A wave of student activism that has been building in recent weeks is set to culminate Thursday in a provincewide anti-Ford government student walkout that organizers hope will be the largest in Canada’s history, involving hundreds of schools.
The protests are being stitched together by the same student advocacy group behind several recent protests, including the Sept. 2018, sex-ed curriculum demonstration that had some 40,000 students from 70 schools walking out of classes across Ontario, according to March for Our Education, the student organizing body.
The students are turning up the pressure on Premier Doug Ford — with the #studentssayno movement — over such issues as education funding cuts, changes to the curriculum and plans to increase class sizes.
“When our core values and our wallets are being attacked, we’re not afraid to stand up,” said organizer Frank Hong, 17, coexecutive director of March for Our Education. “Our generation is a lot more politically motivated than people think and we’re a lot more active.”
Thursday’s protest is just the latest example of Ontario high school and post-secondary students displaying their collective might. Other recent demonstrations focused on tuition funding cuts, inaction around mental health services and climate change.
Experts said the protests are pushback against the perception that millennials and their younger counterparts are apathetic technology addicts, and a sign they are challenging the decisions of older generations that they believe threaten their future.
“Our generation (Gen Z) is in that social media age, where we can quickly mobilize, and it’s popular to mobilize. It is the it thing to do now,” said Hong, a Grade 12 student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute.
“The world is stacked against our generation,” he said. “That’s what most kids in our generation feel.”
In advance of the walkout, Hong and two other leaders of March for Education staged a news conference, in conjunction with former education minister, Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter, at Queen’s Park on Wednesday afternoon.
University of Toronto’s Judith Taylor said we’re now living in a “social movement society,” where “mobilization is a part of everyday life.”
Despite that Taylor, a professor in the department of sociology, said young people today are “no more mobilized than prior generations, statistically.”
University of British Columbia’s David Tindall, a sociology professor and social movement scholar, echoed that sentiment.
“What we’ve witnessed over the past week doesn’t necessarily speak to millennials being more socially conscious or active than their parents or grandparents,” Tindall said.
But what recent events have done is send a message that millennials are debunking the perception of being apathetic, Taylor said.
“This is an indication, this generation has not turned away from on the street mobilization,” said Taylor, who studies activism within public institutions.
High school students like Cecily Campbell, 16, are getting in on the action.
The Westview Centennial Secondary School student said putting down her cellphone to protest helps to debunk the notion of teenagers lacking interest or concern about policy changes that impact them.
“A lot of adults are looking at me, like, ‘Oh wow, you care?’” Campbell said. “There are a lot of 16-year-olds who have a voice and we need to ensure that our voice is being heard, although I’m not able to vote.”
Campbell, who has a younger brother with autism, is spearheading a walkout — calling on the Ford government to reverse its planned OSAP, autism funding and secondary school curriculum changes — at her school Thursday.
Ryerson University criminology professor Dan Horner, agreed that this crop of youngsters is making a concerted effort to set the record straight, after being knocked for being disengaged.
“We’ve been trained to think of them as spoiled and apathetic,” said Horner, a historian of politics, power and popular resistance. “Maybe, it appears more surprising that they are willing to engage in strikes and demonstrations.”
Experts said some of what we’ve seen recently involves students pushing back against their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, due to feelings of being left out of the discourse around education funding equity, LGBTQ rights, affordability and the environment.
Tindall said he doesn’t get the sense students are specifically targeting any one generation of older adults, but students have communicated it as an “intergenerational equity issue, and, I think, part of that is to appeal to their parents and to their grandparents. Older generations are making decisions that are against the interest of younger generations.”
That divide is something teenagers like Campbell have to tend with.
“My parents have different views, because they’re from a different generation,” Campbell said. “We were left out of the conversation. I have to fight back, and say, this isn’t right. I have to educate my parents as well.”
The provincial government is taking heat on both the high school and post-secondary fronts.
“This generation is frustrated,” said Clement Cheng, 20, a fourth-year undergrad, who organized a walkout on March 20 at the University of Toronto over the Ontario government’s changes to post-secondary tuition funding.
“It’s gotten to a breaking point,” he said. “It’s affecting everything from the air we breathe and our very ability to keep living in the city that’s so expensive.”
He said the student outcry seems to fall on deaf ears.
“Politicians don’t show up for us and university administrators are not standing up for us,” Cheng said. “We can’t sit back because older people are not doing anything to stop how quickly things are foreclosing for us.”
Tamara Rayan, who describes herself as a queer person of colour, is active on many fronts where she feels people like her are under-represented.
“There’s a lot of areas where I’m not visible in the school?” said the 26-year-old U of T student, who participated in the recent protest against tuition changes.
She said student-led activist groups on campus provide a sense of belonging for people like her who feel left out.
“We’re under pressure, where our rights are being taken away,” she said. “Who else is going to speak for us?”
One thing connecting all of these issues, is that, “in the political world, there is an intergenerational struggle right now,” said UBC’s Tindall.
Tindall said there’s an older generation who doesn’t want to shoulder higher taxes to fund government programs for younger people and those of different ethnic backgrounds. He noted that teenagers are disproportionately going to feel the effects of climate change.
He said “in the western world right now we’re in a period of heightened inequality.
“Millennials and people in entry level positions have relatively few opportunities and they’re aware of this.”
Horner, who specializes in protest and political violence, said “there are a lot of activist groups that are finding the power in this type of demonstration — walkouts and demonstrations. It’s a great way of capturing public attention.”
He said the walkout over tuition funding cuts has traces of the 2012 Quebec demonstrations led by student unions over the government’s plan to raise tuition.
U of T’s Taylor said the students have had an awakening around the notion that a minority of people can spark change, if they keep an issue on the agenda and effectively capture state attention.
Students “feel they’re about to inherit some set of extremely unattractive things that prior generations have put on their shoulders,” she said.
“When you see that it’s harder to pay for education or OSAP becomes more complicated, you see a pushback because they believe they should be guaranteed some of the same rights,” she said.
Experts said, while millennials are a digitally-driven, they don’t see a link between smartphones and the growth of protests; they do, however, see digital imprints on the way the protests are run.
“There were lots of walkouts and protest in the 1960s and 1970s when mobile phones didn’t exist and social media didn’t exist,” Tindall said. “It’s hard to say this phenomenon is due to social media. It does make things more efficient.”
Taylor said time will tell if these protests are one-offs or sustained campaigns.
“What we need to look at is the follow-through,” she said. “It would be interesting to follow next week and the week after that, to see if students maintain their scrutiny and pressure.”
Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @millermotiontopic