engler

The Concordia University administration and its allies in the news media continue to attack free speech and left-wing activism. Two student leaders have been expelled and the student union executive has been compared to terrorists.

Since the start of the second Palestinian Intifada last year, and especially in the last couple of months, the university administration has increasingly denounced the Concordia Student Union (CSU) executive and has worked hard to obstruct its ability to act.

It is important to understand the context of the administration’s recent actions. First, for three consecutive terms the Concordia student population has elected slates of anti-capitalist representatives. During this period the political left has been extremely successful on campus, winning a freeze on tuition fees, kicking out Zoom media advertisements, setting up a highly popular free vegan lunch program and highlighting the role of corporations at our university and their connection to atrocities around the world. Second, the student body has been highly effective at mobilizing over off-campus issues. For last spring’s FTAA protests Concordia students led an initiative that transported 4,500 people to Quebec City. Third, an on-campus group, Students for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) has been highly successful at raising awareness throughout Montreal about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Success, however, has a price. In the case of the CSU and the left, it has come in the form of a vicious backlash by B’nai Brith, the university administration, the Montreal Gazette, the National Post and others on the right. Their attack started in earnest on August 20th when the university rector, Dr. Frederick Lowy, expelled Tom Keefer and Laith Marouf, two student representatives and outspoken activists. After university security stormed illegally into the CSU offices, it was alleged that Marouf assaulted a security guard and Keefer uttered a death threat, which, in a bizarre twist, was subsequently changed to a charge of assault. Even though Concordia has a code of rights and responsibilities, the rector sidestepped it, appointing himself judge, jury and executioner in the expulsions.

A recent court decision has forced the university to once again allow Keefer and Marouf on campus to perform their jobs as student representatives. Soon a judge will decide on their status as students at the time of the incident – since the alleged assaults occurred during summer semester the rector argued that the two were not students in his decision to circumvent the university code of conduct.

The second major incident in the backlash came on September 26th. One tool the student union has at its disposal in battles with the administration is a general assembly. Though no motion is binding upon the administration, it is an effective tool for pressuring the university. Last year the student body voted in favor of a motion that called on the Canadian government to uphold a United Nations resolution on Palestine, which seriously angered many Zionists. This year, the administration decided that it was not going to allow the passing of a motion denouncing four corporations. The motion asked the university to ban BCE, Nortel and Bell Helicopters Textron Canada (BHTC), companies which are accused of profiting from paramilitary death-squad hits on Colombian union activists and Plan Columbia. In response to this motion, the dean of engineering and computer science mobilized students in these faculties to vote down the motion. He sent at least two emails to all professors in these departments telling them to promote the general assembly and to allow all their students time off class. The administration did not afford this same luxury to those in the social sciences, the sphere of study where students tend to be more critical and socially aware.

Third, the events surrounding the start of the second Intifada in Palestine have also played an important role in the backlash. SPHR has done an outstanding job of mobilizing and educating students, as well as the community at large, on the injustices taking place in Palestine. However, the Zionist community in Montreal (both Jewish and non-Jewish) have become extremely irritated. As was alluded to earlier, the motion presented by the CSU calling on Canada to respect the UN proclamation drew a lot of attention from the mainstream press. Although it was approved by the student body, the press attacked the CSU for putting it forward, calling it inflammatory towards Jewish/Palestinian relations on campus. Moreover, the Suburban, a Westmount paper that is openly Zionist, has been unbending in their backlash against the CSU. Concordia’s rector was quoted in that paper saying, “But it is a pity that there is a small group of Middle Eastern students who want to bring their quarrels over here!”

When Marouf won his position on the CSU executive last year, B’nai Brith, a Zionist organization that claims to fight for human rights, said, “now the Arab leadership has infiltrated the CSU.” Recently B’nai Brith went even further. Their representatives asked at a press conference, “Is this the blueprint of Osma Bin Laden’s youth network in North America?” (in reference to the student agenda). Although the question is ridiculous, in our post-September 11 climate it is certainly an unsettling insinuation.

The pretext for the most recent right-wing backlash is the student agenda put out by the CSU. Though a poem calling for armed revolution and to burn the Canadian flag is questionable and certainly alienates some students, the handbook is not the root of all evil, as one may believe from the intense media coverage. The Gazette ran an editorial headlined “Students must reign in CSU” wherein they took a number of quotes out of context to advance their and the administration’s desire to replace the current CSU executive. In the midst of this right-wing campaign, a petition was circulated that accumulated over 10 percent of the student population’s signatures, which has forced an election recall.

The upcoming election will take place on an increasingly politicized campus. Although the increased interest in campus politics was mustered in large part to oust the current CSU executive, it also gives social justice activists an opportunity to educate newly interested students.

Yves Engler is a political science major at Concordia University in Montreal (and played junior hockey briefly in Nipawin).

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