why I dropped a “free education now” banner at my University of Toronto graduation ceremony

by erinohsays

In June 2013, I graduated with a Master’s degree in the Sociology of Education from the University of Toronto. At the graduation ceremony in Convocation Hall, I walked across the stage, shook hands with one of the deans, walked to the front of the stage and unzipped my graduation gown. I pulled each side of the gown open as far as I could, and let the 6 foot by 4 foot banner unfurl from my shoulders. It read “FREE EDUCATION NOW” in bold, red letters.

free education

At first, there was no response. I turned and faced the right side of the auditorium, then slowly turned to face the left side of the auditorium. I expected to be booed at and pulled off stage by security at any second, but what happened instead was remarkable.

As the room full of 1,500 people started to notice the banner, loud applause and cheering erupted. People pointed, waved, took pictures. But more than anything, they cheered and clapped. As I turned around to face the alumni and professors seated on stage, so that they too could see what the banner read, I saw confusion and shock, but what I remember seeing most were smiles. I turned around again to face the auditorium full of people, stood for a few seconds more, and then walked off stage to take my diploma which, to my surprise, was given to me.

Over the next few days, a photo of the banner drop was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter by student groups across Canada, the US, South America, and Europe. I saw a lot of supportive words and excitement, and I also saw some comments questioning the effectiveness of individual acts of protest.

Since then, I haven’t written about why I dropped the banner or what I hoped it would accomplish. I want to start off by saying that I was sure the spectacle in itself wouldn’t accomplish much, but that it would certainly generate visibility and discussion on the topic of free university tuition. On a personal level, it felt absolutely hypocritical to have spent my years at the University of Toronto discussing the benefits of free post-secondary education and the potential for education to be the single greatest equalizing force in society, only to silently accept my degree in education at one of the most expensive universities in the country, in the province with the highest tuition.

During my time at the University of Toronto, I was elected to represent the 14,000 graduate students at U of T on the executive of our Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). I took this job seriously and integrated it into most aspects of my academic work and personal life. While working for the GSU, I learned incredible lessons in student union organizing, mobilizing tactics, and how decisions are made at the University of Toronto. I organized campaigns, film screenings, talks, and delivered speeches to U of T’s highest decision making body, the Governing Council. I enjoyed my time with the GSU more than many things I’ve done in my life so far, and I will take those lessons learned with me throughout all I do.

While working for the GSU, I took courses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that focused on the role of education in society and how to improve this role. In a paper I wrote in 2012 for a graduate course on Frantz Fanon I discuss how broader understandings of violence can be used to further student union goals:

As a student union organizer, I am particularly interested in how students can employ a Fanonian understanding of violence that includes violence as spiritual, emotional, and mental. I wonder how we can develop a student movement that is concerned with large-scale social transformation rooted in both small and large acts. As Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it” (145). In relation to the present-day student movement then, we must understand our mission broadly as a struggle against the forces of the capitalist and colonial state.

I also wrote about the Quebec student movement and what lessons students in Ontario could learn from it:

The recent Quebec student movement is one of the most relevant examples of how local assemblies and direct forms of democracy can yield great successes for students. In response to the Liberal government’s proposal to implement an 82% tuition fee increase, residents of Quebec joined Quebec students in widespread strikes and protests that lasted for several months earlier this year. As a result of this mobilization, rooted entirely in local assemblies and direct democracy, Quebec students won on a number of fronts. Students in this province continue to pay the lowest tuition costs in Canada, and were also successful in overturning severe emergency legislation in the form of Bill 78, which passed to outlaw dissent.

Throughout my graduate degree, I spent time thinking about how student union organizing at U of T and throughout Quebec had succeeded in furthering anti-capitalist principles, but how it had failed, in large part, in furthering anti-colonial principles. Since my graduation ceremony, I have been paying attention to how student union organizing at U of T has taken on more active student involvement in university governance, and the degree to which local assemblies have been used as spaces for students to come together outside of the classroom to discuss the conditions of their study and to make binding decisions about how to transform these conditions.

The gains of the student movement at the University of Toronto and throughout Quebec are many. But it is only accurate to say that such gains were made as a result of revolutionary class politics resistance. Neither of these movements can purport to have had anti-colonial goals or been based on an anti-colonial pedagogy. In many instances, there was negotiation with the state and with university administrators and the focus of these negotiations was primarily on class-relations.

Since dropping that banner, I have been trying to re-imagine the function of the student union as integrally connecting class-based student demands to the larger context of a racist, patriarchal, and colonial settler state, all the while acknowledging the colonizing function of the university itself. Free education now would certainly be a step in the right direction, but even with that huge achievement, the struggle will have only started.